PRESERVATION © www.rt66pix.com
Above: The Erie Canal made Buffalo NY into a major city. This building, now home to a preservation group, still proclaims a glorious past.
This page explores preservation successes and failures. Many examples are taken from the 20+ city galleries. Other related material appears in the Blog, including articles on major American roads.
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A TALE OF THREE CITIES
I'm a preservationist the same way I'm a pedestrian--both labels are technically accurate from time to time but don't really define me. Interesting photography is the overriding goal here, and almost always this requires being on foot.
Walking downtown street grids with a camera gives me new optimism about American cities.
Three places linked by the Ohio River--Wheeling WV, Madison IN and Cairo IL--form an extreme study in contrasts. They offer lessons in to hold on, how to succeed, and how to fail. (All have separate city image galleries.)
Wheeling seems to be muddling through a very long downturn. The city peaked in importance between 1820-50 and retains some of its former charm.
There's gentrification in spots, and despite extensive gaps downtown many historic buildings remain in various stages of upkeep. Wheeling is definitely worn, but not worn out.
The waterfront includes a pleasant park, concert venue and walking path under an iconic bridge. And I found relatively little graffiti or vandalism.
The location has always been picturesque, but troublesome. Downtown and other areas along the river are subject to flooding, while steep hills (mountains to some) constrain growth.
Wheeling was the original 1818 terminus of the National (Cumberland) Road. By 1849 a suspension bridge stretched across the Ohio River, and the National Road continued into the Midwest. Eventually, with improvements, it was turned into US 40.
A century later, I-70 plowed through downtown Wheeling, followed by I-470 on the south, with 13 local interchanges in total.
Yet with all these assets the population is down more than 50% in a century. Wheeling has fewer people today than in 1880. The once-big local industries of steel, iron, stogies (cigars) and chewing tobacco are mostly or entirely vanquished.
In a way, Wheeling has a number of Sister Cities downriver. When early National Road travelers reached Wheeling, frequently their next trip segment was by raft or boat propelled by the Ohio River's current. Madison IN (halfway between Cincinnati OH and Louisville KY) was a frequent jumping-off point.
Established in 1809, Madison is seven-years older than the state of IN and was once its largest city. It peaked in the Steamboat Era of the mid-1800s with an industrial waterfront that included slaughterhouses and a glue factory. Since it's surrounded by hills, it must have been one stinky place!
A lengthy period of stagnation and flooding washed away Madison's unpleasant past, but preserved the old downtown. Going there today is like time-travel to a century ago. 133 contiguous blocks are on the National Register. And yet there are "real" businesses downtown including Subway and Dollar General...along with an independent bookstore (cat included), scented soap purveyors and sidewalk cafes.
Madison has built on its good luck. No parking meters exist, and the city has restored and enlarged a classic mid-century Main Street gas station for public restrooms. Wonderful ideas, both. They should be shamelessly copied elsewhere.
The population never suffered any serious declines. It has been stable around 12,000 for half-a-century.
Madison is 25 miles (40 km) from the nearest Interstate...but it was never bypassed. This is another piece of good luck. It was always a river town accessible first by water, then by rail, and finally by two lanes of blacktop.
And then there's the third Ohio River city, Cairo IL (pronounced KAY-row), done in by White racism and a Black boycott that produced no winners. (I simplify greatly but that's the bottom line.) Cairo's population has plunged by more than 80% in the past century. Periodic floods and getting bypassed by the Interstates didn't help either.
Of those who remain, 44% are below the poverty line. A few years ago, a local bank repossessed the Sheriff's patrol cars. Most of what I photographed along Commercial Street is gone now.
Cairo is probably the worst-looking city I've seen in the USA, surpassing even Detroit and the place many Detroiters look down on: Flint MI.
Other places have been hit hard by other woes. The pottery-making city of East Liverpool OH, along the Lincoln Highway, looked significant on the map but I was unprepared for the largely-vacant downtown. And then there's mournful Depew OK, which still hasn't recovered since Route 66 bypassed it...back in 1928.
I've been positively surprised by Pittsburgh, Nashville, Salt Lake City and a host of smaller places like Ligonier PA, Minerva OH, Casey IL and Woodbine IL. (They're all here in various galleries.)
Even some places clearly left behind appear to be at least putting up a good fight.
