Preserving People – Preserving Place

July 10, 2014
The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

I believe there is a natural fit between the movement to create age and ability-friendly communities and historic preservation. This may have grown from my lifelong interest in all things old. My house, above, and I are growing older together, and, as it seems, both entering the winter of life. It’s a good fit. My personal passions and biases aside, nevertheless, I feel a case can be made that proponents of these two movements have much to say to each other and then much to do together.

Indiana Landmarks is one of the most highly respected and the largest private statewide preservation group in the U.S. There is another story there, of course, about leadership, vision, commitment and creativity. This last quality, I believe, helps account for its recent support of a day-long conference in Indianapolis on the subject of this old people-old place connection. Co-organized by another uniquely statewide Indiana treasure called the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, the conference brought together preservationists and aging/disability professionals in what may have been the first meeting of its kind in the U.S.

Presenters addressed many of the technical issues surrounding accessible modifications for historic homes and commercial properties, the potential for a virtuous relationship between history and the ADA, and financial resources communities can use for historic preservation that benefits older populations, including Main Street restoration.

My contribution was to tender some thoughts about the relationship between the preservation of place and the preservation of community memory. In many ways, they are an identity. Place is the concrete expression of community memory and old people are its vessel, or, perhaps I have that backwards. It reads both ways because it is an identity. In any case, preservation of place is more likely to occur when it retains a presence in community memory. Buildings that fall into history without those personal connections to our current lives are more at risk for destruction unless, perhaps, they exude some extraordinary beauty or character, or are associated distantly with an officially recognized event or person. The position of older people in a community as holders of memory valorizes their role when other sources of status have diminished. A comment by Scott Roden in my previous blog on memory is evidence of this, “I had an elderly friend who passed away last year–he was very influential in my life. He once told me that his job now (at 85) was to remember…”

I try to avoid nostalgia; hope the Golden Age is something in the future, not the past. I am not naïve about the dark side of the places we have created. In a folklore field school we organized several years ago to study the Bloomington Town Square, we were curious about the lack of stories told about on-the-square experiences by older African-Americans. While the town square on Saturday nights in the 40’s was truly hopping, African-Americans, we were told, were not welcome. What was, and remains, a truly central and iconic feature of the place we call Bloomington was, despite the democratic image, an exclusive environment. I like to think that has changed, but it is something we should never forget.

Gerontologists often argue in favor of a policy called “aging in place”, understanding that the personal preference of most older people is to stay put. I would agree that people need the places, for the benefits to their social and physical well-being. I would add, however, that the places need the people just as much. When people stay put, the places benefit. Preserving place and preserving people is one job, not two.

And the house? Linda and I grow old together there and I am so lucky to dwell in her love as well.

Now, as a person also trying to attract valuable older people to our wonderful community, leaving their own, this presents some professional conflicts. I am working on this question and can try to pose a resolution of this paradox in another blog.


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