Big Yellow Taxi — Revisited

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

— Joni Mitchell

And…From a previous post:

“The house where I was born still exists….barely escaping a wrecking ball for a new interstate highway. The house my grandmother grew old in and where I lived from the age of two to the ripe old age of five still stands. The next house, where I lived until early twenties is still there. The house where my father was born and grew up is still going strong. Indeed, the stone  house built by my seventh great grandfather, in the 1690s, is still there and lives on as a house museum. Reading this, one would think that home places last forever but I think my story is more the exception than the rule. Some of the old places are gone and we are sometimes better for it. The TB infested tenements that were home to my Irish immigrant ancestors are gone. My German-Pomeranian immigrants first lived in a small house in an orchard — now a 1950s tract-house subdivision and school. Nothing lasts forever. Change is the only constant. There’s always something new just out of sight.”

I don’t think I knew that as a kid and many people don’t know it or understand it as adults. We don’t always appreciate things that we take for granted. We assume things will stay the same.  It is often outsiders who look at these places and see something different.

brick rustlersNow, much of the city where I was born has been bulldozed.  Whole neighborhoods of once sturdy brick homes are reduced to maybe one or two occupied houses on a vacant block….a few people hanging on.  Brick rustlers are intentionally punching holes in walls and attics to let the weather in so they can pull down the weakened walls to salvage the bricks. Trucks with brick pallets prowl the old neighborhoods like predators. Some folks who build McMansions like used bricks. It makes the new house look older and gives it character. How insane is that? Restore…? Re-hab…re-use…? Preservation…? What’s that.

jills house
Folk Victorian — the Trolleyman’s House

After I retired in a small town I worked as a part-time city planner for about seven years. One of my most enjoyable tasks was to photograph and document homes and structures in neighborhoods where the residents were trying to have the area designated as “neighborhood conservation districts”. These were not necessarily historical areas although some structures might have been historical or at least antique. Some were craftsman bungalows, four-squares, some Tudor revivals, several Sears catalogue houses. For a while I lived in a small 100+ year old Folk Victorian with a little carriage house back by the alley in one of the neighborhood conservation districts. It had some problems but it was a wonderful little house built by a German immagrant who ran the trolley sometime around 1910. He carved his initials in one of the joists in the basement but not the date.

The struggle with establishing these districts usually involved absentee landlords who owned several rental properties and didn’t want to be restricted or limited in any way. If a conservation district home was destroyed by fire or maybe a storm, it had to be replaced with a home that resembled and fit in with the neighborhood.  If a Craftsman bungalow burned down it would need to be replaced by something that fit in with the neighborhood — but not necessarily another Craftsman bungalow. Home improvements needed to conform to some standards so that the façade of the house retained its appearance as part of the established neighborhood. That was too much to ask for some absentee owners but the owners who occupied their homes generally liked the idea. My photographs documented the neighborhood and all of the structures…even the little carriage house. On more than one occasion the catalyst for residents to seek conservation status was some absentee owner’s plans to demolish or radically remodel one of the neighborhood homes.  Half the time they were too late to stop the plan but they at least secured part of the neighborhood from future destruction.

west main1j west main2j

In general terms, neighborhood conservation districts are not as restrictive or heavily regulated as historical districts. There is usually some sort of governmental or otherwise formal regulatory body. It may just be a neighborhood association with a compact or covenant where all owners agree to abide by the rules. The city planning or zoning commission might be the regulatory body or a historic preservation commission. If the city is involved there will probably be more enforcement power but there might also some incentives offered such as low (or no) interest loans for property maintenance or tax incentives. Vacant or run-down properties are likely to get some attention with city enforcement and incentives.

Absentee owners are often invested for the short term. They want to milk a property for whatever rent they can get without putting money into the property. I’ve know a few and it seems that there is a common thread in the comments I’ve heard: “The tenants don’t take care of the place”. I understand their frustration but if you own ten or twenty properties with several vacant at any given time, the landlord can’t keep up with the maintenance and can’t properly screen the tenants.  They see the neighborhood conservation district as just more work with little return.

Absentee owners are not the only problem. Sometimes the owner just walks away. That happened with the house directly behind me – across the alley. The young couple had a baby, the husband lost his job, bills piled up. They couldn’t make ends meet and didn’t have much equity in the house so they moved in with family in another state. Foreclosure dragged on and the house sat vacant. That street, across the alley, had chosen not to be included in the neighborhood conservation district and it was readily apparent. Things were not going well. Because the property owners were doing things willy-nilly, or not at all, the place lacked cohesiveness and any semblance of neighborhood pride. It broadcasted a “we couldn’t care less attitude” and was generally not considered an important place. Eventually the city approved an application for a halfway house in the middle of the block. The corner store went through a series of shoe-string commercial establishments, caught fire and burned down and became a vacant lot.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone



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