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Monday, August 31, 2009

Kicking up a little (historic) dust

Last Thursday's post on historic preservation (see here) kicked up a little dust.

As Plainfield groped its way through the 1970s and 80s, two forces played out which would shape the city for decades to come.

Regional shopping centers (led by Short Hills and Woodbridge) administered the coup-de-grâce to Plainfield's dominance as a regional shopping center that had begun to slide as highway strip malls sprang up after WWII, luring away shoppers with the promise of easy parking (Miron's, Guarino Furs, and Crown Cadillac are just three examples). Like other downtowns across the country, Plainfield's would take decades to be reborn in a very different guise.

More positively, a grassroots movement began to capitalize on Plainfield's Victorian-era architecture as an asset that would draw new residents, preserve neighborhoods and stanch the bleeding in property values that was caused by local realtors engaging in 'blockbusting'.

This movement culminated in the development of a number of historic districts
(including the North Avenue commercial area) and a Historic Preservation Commission.

Though sometimes wrapped in highfalutin verbosity, the bottom line on historic preservation has always been the bottom line: it makes neighborhoods attractive, it's good for property values in the historic districts, and in the community generally.

In the early days, there was a good measure of both enthusiasm and participation, not only in creating the districts, but in promoting them and educating the general public, primarily through house tours.

As usual, these kinds of activities fell on the backs of a small number of highly motivated individuals who, sooner or later, became burned out. The districts entered a period of relative quiescence, with only the Van Wyck Brooks and Netherwood Heights HDs maintaining consistent and enduring organizations (three cheers!).

Tools had been put in place to help historic preservation keep things on a generally positive track -- the Historic Preservation Commission, a series of 'Design Guidelines', and a specially designed website full of information of use to all.

Last week's post kicked up a little 'dust' when commenters noted that the Robinson-Briggs administration had either 'lost' or taken down the historic preservation website when it trashed the site it inherited and then left the city without a functioning website for the better part of a year (what!? you forgot!?).
When you have second-class for so long, it's possible to forget what is was like when you had first-class.

At any rate, the loss of the web pages (whether or not owing to the antipathy of Director Wenson-Maier to historic preservation, as some allege), has now come to the attention of folks who may get it restored.

Council President Burney emailed to say he was unaware the web pages had been taken down and that he is going to advocate funding for both the website and translation of the Design Guidelines into Spanish in the upcoming budget.

Though none of this addresses my proposal to get Historic Preservation 'off the dime', thanks to the dust kicked up in the comments, we may yet get the ball rolling again.

-- Dan Damon

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Anonymous said...

Maybe that is why at the most Historic of all sites "The Drake House" got good old white cement in place of the slate the rest of us are required to use. I know it was easier to do it at the corner, but how come easier is not allowed for us ??

Anonymous said...

The Drake House is owned by the city. The city can exempt itself.

Do as I say, not as I do.