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Wednesday
Oct292014

A failure of historical imagination (mine). Or, N.C. Wyeth, streetcars, bike racks, and historically-designated air.

I pride myself on having a well-developed visual-historical imagination. What do I mean by that? On the one hand, when I see an historical building or a work of art or a photograph of people from an era before our own, I can make a well-educated guess about its date, and I also have a pretty rich historical context in mind in which to place that artifact. Indeed, I often find myself shocked that other people can't do this. (That's a subject for another blog post.) That ability comes from long immersion in historical fields — I know at least a little about a whole lot of Western history, and a whole lot about some of it — and from concentrated study of art and architectural and costume history, inter alia, but also from a disposition to cultivate a visual-historical imagination.

I'm sure that orientation comes in part from my lifelong love of historical fiction. In my very earliest reading years, I read books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, and when I moved on to reading books without pictures, I continued the habit of "illustrating" the premodern worlds I was reading about in my head.

The flip side of that orientation is that when I am reading about an aesthetic controversy in the past, I generally assume I can visualize the terms of the debate in my head, even if what I'm reading is not illustrated. If I'm reading a debate about clothing or architecture from a hundred or two hundred years ago, I can usually draw on enough of a mental inventory of styles to supply the necessary context.

But knowing about the styles and materials of buildings or dress in the past is a far cry from really being able to picture the complete environment of a place in the past.

A few years ago, when overhead wires for streetcars in DC was a hot topic (now possibly moot), I wrote a study of the legal issues involved in the landmarking of the L'Enfant Plan, an historic "structure" partially unbuilt and consisting in large part of air, which has met with substantial skepticism in the courts. I was especially interested in the defensibility of the terms under which the Plan's airspace is landmarked, with the protected space defined as extending vertically from ground level to the height defined by the Height of Buildings Act .

The prohibition on overhead wires in the L'Enfant City arises both from the terms under which the L'Enfant Plan is landmarked, and from late-19th-century Congressional legislation restricting overhead wires in the city of Washington. (The landmarking of the L'Enfant Plan in effect aims to preserve the late-19th and early-20th-century attempts to preserve, restore, and extend L'Enfant's vision, as much as it does L'Enfant's plan itself.)

When I thought about the overhead wires acts of the late 1880s, I always assumed that our Congressional overlords were overreacting. After all, I don't even notice the overhead wires in my neighborhood and other parts of DC where they are allowed. (The tree canopy is a much more dominant feature of the airspace on the street.) And as a Washingtonian fed up with Congressional micromanaging of our unrepresented, disenfranchised District, I'm in the habit of assuming the worst of any interference in DC's infrastructure — even if it was a hundred and twenty-five years ago. And the landmarked space above the ground on L'Enfant streets has led to such absurdities as the removal of bike racks that someone felt obscured the historic vista — the kind of idiocy that gives preservation a bad name.

And then I saw this:

Wires over New York City, 1887 (from Retronaut via io9)A post a few weeks ago on io9 gathers images of the overhead wires situation in cities from the 1880s, precisely the years just before the arrival of the electric streetcar, when Congress legislated against wires in Washington.

Moral of the story: don't assume you can visualize the past, and if you're not sure, seek more evidence.

Another example from recent controversies in DC preservation and urbanism: It's commonplace for urbanists (with whom I am generally in sympathy) to mock older Cleveland Park preservationists' attachment to the historically-designated "Park and Shop" strip mall and nearby single-storey commercial strip, with its much-maligned service lane.

The Cleveland Park historic district was created in 1986 when those blocks were threatened with redevelopment. In today's environment where redevelopment around a Metro station stands a reasonably good chance of being mixed-use, enhancing the pedestrian experience, and increasing neighborhood-serving retail, it's hard to imagine what motivated the seemingly reactionary attachment to an undistinguished low-rise urban strip mall. But if you read the documents and correspondence surrounding the effort to designate Cleveland Park, which are in the papers of the Cleveland Park Historical Society at the Historical Society of Washington, it becomes clear that neighborhood preservationists were reacting to something very specific. They were trying to avoid the kind of pedestrian-hostile megablocks that had filled Van Ness, just to the north, over the previous decade. The preservationists then and the urbanists of today had a common enemy.

In preservation and urban design, it's always worth asking what specifically people are seeing, or imagining, in the past or in the future or in their immediate environment, when they seek to preserve one thing and prevent another.

