When my book Pugetopolis was compiled, I was just getting into reporting on historic preservation. One of the final chapters in the book is about the battle over the Ballard Manning's/Denny's, a controversy that I broke on Crosscut that wound-up generating national headlines. The fight was about more than preserving a "Googie" diner from the mid-1960s; it was a debate over what is important about the past, present and future in a changing urban landscape. Throughout my work, I try to get at what kind of people we are here in the Pacific Northwest, what makes us different, what makes us tick.
Our troubled relationship with our history and heritage is a great place to investigate our internal battles. Are we utopians for whom the future is all that matters, the people who built idealistic anarchist communes and Century 21 and who seek world-class status on Puget Sound? Or are we a people with a past, a young but rooted culture with traditions, baggage, customs and habits that have evolved uniquely in our specific place? Historic preservation is where these personalities sometimes clash over the fundamental questions of what we value.
In the West, it's our tradition not to value our history much. We're a place of reinvention, of starting over, of keeping our eyes on tomorrow. But Seattle, at times, has been at the forefront too of historic preservation. The commonly cited examples are the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. But the job of preservation in living landscapes is never done: Pioneer Square is challenged by economic and social problems, having once been a paragon of urban development but now being eclipsed by the buzz of "newer" redeveloped neighborhoods (South Lake Union, Pike-Pine, Columbia City). Some are suggesting that the Square needs a major makeover, including loosening restrictions on changes property owners can make to historic properties. Some owners also seem to practicing "demolition by neglect," a tactic of letting old buildings decline so they can be demolished as too far-gone to save.
At the end of 2009, I decided to compile a "Heritage Turkey Awards" list to recognize some of the significant challenges, and forces, faced by historic preservationists. This is not a cheery list of success stories but a grim reminder that even when a building's historic significance is unquestioned, it can still be demolished, neglected, and vandalized. It also reveals that while the public process (both federal and state laws) recognize the importance and desirability of preserving historic properties, it is often government or public entities themselves that are responsible for some of the worst fiascos. School districts, ports, city councils, federal and state agencies. Trite to say, but the enemy is us.
Unfortunately, it's not too early to begin compiling nominees for the 2010 Turkey Awards. I truly hope they will be harder to find next year. But the good news is that the list begins to get at the scope of the problem in the wider region. We are not alone in trying to be good stewards of the past.
Here's the 2009 Heritage Turkey Awards list.