“Cities need old buildings so badly, it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”
This passage from the now famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, reveals author Jane Jacobs’ beliefs about the importance of retaining old buildings, even if they are considered to function poorly by the standards of the day. She goes on to argue the importance of old buildings in providing affordability for young families and creative individuals to live in urban neighborhoods. This diversity of age, occupation and income is integral to creating a vibrant street life, in her opinion.
Many architects and planners have been profoundly impacted by Jacobs’ perspective and have argued this same viewpoint in order to save vintage structures. There is, however, a deeper perspective to consider when attempting to determine the value of retaining historic structures.
Cities–and urban neighborhoods in particular–are places where the passage of time becomes tangible, almost visible. Evidence of this passage of time becomes apparent in the layering of buildings from various time periods. Like the geologist inspecting strata to reveal the history of a particular location, we are able to ascertain details of daily life in these neighborhoods through glimpses of the past. This is because buildings are less ephemeral than the ideas they represent, and in that sense, often outlive their originally intended use. They are inherently imbued with the ideas, values, and meanings of their time period in the most authentic way. The culture of a particular time period becomes encased or embodied in the historic structure by necessity.
Inherent in the idea of cities is the notion of gathering into a community to trade our time and skills, to influence and to be influenced by the ideas of others. We often surround ourselves with others who share similar ideas, interests and perspectives on the world for these very reasons. One neighborhood in Salt Lake where this fact is clearly on display is the Granary District. It is a burgeoning arts and creativity district on the southwest edge of downtown in an area previously home to much manufacturing, industry and shipping.
Similar to the SoHo District in Manhattan, members of the creative class have been drawn to the Granary District because of its industrial past. Abundant warehouse spaces provide tall ceilings and durable construction necessary for a wide variety of creative processes with affordable rent. The vestiges of the area’s industrial past serve as a creative canvas for expression by these urban pioneers, willing to homestead in neighborhoods where others don’t dare tread after dark. It is these very conditions, however, that are giving rise to this culturally vibrant neighborhood.
In SoHo, the neighborhood became a victim of its own success. The recognition of the up-and-coming area caused it to become trendy. As its desirability increased, so did the rents and the once cheap space became difficult to afford for the original urban homesteaders. Over time the local residents were displaced by the urban gentry who were relocating to the neighborhood and eventually the gritty character of the neighborhood was replaced by something much more glamorous. The cycle from grit to glamour is not unique to New York, and may be happening in the Granary District.
This cautionary tale reminds us that most architecture should be modest in its design and durable in its construction, because it often outlives its original purpose. More than likely, many buildings will be around to witness many such cycles, and traces of these cultural changes will be evident in the fabric of the buildings to those who look closely and are willing to listen to the stories the buildings tell. This is the cultural value of Jacobs’ “old buildings”; the understanding of our position in time roots us to the history of our place.
The layering of time evident in urban neighborhoods becomes meaningful to us precisely because it provides contrast, and by extension perspective, when it is given the chance to become visible. However, we must be willing to allow the change to occur naturally, organically. The future is anyone’s guess. Yet, if we protect some vestiges of our heritage, and study them, we will at least know where we have been. And given the cyclical nature of cities, we may have a hint as to where we are going.