Monday
Oct062014

I'm 49 years old. Does the Episcopal Church care that I'm here?

I am feeling a bit battered by the flood of announcements everywhere in my church life about groups and activities and opportunities for formation aimed at people in their 20s and 30s. Young adults' supper clubs and movie nights. Young parents' groups. Incredible opportunities like the chance to live and pray at Lambeth Palace for a year in a radical new Christian community – but only if you're under 35.

Since turning 45, I've given up my career, moved four times, resettled in my home town after many years away, struggled to redefine myself, gotten started on a new career, and finally found a wonderful parish home after a false start or two. Welcoming as my parish is, I'm a profoundly introverted person, and the parish is growing, which means it would be really helpful to me to have a structure of smaller groups to connect with as I try to find my place in a new community. Every new announcement in the bulletin that turns out not to be for people like me is a bit deflating.

I look young for my age, so people sometimes invite me along to young-adult events. I'm flattered, but I taught college for many years and have spent a lot of quality time with 20-somethings. I love them, but  there are things going on in the life — and the spiritual life — of people pushing 50 that need a different sort of attention.

Let me get this out of the way before I continue my little rant: Yes, I know God loves middle-aged people, too. Yes, I know this sounds a bit like the kind of special-snowflake-ism I usually deplore. (What about MEEEEEE?) Yes, I know that if you want a new ministry or group in your parish the answer is to start it yourself. I'm on it.

Now that that's out of the way...

The Episcopal Church is very worried that it's dying, and it has responded at the church-wide, diocesan, and parish level with a whole lot of programs aimed at bringing young adults into the life of the church — in the hopes, one presumes, of creating a cohort that will be the stalwarts of the church in a decade or two or three. There is nothing not to like about church-planting, campus ministries, community-forming, or bringing energetic new voices into aging parishes.

But I'm starting to get the sense that the flip side of this is that the church thinks the people in their late 40s or 50s are people they can take for granted. We are supposed to be parish leaders, vestry members, thoroughly acculturated Christians, people in no danger of wandering away from the flock. The people so boringly reliable that they represent the coming death of the church? (Oh, wait...) The people we need to replicate for the next generation. Hence the scramble to recruit and retain their replacements.

It is true that many leaders in the church, both lay and ordained, fall in the age cohort I'm talking about — late 40s and 50s. A dozen years ago, a study found that the average age of Episcopal clergy was 54 and of parishioners, 57. In 2009, half of Episcopal clergy were over 55 and about a third were in the 45-55 age range.

A lot of the rhetorical panic about an aging denomination makes it sound like all those 50ish people are nothing but a sign of the decline of the church.

When we're not thinking about middle-aged people as statistical harbingers of the death of the church, we tend to think about them as the only part of the Body we don't have to worry about. The assumption that the 50ish are reliable leaders in our congregations masks some other assumptions: that these are people who are secure in their careers, stably partnered, well along in raising families, and thoroughly embedded in their communities for the long haul. With that kind of stability, the 50ish should be able to be ministers who don't need much ministering to.

Those are some outdated assumptions, and, dare I say, some rather gendered ones. I know a lot more people my age who are in or emerging from some sort of midlife upheaval than people who fit some notion of predictable stability.

What are the 50ish in our parishes really doing?

  • Caring for elderly parents, or mourning their loss.
  • Confronting their own mortality.
  • Having existential crises.
  • Changing careers, by choice or necessity (especially after the Great Recession).
  • Sometimes struggling to do so. Sometimes discovering a vocation to ministry. (See: late-onset priesthood as a trend in TEC.)
  • Reordering their priorities.
  • Wondering if it's too late to develop a purpose in life.
  • Seeking a community that will support them following a midlife displacement.
  • Seeking to form connections they can count on as they age without spouses or children to fill that role.

Some of these folks are the people who were successfully brought into, or back to, the church as young adults a decade or two ago, who are now in need of spiritual refreshment and at least as much practical help as their younger counterparts.

Who is more in need of ministry and mutual support?

If TEC and its parishes remain committed to organizing the faithful into age-cohort groups — which is a practice we might examine — I hope we might see a more systematic attempt to bring together those who are nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita for ministry and mutual support.

Thursday
May152014

The Needless Death of a Shepherd Park House

Yesterday, a house on my street was demolished.

It had become so unstable that it was a danger to the adjacent houses, and there was probably no choice but to tear it down.

