Times and Presence
By: Lisa Regula Meyer
In my little town, we’ve been undergoing lots of renovation, remodeling, and construction. And by “lots” I mean half of downtown closed off and all of it choking under construction dust. Some of that impending development has put at risk a historic home that was associated with one of our town founders, Zenas Kent. The house is over 150 years old, and is also connected to other prominent families, which isn’t surprising considering how small towns start out and how important people tend to group together. There’s been a lot of work put into figuring out how to save this house, and relocate it. The problem is that the site for relocation is currently in use by the local cultural arts as a green space next to their gallery, local kids wanting to play, families for community gardens, and neighbors for a place to chill.
I understand and appreciate the need to preserve history; heck, I live in a “century-house” myself and wouldn’t trade it for the world. But I also see the need for green spaces downtown, and for kids to have their own space. As it stands now, this little plot houses theater classes, swing sets, solar panels, rain gardens, and veggie gardens. Possibly the worst part of this is that one of the prominent locals helping to move the house has been active and vocal in the sustainability discourse here, so it feels like a betrayal. Both sides have passionate arguments and believe that they are the ones in the right. Full disclosure: I heartily support keeping the green space as it is, and consider that a higher value to the community than this house, which has lately been a student rental, and then vacant.
The two major arguments are “history” versus “green space” but the larger issue in my mind is children’s rights and privilege. Besides ideology, there’s another major difference between the two groups, and that’s demographics. The historians tend to be middle to upper-middle class, white, older, and well educated. The demographics using the green space tend to be lower to lower-middle class, ethnically diverse, and younger, with many minors. That’s a big problem. You can always argue about preservation, development, and green spaces, but when you have a distinctly privileged group trying to put out underprivileged populations, I get irate. When that privileged group won’t even acknowledge their privilege and see the other side- I want to scream.
I’ll admit my bias on this one; I have a kid and he and his friends enjoy that green space; I’m an ecologist and my life revolves around conservation; my favorite historian (other than my husband) is Howard Zinn; I’m an ardent activist and child advocate. I may not be fond of kids personally (besides my own), but they are our future, and we should treat them as such. This same town rose up in arms against an apartment complex that refused to renew leases with its senior citizens, instead choosing to target college student populations as renters.
Argument and disagreement are not uncommon in Kent. It’s hard to be a college town, and that association itself tends to create tension. Add the identity issues of a town where the National Guard once turned on US students/citizens and killed four, injured nine, and it’s amazing we fight as little as we do, but history always brings this stuff out here.
Really, the way I see it is that this is a matter of priorities. Do we, as a group, value the history and culture of a fairly homogeneous group and preserve that at all costs, or do we try to be inclusive, celebrate diversity, and create places for those without means? Do we invest in our past or our future? Communities are simply bigger families, and we can either accentuate from where we came, or who we are right now. Do we focus on things we cannot change, or what we actively embrace and foster, in hopes of the best?