Historic (P)reservation

Historic preservation. Just what does it mean? To far too many “historic preservationists”, it means creating a Disneyland version of someone’s idea of what a given street (or city) looked like during one specific week in 1895, without any attention to the fact that a place changes over time, sometimes for the better.

Case in point: Old Salem in Winston Salem NC. This is essentially the remnants of an old Southern town dating from the 1700s. A fairly large city grew around it. Fortunately, a lot of the old village survived and was eventually made into a park. Problem is, new buildings had also been constructed over time. A few years back, there was a debate about one of these “new” buildings, a huge landmark house from the mid-1800s. It was determined that this very significant building was of the wrong vintage and had to be removed so as not to clash with all the tri-cornered hats. This is what I define as an absolute bastardization of “historic preservation”.

Ever seen pictures of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, before it was Disney-fied? When people were actually still using the buildings and it was still a living place? I think I liked it better before they made it cute.

The last few years of my grandmother’s life were made miserable by a “historic district commission” which told her what color she could paint her house, where air conditioners could be located, and more. In recent years, these “presevationists” have given her old middle class nighborhood an aesthetic makover and appearance it never had in the actual past. Too often, “preservation” essentially means “gentrification”.

But now, on to San Francisco, where the current controversy is over a 1960s-era sign at the former Doggie Diner on Sloat Boulevard. Think what you like about the property rights of the owner, etc. I’m not even getting into that here becuse I have mixed feelings myself. What bothers me is the tone of the debate over the sign. Over and over, people who should know better say this pop culture icon (featured in Zippy the Pinhead and elsewhere) is “not at all significant” and that recognizing it would “have trivialized the whole concept of declaring a landmark”.

Bullshit. A unique artifact like the Doggie Diner sign is at least as worthy of attention as one of thousands of look-alike Victorians in the Haight or the Western Addition. Why must historic preservation be limited to the long past and to grand “public” structures most people have never entered? Why are the commercial icons which shaped our daily lives (supermarkets, diners, giant advertising signs, etc.) not worth saving as well? Ultimately, these are the places people remember and discuss and miss.

Why would preserving the Doggie Diner (or the Camera Obscura, or the grand arched 1960s Safeway stores, or even Tad’s Steaks) be a “mockery”. Because they were commercial establishments? Because they were lowbrow popular places? Because they’re not “old enough”?

Or is it just because they’re not cute enough and don’t inspire memories of gas lit streets and hanson cabs? God knows, San Francisco has plenty of “cute”. Most “historic preservationists” seem not so much interested in history as they are obsessed with creating movie sets depicting some wet dream of a past which never really existed.

It’s the every day things which matter, not just the massive ones. It’s the unique things which people remember, and not just century-old ones. And it’s a fact that history, like it or not, did not end in 1895.

Related Note:

For good examples of groups which “get it” and realize that history didn’t end fifty years ago, visit: