Saving the center
Isn’t it amazing how often unintended consequences result from even well-intentioned plans and actions? Life is so complex these days that unintended consequences should not be a surprise. I find that few things are all ‘good’ or all ‘bad,’ and, thus, good actions can have some unfavorable results.
I experienced an eye-opener to unintended consequences of historic restoration recently while on a trip to Italy. I visited the childhood home of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is revered for having raised our awareness of the value of all life and the worthiness of serving all living things. He, who was born to a wealthy merchant family, found his calling living in poverty. He left his safe and comfortable home on the hillside and fled into the valley to be with the animals and the poor.
Where I found the unintended consequences is in the story of that hillside town he left behind. It was built of cut stones from the hills and surrounded by a high wall to protect it from enemies in the 13th century.
Fast forward to just 13 years ago. Two big earthquakes shook Assisi in 1997. Buildings were reduced to rubble.
During the restoration of this area, famous for its religious and art significance, it was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The United Nations established the program in 1972 to protect natural and cultural places that are of such importance to our human legacy and future that they belong to all the people of the world. This program provides technical assistance and professional training as well as emergency assistance in times of danger. With the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi in ruins, the program was essential to Assisi’s recovery.
Today, the town of Assisi appears as a pristine movie set. Its stone work is clean and shining pink in the beautiful Italian sun. Tourists pack its streets, dine in its restaurants and admire its significance as the birthplace of one of the most inspirational religious leaders of all time. It is a sheer joy to follow its narrow, winding, picturesque streets.
But, over the days of being in Assisi, a different story began to appear. Signs told of properties for sale or rent. I saw no grocery stores, children or community activities. Where were the people who actually lived in Assisi, I asked? Our local guide said that people could no longer afford to live here and were leaving to locate in the valley where the land was cheaper and the jobs and amenities more available. She estimated that the perfectly restored buildings were only 60 percent occupied. Our guide, a young woman, pointed to the steep steps that ran between buildings and asked us to visualize hauling a baby stroller and groceries up to an apartment. There were no elevators when St. Francis lived and there were none put in during the rebuilding of the town. The streets are one lane at best and are shared by cars and tourists alike.
I am a historic preservation advocate and practitioner to the extreme, but I noticed some real issues in sustainability here. Certainly, as a tourist, it was great to see the buildings as they must have been centuries ago. But the presence of many tourists made it impossible to really feel like I was back in those bygone days. And, if there were enough tourists to financially support the place, it would be too crowded to see the views at all. Empty buildings do not pay their keep, nor tend to their maintenance. People must live within the building’s walls and work along its streets, and children must be raised with the dynamics of its community for a town to survive.
I wish I had a crystal ball upon which to gaze and get the magic formula for a productive mix of historic preservation in the strictest sense and adaptive reuse of buildings. I think, rather, it is a difficult task to find compromises that each community must wrestle with on an ongoing basis.
Harrison County residents face the same challenges that we see played out in Assisi, Italy. We have become such a wonderful tourist destination that we have failed to realize that real, everyday people need to be key players in the original hubs of our communities: our downtowns. A great deal of our activities have fled the center of our communities and gone to the outskirts where land is cheaper and more accessible. The stores and services surrounding our central squares cater mostly to tourists. Meanwhile, our growth has fled to the suburbs and interstate exchanges.
We need to get serious about restoring our communities as real, functioning places for people of all ages to play out their lives. Yes, we need such things as elevators, grocery stores and desirable housing. I, for one, want to feel I can actually function in the unique cultural heritage of Harrison County. How are we going to save our towns so that they do not become empty museums preserved simply for tourists? Our goal should be to create vibrant testimonials to what our forefathers built long ago for us to enjoy today.