Sunday, May 6, 2012

Contemplating an historic district

History is a parcel of time that first appears a nanosecond after its moment, then remains with us forever, either in memory or in fact, or both. History can be as ephemeral as a whisper or as foreboding as a textbook.

And yet, enigmatically, it's still possible to lose history.

That's the puzzle confronting a neighborhood in Lexington as it ponders whether or not to become the city's pilot historic district.

Basically, the district — delineated mostly by West Center Street to West 3rd Avenue east to west, and South State Street to South Payne Street north to south, encompassing 156 primary properties on approximately 55 acres — is at a crossroads. As one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, it can remain a "renovated" neighborhood (as it is now), protected as such by government mandated "minimal" zoning ordinances, or it can become an historic district that receives protection for the continuity of its heritage.

It cannot be both.

I get the feeling that nearly all of the folks living in the proposed district want the same thing: a great neighborhood that offers beauty, comfort, camaraderie and, well, history.

Where these folks might differ amongst themselves is how to get there. A draft of the Lexington Historic Preservation Commission guidelines (see here, click on 2012 Draft Design Guildelines in navigation bar) on maintaining historic property may put off some residents who "don't want to be told" by what they see an an obtrusive added layer of government how to tend to their houses, what materials they can use in repairs and renovation (i.e., Is vinyl appropriate?) and are the costs of such projects prohibitive? A "renovated" neighborhood, to some, just might be enough.

An historic district, by contrast, appears to be more preservation-centric: preservation of architecture and craftsmanship, preservation of mood, preservation of property value and aesthetics. These are some of the quality of life talking points that zoning can never address.

This bungalow in the proposed historic district will be 100 years old soon.
I live on West 2nd Avenue in a house that in eight years will be 100 years old. I'm also a history guy. I like keeping alive the touchstones of our past. I contribute when I can, for example, to the preservation of Civil War battlefields.

Why? Why is preserving this proposed historic district important to me?

For one, historic preservation tells us who we are and what we would like from our neighbors and from ourselves. For another, it tells us where we've been, of the values held by our forebears and of their hopes and dreams for the community.

The way I see it, nothing worthwhile gets accomplished without hopes and dreams. And together, who we are and where we've been gives us our character and our identity.

It could be, in the end and for whatever reason, that the neighborhood rejects the historic district designation.

I don't know how it will go. There are, no doubt, many more meetings and discussions ahead of us.

And as I think about it, even if the proposal is finally accepted, the historic district designation might truly be for our future generations. Pilot projects are almost always difficult to launch because of uncertainty and sometimes because of misinformation. But future generations that elect to live in historic districts usually do so because they know what to expect and the stewardship that is expected of them.

I hope this doesn't become a missed opportunity that we pass on to those future generations. That, too, would say something about our character.

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