Places Generally Matter
The city of Lackawanna is scheduled to demolish the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, which is an objectively beautiful but neglected building. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that this structure became an important “must-save” for the Buffalo preservationist community, but it is now the subject of overnight vigils and earnest signage urging re-use of the property, and that “this place matters”.
Would it be nice if the building could be saved and re-used? Absolutely. It would be absolutely fantastic if there was enough wealth in the area and interest in that site to do something useful, valuable, and forward-thinking with it. But must we? Is this a “must-save”? Why? By what standard? It’s not even particularly persuasive that, e.g., FixBuffalo blogger David Torke has established that the building isn’t as structurally dangerous as the demolition contractor avers.
Lackawanna has no preservationist group or community, mostly because it’s the type of city that doesn’t have a lot of time for things that don’t involve work. It’s a gritty, working-class place; not a place with a big architecture enthusiast community. That’s why most – if not all – of the protesters against the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel building come from Buffalo. It would be nice if we could save the building, but it’s not a civic priority. Not a “must do”.
How would we know if it was a must-do, anyway? After so many years of these ad hoc battles every time an architecturally pretty building becomes endangered, we still don’t have an objective set of established rules, lists, regulations, and laws to govern what does and doesn’t get torn down, and the process to do so. After all these years, it still boils down to, “holy crap, [municipal or private entity] is going to demolish [building no one really thought much about until it became endangered]! Let’s react!”
One of the most common pleas to emotion regarding the Bethlehem Steel building and, earlier, the Trico Plant 1 is that “this place matters”. Well, of course. Everyplace matters. Of all the arguments against demolishing an old, pretty building, is the fact that it “matters” to people the most persuasive and insightful argument?
During the Trico debates, one person went so far as to say the building should be preserved because her parents met while working there. Under that standard, we’d effectively ban demolition of every building, everywhere. Why, I’ll bet someone’s parents met while working at the Donovan Building, but I don’t see anyone clamoring for preserving its facade. I’m sure Buffalo City Court – the ugliest building in Christendom – matters to someone, but if the state decided it needed to be replaced by something less fortress-like, I’d hold a parade.
So, perhaps we should dispense with the emotion-driven “this place matters” nonsense. Of course “this” place matters, because all places “matter”.
But what does all of this say about our civic priorities? Lackawanna is a city that was decimated by Bethlehem Steel’s closure. That entire waterfront is a monument, alright – a monument to a century of unregulated environmental destruction of what was once a gorgeous coastline. Just as Trico is a monument to an industrial exodus from WNY to places with palm trees, Bethlehem Steel is a headstone for a uniquely Buffalonian past – ecological crisis to serve a master hundreds of miles away.
I flew over the site on Friday. Here are two images as I approached the building we’re talking about:
Notice anything there? How about the acres and acres of brownfield that surrounds the site and would likely cost millions – if not tens of millions – to clean up and convert into something that didn’t just randomly poison people. Where’s the political or civic will to actually transform this lakefront into something remotely usable by people? It’s so contaminated that its highest and best use is as land for buildings supplies and really big – often stationary – windmills. Not apartments, or offices, or shops or parkland – it’s so dangerous that people aren’t even generally allowed there.
A drive down Route 5 from about Gallagher Beach, south to Lackawanna is a tour of despair, decay, and rottenness. What are we going to do as a society – as a community – to right a massive and longstanding wrong? The land where this building is located is owned by Gateway Trade – an industrial park that houses a crushed stone company.
We could reclaim that land for general use and public enjoyment, but we’re focused on one pretty building.
I submit that preserving the pretty building is a nice sentiment, but not a civic priority. Appeals to emotion do not justification make. Cleaning up the lakefront and the contaminated land that once was home to the steel industry, so that it’s fit for human habitation? That’s the real outrage – that’s the real “must do.” And it doesn’t get any less expensive the longer we sit and wait.
Perhaps we could set up a committee and hold a series of public hearings.