I was also impressed by Denver during several visits. The city gets a lot of things right, including free weekend parking and free shuttle-bus service along the downtown pedestrian mall.
It seems to be a universal law: Get a good mix of people enjoying downtown (yes, including those in costumes!) and many urban problems will solve themselves.
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REMEMBER THE ALAMO?
Preservation can be a long and lonely effort.
San Antonio, where I photographed during Christmas weekend 2016, offers inspiration from a long-delayed preservation story, The Alamo, and a flood-control project, the River Walk. Both now seem so...obvious. But they took decades to catch on.
"Remember the Alamo!" was used as a battle cry just six-weeks after the old mission fell to Mexican troops in 1836. But physical preservation of the shrine to Texas independence took six-decades. Meantime the scarred ruins served as an Army depot and wholesale grocery warehouse. (The famous building above is the chapel, the entire complex included what is now this plaza and street--an irregular city block.)
Today, more than 180 years after the famous battle, the site remains a work in progress. There's tacky stuff right behind this vantage point and a bright sign desecrates the nighttime scene.
A couple blocks away is San Antonio's River Walk (Paseo del Rio), begun as a downtown flood control project after a deadly 1921 storm. The original plan was for a paved sewer! While that tragically awful idea was flushed, the river still languished until much later. It became a success story of development, not preservation, proving that the two can be complementary.
The first riverfront restaurant, one floor below street level, opened in 1946. But it wasn't until the 1960s that paved walking paths, lighting, landscaping and other elements of The Good Life (like Tex-Mex food) really began attracting locals, and then tourists, to enjoy the river.
These two legendary sites came about from determined efforts by lone individuals with vision. The Alamo can be traced back to Clara Driscoll and the River Walk to H. H. Hugman. (Their stories are readily available on-line.) The causes they fought for are today among the nation's top tourist attractions with millions of visitors a year. San Antonio is lucky, because the rest of downtown is nothing special.
We can't save everything. But I'm broadly sympathetic to preserving the best. The River Walk, especially, shows that new construction can improve, redefine and reinvigorate the past. I hope some images in the various city galleries here will help inspire local causes.
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Over the years, several groups tried but failed to preserve privately-owned John's Modern Cabins along Rt 66 in MO. In early 2014, well aware of these efforts, I joined the list.
By then the site had become hopeless from neglect, but one idea still had not been explored: off-site preservation of some key elements. While less than ideal, "some" beats "none" by precisely 100%.
And so I offered the absentee owner cash for two signs and rights to harvest part of a cabin...all for display elsewhere along Route 66. He would receive an immediate payment for the signed contract (I even enclosed a stamped envelope)...or no payment if he continued to let things rust and fall down. He chose the latter.
I'm out $2 or so for phone calls, postage, paper and envelopes, but if all life's failures had a guaranteed maximum $2 downside I'd gladly fail more often.
Interestingly, digital cameras offer a similar risk-reward profile if you take enough shots. The cost-per-failure eventually approaches zero, and a success occasionally appears when you...push the envelope.
This image from John's is a successful failure. Shot into the sun as a vertical, it originally included unnecessary flare, sky, trees, and foreground debris. It was such an ugly and confusing mess that I went on to other images. Months later I had another look. Extensive cropping at top and bottom brought out this evocative shot.
50 images of John's Modern Cabins may be overkill, but this place is vanishing. Soon failure will be a complete success.
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ROUTE 66 VANDALISM
An article about this, written for a general audience, appears in the Blog as the second item under "2018 Route 66 Travel Advisories." A key section of the Mother Road is being trashed and degraded in several ways before the elements even get their chance.
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GROUPS AND LINKS
These associations help preserve much of what appears on the site and I belong to them. Membership typically includes a printed or on-line magazine, events calendar, and access to travel information etc.
OVERALL: National Trust for Historic Preservation http://savingplaces.org
ROUTE 66: National Historic Route 66 Federation http://national66.org
LINCOLN HIGHWAY: Lincoln Highway Association http://www.lincolnhighwayassoc.org
PONY EXPRESS: National Pony Express Association http://www.nationalponyexpress.org
RAILROADS: Union Pacific Historical Society http://uphs.org
NATCHEZ TRACE: Natchez Trace Parkway Association http://natcheztrace.org
Some of these groups also have Facebook pages.
The National (Cumberland) Road currently has no national organization, but there are several state groups.
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