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Preservation matters

May has arrived and, with it, so has National Preservation Month. In a city where I once lived, we had a Historical Society, which most people referred to as the “Hysterical Society.”

It was active only when there was a perceived threat to a historic resource. Everyone would run around in a sky-is-falling frenzy and, at the end of the day, the efforts expended much energy with little result. The city lost historic building after historic building. There wasn’t the will or foresight in the community to preserve its historic-built environment.

Fortunately, in Claremont, a culture of preservation has been part of the landscape since the late 1960s, with much credit to the late Judy Wright, who among many others created a culture of preservation in the city. The preservation movement was the impetus for the creation of Claremont Heritage. Preservation found its way into the city’s general plan and is an integral part of decision-making about current development, renovation and adaptive reuse. The preservation movement helped to create the local historic register and the Village design guidelines. Subsequent community effort created the climate necessary in 2014 for the city of Claremont to receive an “A+” on the Preservation Report Card from the Los Angeles Conservancy.

From time to time, however, there are challenges in Claremont where preservation runs head-on into development. It is typically neither a matter of preservation for preservation’s sake, nor that a certain development or change is not worthy. It is never that simple and just as preservationists are not the black hats, neither are developers, property owners or institutions that want to develop a resource or alter an historic treasure.

Perhaps it is time to begin a discussion about why preservation matters and why is it important to every citizen, not only to preservationists. Why does preservation matter? 

First and foremost, preservation matters to every Claremonter because it is one of the main reasons they live here. They may not always articulate that in terms of preservation, but they do in terms of what they enjoy, appreciate and value about Claremont. When a friend or relative visits from out of town, no one shows off the I-10 or 210 freeways or the local supermarket. Most everyone takes their visitors to the Village, the historic houses, the Wilderness Park or the Colleges, all perfect examples of preservation. Preservation not only provides a strong sense of place and pride, but it provides the community with continuity—a connection to the past, a sense of belonging. We are able to visually understand our present because of the connection to the past. And we like what we see. We know where we have been, we can see where we are and that helps us envision the future.

As a community, Claremont is concerned about its place in and impact on the environment. Just look at the efforts that have been mounted in the city with initiatives like the Claremont Home Energy Retrofit Project (CHERP), the Georgetown University Energy Prize challenge, sustainability elements in the general plan, Sustainable Claremont, the effort of the city to provide its own water and the purchase of Johnson’s Pasture and the Wilderness Park to ensure that further development does not encroach on natural habitat. These are all preservation efforts. They are not independent of the preservation of the historic-built environment. Not now, not today, when we now understand the interconnectedness of our environment.

Historic preservation conserves precious natural resources. It reduces waste into our landfills. It saves countless dollars by repairing and reusing existing buildings. It is good for our air by reducing carbon emissions. It does not waste the embodied energy already expended in a building when it is demolished.

A couple of years ago, it was estimated that on weekends about 65 to 70 percent of the visitors in the Village are from out of town. There are those who would like that number to be lower, given the parking issues and the wait one might experience at a favorite restaurant. Some years ago, more restaurants and boutiques opened in the original Village and the sidewalks were no longer “rolled up” at 5 o’clock. Then the city redeveloped Village West. The expansion continues to this day. But what is the attraction to the Village? It is preservation coupled with appropriate development. In the Village Expansion, the past was included and honored with the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. The new development is scaled to and complements the historic fabric of the Village.

Travel expert Arthur Frommer said, “Tourism simply doesn’t go to a city that has lost its soul.” Preservation of the Village and its historic resources has created a form of “heritage tourism,” and it has had a positive economic impact on the city and its businesses. Whether these tourists are from the local area, visitors to and parents of students at the Colleges or are attending one of the many community events, they are here to experience the one-of-a-kind uniqueness and ambience of Claremont. 

Preservation does matter. Without it, Claremont becomes a downtown core that goes the way of the wrecking ball and morphs into a series of strip-mall structures. It would lose its soul. 

Preservation must remain a core value because it informs us about our city’s culture and complexity. It attracts people to our city. Preservation attracts investment and revitalizes aging structures and neighborhoods. It drives our economic engine and is an integral part of sustainability. It is environmentally responsible. Preservation is a one-way street, because once an historic site is gone, it is gone forever. And, as preservationist Jack Neely said, “Regret goes only one way.”