Preservationists Mob Austin for Density, Community, and Tacos

National
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
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View of downtown Austin from the Long Center. (Photography by Alyssa Nordhauser)

The National Preservation Conference landed in Austin, Texas, last week under the banner “Next American City, Next American Landscape.” Exploring preservation’s role in the future of the country’s urban, suburban, and rural landscapes, the 2010 conference showed that preservationists aren’t all stuck in the past. (In fact, they’re pretty savvy when it comes to new media. Check out the NTHP’s Austin Unscripted on their website, Twitter, and YouTube to see how preservation can appeal to a new generation.) The opening plenary was held at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, which is sited to take advantage of the unobstructed views of downtown Austin.

Laura Bush speaking at the National Preservation Conference.

After a warm welcome from Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and a performance by local musicians Phoebe Hunt, Seth Walker, Susan Torres, and Ryan Harkrider (check out the rehearsal video here – skip to 7:25 for a sample of some of Austin’s famous live music), the packed house of preservationists heard remarks from the new NTHP President Stephanie Meeks, former First Lady Laura Bush, and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. Some attendees seemed surprised by the choice of Mrs. Bush, but she’s been involved in preservation for some time. On Tuesday evening, she spoke about her passion for the preservation of the historic courthouses of Texas, including the one where she and former President Bush got their marriage license many years ago in Midland.

In her speech, Meeks mentioned that since taking over leadership of the NTHP and meeting with preservationists and architects all over the country, three themes kept coming up: 1) The need to make preservation more accessible, 2) The need to make preservation more visible, and 3) The need to ensure that preservation is fully funded. By addressing those three things, she said, historic preservation can be a “visible, dynamic, broadly inclusive movement.” However, I thought the most salient point she made was that places are powerful: Whether a landscape like the Hudson Valley or a historic site like the Alamo, every place has a story to tell and, as Meeks said, “they help us tell our stories, as individuals and as Americans.”

Downtown reflected in Long Center.

For his part, the New Yorker‘s Goldberger spoke about how Austin embodied the Next American City, making it a fitting location for the conference. Unlike Detroit and St. Louis, which represent the Old American City, Austin is both connected to history and “energetically forward-thinking” thanks to the presence of the University of Texas as well as the corporate headquarters of Dell and Whole Foods. He pointed out that it’s not a city dependent on the so-called “meds and eds” solutions — healthcare and education — that many cities rely on in postindustrial America, and that Austin does not have the “new pseudo-urban landscape” of Tyson’s Corner or the Buckhead section of Atlanta, or the Galleria area of Houston, which he cited as “new places that aspire to urbanity but don’t really possess much of it and which show us that a certain amount of density and tall buildings alone do not a city make.”

Goldberger also pointed out that “poverty is a great friend” of historic preservation, simply because there’s less money and therefore less of an impetus for building big and tossing aside historic buildings because they aren’t shiny and new. In light of that, he felt that Austin was yet again a good role model for the Next American City, since it has prosperity but also pays heed to its architectural past: Its “solid economy has not led to a complete indifference to preservation.” Hopefully, as the city goes forward with developing a denser downtown, especially in the residential sector, the powers that be will remember that historic buildings or streetscapes are of significant value to the community.

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