Editorial: These old places matter

Published 12:10 am Sunday, September 20, 2015

Preservation North Carolina’s annual conference, which wound up Friday, brought many high-powered, high-profile preservationists to Salisbury, and maybe the most important presentation came from Tom Mayes, vice president and senior counsel for the National Trust for Historic Places.

Mayes’ talk at the Meroney Theater was an inspiration to anyone in the room — an excellent reminder for the disciples of preservation on why old places matter. Mayes has written many essays and given a like number of lectures on this subject because he found it’s something preservations feel deeply about, though it’s never easy to articulate.

When he started his research on why old places matter, Mayes found statements on the subject were mostly confined to historic organization websites, and those sentiments were usually brief and hardly evocative. So he set about trying to collect all the reasons why old places matter, and through interviews, visits to historic places and readings, he came up with a solid list of 14.

Things such as history, architecture, sustainability and — for anyone paying attention over the years — economics are reasons you might expect to hear, and they are on Mayes’ list. But he also found much more visceral attachments to old places, things such as creativity, beauty, sacredness, memory, stability, civic identity and even individual identity.

Preservation of buildings, neighborhoods and even whole communities gives people a sense of being part of a continuum, stability in a world that’s always changing. Schools and churches are, for example, places of continuity and reasons people feel the need for class reunions and church homecomings. It’s why an old boarded-up school in the heart of a city still means something to people, or why  people still want to drive by a country church which has been long abandoned.

Mayes thinks it’s important for preservationists to realize these emotional type of attachments to old places might be more important than they realized. How much a place matters to a person usually has more to do with its connection to memory and identity than it does how old it is.

A sense of place helps us know who we are. People often change their places over time, but each place becomes part of them. It’s why old places matter. When people ask their local governments to save a building from demolition, often their arguments aren’t about its great architecture or history, rather they talk about going there as a kid, or having fond memories of the place in general.

It’s interesting, Mayes said, but many preservation organizations and movements were founded by artists and writers — people inspired by old places and whose imaginations depended on that authenticity.

Millennials, soon to be the largest demographic in the United States, are no longer following the jobs — the jobs are following them — and they are moving to cities that have a sense of place. Salisbury preservation efforts have done a tremendous job in providing that so far, and that movement should never stop.

“We think our movement is about ‘not change,'” Mayes told his Salisbury audience Friday. But preservation really is a movement of radical change, because it’s constantly addressing things that matter to all of us, whether we realize it or not.