It had become dangerously unstable because the "cash for houses" vultures who bought it last fall let it decay, let the pipes freeze, and then, when spring came, demolished its chimney, ripped half its roof off, and left it exposed to the torrential rains of recent weeks. All this with a permit for "interior demolition only".

April 2014: "Interior demolition only"A helpful sign reminding you who not to sell your house toThey proudly planted their sign in front of this abomination.

Concerned neighbors and our ANC rep called in DCRA to inspect on the day the chimney was ripped out and again yesterday when the house was knocked over. DCRA responded very promptly, but in both cases it was too late. A stop-work order now sits atop the pile of rubble that used to be this house. 

May 14, 2014: Stop-work order posted amid the wreckage

Until the day in April when they knocked down the chimney and tore a hole in the roof, the house was in need of interior rehab, but it was structurally sound, with a welcoming porch, at one with the scale and period of the houses on the block, with room to expand in the back if a new family needed more space. Like many houses in Shepherd Park, which has a very high rate of home ownership and a very low rate of turnover, it was owned by an elderly couple, who lived in it and loved it until the very last possible minute, at which point they needed to sell and move very quickly. Like the other houses on our block in the southeast corner of Shepherd Park, it was built in the early 1920s, before L.E. Breuninger filled the neighborhood  with its better-known Tudor Revival and Colonial Revival houses.  Because the houses in our corner of the neighborhood are mostly shingled or clapboarded, a little older, a little smaller, and a little closer to the soon-to-be-redeveloped Walter Reed campus, I've long suspected that they would be more vulnerable to redevelopment pressures than the neighborhood's larger brick houses of the late 1920s.

During the few years since I bought my itty bitty shingled, kit-house bungalow here, several houses in the nearby blocks have been, one might say, "sensitively flipped" — bought at a modest discount from the going rate, given complete interior rehabs, and sold to young families eager for move-in-ready houses at half the price they'd pay for an equally leafy neighborhood west of the park. Other houses in "estate condition," including a very rare Sears kit house model, have sold to folks who clearly appreciated their scale and architecture and who updated them modestly for livability without destroying their character. Houses are going under contract in a matter of days here. Why, in this environment, anyone would purchase a house and intentionally destroy it by malicious neglect is beyond me. Public records suggest, meanwhile, that the previous owners sold the house for a pittance compared to what they might have gotten for it, which in turn suggests that they (or whoever was acting for them) were badly advised or seriously misled. I cannot imagine that after living in and loving this house so long, the previous owners would have wanted this to happen.

I'd been meaning for some time to write up my thoughts on preservation in Shepherd Park, and how we might think about preservation in DC's neighborhoods outside of designated historic districts. Today, the issue seems more urgent. Even in designated historic districts, it is very difficult to prevent demolition by neglect. In or out of historic districts, what can be done to limit the chances that houses — and their owners — will reach the stage where they become prey for predatory developers?

When I moved to Shepherd Park, I began to read up on the neighborhood's history. I knew about its outstanding legacy of organizing to remain integrated and stable in the 1950s and '60s, when local synagogues and Neighbors, Inc. took a stand against blockbusting. What I had not appreciated, until I read the chapter on Shepherd Park in Washington at Home by the late Marvin Caplan and my neighbor Ralph Blessing, was how much of Neighbors, Inc.'s effort was focused on preserving the physical fabric of the neighborhood and preventing the decay of housing stock that inevitably followed blockbusting, by educating residents on the importance of home preservation and by holding the city to account for maintenance of infrastructure as the neighborhood's racial makeup changed.

As one neighbor put it in a discussion of this case on the Shepherd Park listserv, we organized to resist blockbusting then; this is house-busting. What can we do to stop this? Historic designation would be one approach, but we also have to act on a household-by-household, block-by-block level to ensure we have something left to designate, if and when residents decide to opt into the tools available under our preservation ordinance. We could use some attention from preservationists to preserving neighborhoods until designation, not just after. And that means supporting everyone who is a steward of an older house, at all life stages.

The beauty of Shepherd Park today, its house-proudness, the tendency of its people to stay in their homes as long as they possibly can — all these are the direct result of that organizing effort. The ability of residents to stay in their houses for 50+ years, with the support of their neighbors, is a huge quality-of-life asset for this neighborhood and others like it. Preserving smaller houses, as well as bringing new housing options to the neighborhood's edges, means that longtime residents have the option of staying in the neighborhood when they can no longer cope with large, multi-level houses. (Other elderly neighbors of mine were able to trade their large colonial for a one-level bungalow three blocks away when they could no longer handle stairs. And I bought my own one-level bungalow with the intention of aging in place in it, even though I'm only in middle age now.)

