Proaction vs. Reaction (UPDATED)
That’s WGRZ’s report on last night’s protest of the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel administration building adjacent to a crushed stone and cement facility. It’s a shame to see a pretty building go, but as I wrote yesterday, I certainly think this ranks rather low on the priority scale for not just Lackawanna, but western New York at large.
After so many decades of preservationist battles led by professional activists funded by Buffalo’s foundations – after so many decades of reactive grassroots planning-by-litigation, is anyone amazed that even lowly White Plains, with a population of less than 100,000, has a more modern, better-constructed, better-designed, and more walkable city core than Buffalo?
Please don’t mistake my sentiment – I think it’s great that we have a treasure trove of gorgeous, architecturally significant buildings to show off here in town. I thank the people who worked/work to save and improve them.
But where does that end? We also have a community that reacts to the proposed demolition of, say, Trico Plant 1 by defaulting to “keep it”. When “architectural significance” isn’t going to fly, they rely instead on appeals to emotion about its personal significance, or the significance of what once took place within that building. Are we going to erect a windshield-wiper museum in Trico? Is it the first, or the best, or the prettiest example of that sort of factory? Is Trico 1 to be treated like it’s equivalent to the Darwin Martin House?
And preservation shouldn’t be quite so reactive.
After all, what palpable, positive results do we have to show for our civic fascination with planning-by-litigation, and our mysteriously funded preservation reactivist efforts? I know that the city is still haunted by the demolition of, e.g., the Erie County Savings Bank to make way for the execrable Main Place Tower and the empty, pitiful “mall” attached to it, and that the Larkin Administration Building was demolished, leaving only yet another surface parking lot. But after all these years, you’d think that there’d be a lobbying effort to codify actual rules and regulations. But whereas old Buffalo erred on the side of demolition, perhaps now we err too often on the side of preservation – even of buildings whose historical, cultural, or architectural significance is specious, at best.
Look – I don’t want pretty buildings demolished any more than anyone else does. And I’m not “in favor” of demolishing the Bethlehem Steel building at issue here. By the same token, I think you should only interfere reactively to a landowner’s use of his privately owned property where there’s a compelling public reason to do so. Dismantle this Bethlehem Steel building and put it someplace else. They did it with the 1831 London Bridge.
Where’s the push for a land-value tax? Where’s the push to create a binding, uniform set of rules and regulations for handling these things. All that money and influence that the preservationist community enjoys, and we don’t yet have a “do not touch” list of historically, architecturally, or culturally significant buildings for Erie County? We’re just going to back-handedly react to planned demolitions by equating an abandoned building in a concrete factory to Shea’s?
Sometimes, I think Buffalo’s preservationist community secretly wants these sorts of battles. They don’t really want the problem to be solved through prospective action; with legislation and a binding, predictable set of rules. Tim Tielman’s name is synonymous with architectural preservation in Buffalo, and he wields a lot of influence and has many wealthy and powerful supporters. He’s uniquely positioned to parlay his influence into legislative action.
But if the problem is solved, what would they do then?
UPDATE: I’ve been debating regular commenter and BRO writer David Steele in a post at Rustwire, and we’ve been going back and forth, with his ultimate position being that an elimination or reversal of suburban sprawl in WNY would solve problems like this Lackawanna Administration Building. Here’s what I wrote him in reply:
OK, so let’s run with your proposition that all of this is the fault of sprawl, and nothing else.
Now, ask yourself why it is that people choose not to live within the limits of the city of Buffalo. It would seem to me that if the solution to the problem is to reverse or eliminate sprawl and entice people back into the city, you have quite a chicken/egg phenomenon at play.
The solution to your problem is not to belittle suburbanites or to backhandedly condemn sprawl and leave it at that. After all, who would want to move to a city that just got through insulting them? Who would want to be bullied into a very important and expensive choice of domicile?
And this, of course, is before we even get to the irony that this Lackawanna building is located in a Buffalo suburb – well outside of even Buffalo Rising’s self-imposed geographical beat, yet I think we’re up to article 5 or 6 about the various candlelight vigils and calls for action about a suburban building.
I wrote today about the fact that, when you get right down to it, I don’t think people like you and the people whom you’re supporting in this battle WANT the problem to be solved.
It’s social hour, where you all get to hang out, make signs, post to BRO and here and reddit about the shortsighted horror of people who want to demolish buildings you like. It’s an opportunity for a certain socioeconomic class in Buffalo to feel self-important and superior to the troglodytes living in Lackawanna and other suburbs. It’s like you guys are on safari, teaching the barbarians what is and isn’t important.
It’s fun. It’s self-rewarding. It’s self-satisfaction. Who doesn’t want THAT?
For all the time and effort spent chaining themselves to the fencing outside of buildings, painting signs, and writing horrifically constructed press releases, if these people took just 1/2 of that time and energy into becoming politically involved and lobbying for prospective and enforceable rules for preservation and planning issues in Buffalo, we’d likely be better off.
But what’s the incentive to do that? Once the problem’s solved, all the “Save the ______” social hours would be over.