Harpo Jaeger dot com

Historical commissions and societal progress

In the Northampton area, community preservation boards and other such groups hold a lot of sway, or at least have a lot of effect on public opinion. In my particular neck of the woods, the North Street Neighborhood Association (NSNA) commands quite a bit of lawn sign real estate and visibility. At most public forums, they can be found handing out information or gathering opinions on various projects that would affect zoning ordinances and town property management in our area. While I think it’s vital to have citizen watchdog groups like this, especially single-issue ones that are quick to note the side effects of various policies on their particular area (in this case, land preservation and local ecological systems), we have to keep things in perspective. Invariably, material progress in land allocation, and more theoretical societal progress in how we perceive our relationship to the land will both leave some people out of the fold. The question is who, and at what cost?

A good example of this sort of calculation can be found in this Gazette article: Amherst Historical Commission troubled by possible razing of old farmhouse, barns. The key issue we’re dealing with here is the balance between historical preservation and current, more mundane, community needs (in this case, a ballfield).

The case for preserving the farmhouse comes from a belief that the town shouldn’t necessarily purchase and utilize more property that it should work with the space it already has, particularly when not doing so endangers historical sites. The case for replacing the farmhouse with something else is that it doesn’t really serve any practical purpose, especially since it’s “not salvageable.” In this case, I think the latter opinion is a bit more realistic. I certainly appreciate the desire not to steamroll over everything that’s existed before simply for the sake of a new field historical artifacts shouldn’t be subject to the whims of city planners or housing officials. On the other hand, the farmhouse as it is isn’t contributing to any historical objectives. It’s not being used in a Historic Amherst exhibit, nor is it habitable or usable for anything. It’s just taking up space.

But are ballfields really the most important thing to be built? What if this land was used to create subsidized public housing? Certainly we could use more of that. This whole issue shows a lack of long-term thinking on the part of pretty much everyone involved. Reflexive urban and suburban development is clearly not the way to go. But neither is reflexive resistance to the same. Rather than calling for the same thing in every situation, single-issue groups like Historical Commissions, or the NSNA should be there to raise red flags and then work with government officials and citizens to determine what’s in the community’s best interests.