Practical preservation in such neighborhoods needs to support both people and houses through generational transitions like the one Shepherd Park is undergoing now. Though it is often impossible to intervene in the decay of an elderly person's house if they don't want to accept help, as many of us know from our own families, there are practical things that could be done to support preservation while supporting residents. A few that come to mind:

Aging-in-place villages — one is in the works for Shepherd Park and nearby neighborhoods — typically have as a core service helping the elderly to find approved and trustworthy home repair people. Such services could prioritize preservation by identifying for their members the tradespeople who will do right by a home from a preservation point of view. 

Decisions about the disposition of a house often need to be made very quickly and under conditions of stress, either by owners in circumstances of illness, injury, or loss, or by executors when an estate needs to be settled quickly. "Villages" and other neighborhood organizations (Citizens' Associations, ANCs) could limit the chances that sellers will turn to cash-for-houses outfits by providing information and resources to smooth that process and to help owners articulate their wishes for their houses in advance of a crisis.

Neighborhood and citywide preservation organizations need to be in on this conversation and on the scene with practical help. Within historic districts, preservation organizations should partner with neighborhood groups to be sure vulnerable residents have the information they need to make decisions that are right both for themselves and for the preservation of the neighborhood. The same thing needs to happen outside designated historic districts, because if we lose our housing stock and neighborhood character at the moment of generational transfer, there will be nothing left to preserve when future residents come to see the historic value in their surroundings.

We need to make it easier for property owners to find the preservation-minded handyman, remodeler, architect, or real estate agent than the predatory one, and that means that those who value neighborhood preservation must be on the scene with the right information right when it is needed.

Friday
Apr252014

Improvements in Episcopal Church Wayfinding and Welcome

This is a drive-by post — literally! Brief background: Washington, D.C.'s oldest church, St. Paul's–Rock Creek Parish (founded 1712) sits in the middle of a huge, historic cemetery. The church is not easy to find within the cemetery, and the cemetery's main gates are hard to find in the streets of the adjacent neighborhood. To make matters more confusing, most people encounter the cemetery as they zoom past on a high-speed stretch of North Capitol Street, where there is a tantalizing view of the cemetery grounds, and a gate, but no place to stop, and no safe way to cross from the neighborhood just to the east. 

Google Map of Rock Creek Cemetery

Zooming down North Capitol Street. Orange arrow indicates location of gate.

For many years, this gate had two signs: a small, standard, and somewhat battered "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" sign, and, right next to it, a big ol' padlock and a sign saying, "Private Property, No Trespassing"! It was necessary to keep that gate locked almost all the time, because the isolation of the cemetery grounds and the great value of the monumental bronzes within meant that security became a major issue in recent years. The parish just did not have the resources to keep that gate open and secure – nor, as things stand, is the North Capitol Street gate ever going to be a pedestrian entrance to the grounds. Still, the optics were terrible — all the more so, because before it was integrated in the 1970s, Rock Creek Parish had a reputation for turning its back on its African-American neighbors. The church is now integrated, majority-African-American, and very welcoming, but the very public but unused gate remained a quandary.

I was, therefore, THRILLED to note as I drove down North Capitol towards Catholic University yesterday that there is a fantastic new sign at that gate. The no-trespassing sign is still there, but you no longer notice it, because right next to it, placed and sized for the convenience of commuters by car, is a gorgeous new sign.

New sign at the North Capitol Street gate, April 2014

It says:

ST. PAUL'S EPISCOPAL CHURCH

AND ROCK CREEK CEMETERY

This Entrance

Open Only on Sundays

<— MAIN ENTRANCE

Well done, St. Paul's-Rock Creek! It's clear, it's welcoming, it identifies the church (and its affiliation) and the historic site most people are seeking (the cemetery), and it has offers simple, practical help finding the actual entrance. It's a huge improvement — about as good a solution as one could imagine, given the traffic and security situation.

Wednesday
Mar192014

A Skylight on Folsom Place (article preview)

Here's an advance copy (PDF) of an article about research in progress for a house history I'm working on in Cleveland Park. This will appear in the forthcoming issue of the newsletter of the Cleveland Park Historical Society. (Check out my house history and research services business here.) Enjoy!