Tuesday, August 14, 2012

This is why we can't have nice things: The Politics of Historic Preservation, and Colonial Gardens

I happened to catch Mandy Connell's program on WHAS radio this morning. And usually, we're on the same side of an issue, Mandy and I. I'm quite the fan. But we part company on the issue of historic preservation. Today, she was talking about Metro Council's override of Mayor Fischer's veto of the new landmarks ordinance. She thinks it's a good thing. I think it's a bad bet that will allow short-term interests to affect the longterm trajectory of the city's development. I foresee the return of the bad old days of the 1950s, when large swathes of the city's historical properties were rendered into parking lots.

 It seems that the preservation commission will now answer to Metro Council; the Council will have the power to deny a Landmarks designation to historic properties approved by the Preservation people. Furthermore, of the 200 signatures required to bring a property under historic consideration, half of them will now be required to come from within one mile of the site under question.

At first glance, this seems sensible- after all, the Preservationists are a group of unelected officials who can make life difficult for developers and businesspeople. Mandy hammered home the fact that they literally have no one over them, no one to gainsay their decisions, and that this new change would provide the public a bit more power in determining what gets designated a historic landmark. And who could be upset that the neighbors' decisions carry a little more weight than people living farther afield, when discussing the fate of a historic building? Surely, living close to a site, they are more qualified to determine its relevance to their neighborhood.

And I'd agree with all of that, if I didn't know much about the controversy over Colonial Gardens. The site has been unoccupied for most of my life. But it began its story as an early 20th century Beer Garden, a major tourist destination and entertainment venue. It housed the area's first zoo, and has played host to myriad musicians and celebrities in its heyday. It's a large, ramshackle building in a serious state of decline, which will be expensive to rehabilitate and return to public use. But its unique status in local history, its unusual architecture, and its prime location (across from Iroquois Park) suggest it could be a successful location again, with the right owners.

The problem is, the good people of the South End hate this building. Its nearby neighbors regard it as an eyesore. I remember when it was still occupied, when I was a girl. It housed a bar for rough clientele, like many other bars in the area. Even then, it wasn't uncommon to hear people wishing the place would burn to the ground. It's always been dirty and poorly maintained. It's synonymous with peeling paint, drooping rooflines, and detached guttering. It seems to attract trash from all sides, collecting along the base of the building. It looks bad, it looks dangerous and scary.

Colonial Gardens is close to some nicer early 20th century homes in Kenwood Hills, and some tidy mid-century moderns along New Cut Road. It's a stone's throw from beautiful Victorians over on Southern Parkway. But the majority of homes in the area are inexpensive, single story ranch houses, cheap apartment dwellings, and low income rental houses. The entirety of New Cut Road and Taylor Boulevard has a sort of depressed, down-on-its-luck atmosphere of the lower working class and the hopelessly poor. These people are unfamiliar with the history of the area they live in. They lack the imagination to envisage a new use for this old building. The historic sites of the South End have withered away over three decades, being pulled down and replaced with a plethora of gas stations, pawn shops, and discount stores. They're also pretty well desperate for good shops and services here, much like everywhere else in southwest Louisville. Over the last few decades, the area has seen its business base eroded- the department stores have all folded up and moved away. The local restaurant scene has been replaced with chains of fast-food retailers. The only places to buy new books are the grocery stores. The neighbors would like to see Colonial Gardens' teetering facade replaced with something useful. Perhaps a nice drugstore; something clean and well lit, with plenty of parking.

The neighbors can't really imagine a Colonial Gardens that houses a fine restaurant, nightclub, movie theatre, or specialty shop. They know those sorts of places just don't open up around here. They know that the spot is too large and will require too much renovation to make it viable as a liquor store, pawn shop, flea market, tobacco retailer, or one of those Dollar Generals that seem to spring up with alarming regularity in these parts. And it must seem that bulldozing it and putting up something new is a better option than watching it continue to disintegrate.

But this is exactly why historic preservation is so important to a community. It is the job of preservationists to look not just at what a community is like at this moment in time, but at where it has been before, and from that, to try to envisage where it could go in the future. We are in an economic depression, and Southwest Louisville has been hit hard. But that does not mean we will continue in this downward spiral. Why shouldn't the area become more profitable and wealthy in years to come? Perhaps, even, enough to sustain more successful ventures, and to afford the restoration of buildings like Colonial Gardens.

The site was granted protection in 2008. With the proposed change to preservation law here in Louisville, this protection is in danger of being overturned. But if that happens, if Colonial Gardens is razed, we will have lost something precious, and we will never get it back. One of the few remaining early structures in the area will go, to be replaced with something as common and unremarkable as another dollar store or flea market. Perhaps if we're really lucky, it'll become the site for yet another cheap Mexican restaurant. We will have surrendered the site's uniqueness, history and potential, to the forces of the mundane, to a lack of imagination and a pervasive sense of hopelessness and failure. Because that's what another concrete and steel box surrounded by asphalt really is: an acceptance that we can't do any better. We'll always be too poor to have things like historic preservation and rejuvenated business districts. Things will never improve, and all we can hope for is a bit more parking while we pick up our shampoo and detergents, or refill a prescription.