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“Nothin’ shakin’ on Shakedown Street, used to be the heart of town. Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart, you just gotta poke around”

As post-industrial cities continue to seek creative ways to repurpose land left behind by railroads, factories and their supporting surroundings, the opportunities for historic preservation as a catalyst for civic pride and economic growth are dwindling. Why?

Many of the obvious revitalization projects have already been done: Laclede’s Landing in St. Louis and Manhattan’s High Line come to mind. Other sites of great potential have been knocked to the ground or blown up to the sky: look no further than Pennsylvania where downtown Scranton and the former steel lands of Homestead were sacrificed for sterile, nondescript redevelopment paying token homage to history. As the destructive forces of time, weather, indifference and indecision threaten to take more relics of the past away from us forever, it’s time to move faster on urban redevelopment sympathetic to both history and the needs of current society.

Maybe you had too much too fast?”

Even the most well-planned industrial cities were glorified boomtowns. The perceived permanence of riches from coal in cities like Scranton led to explosive growth and over-building. Even before the fall of industry, it would have been impossible to maintain what had been built. 

By design, industrial neighborhoods generally were not the most desirable urban locales to begin with, though they were often adjacent to the plant and removed from the commercial city center. As traditional industry waned, the multi-causal blight from industrial tracts quickly metastasized leading to entire swaths of towns becoming wastelands. 

Decline came too fast, and with too much force, for most cities to react in real time. The visual scars of lost economies became the tell-tale marks of failed communities. Shells of empty homes, abandoned storefronts, weed-choked railyards and decaying factories gave the impression of danger, desperation and disillusionment. As the foundation was pulled out from under local economies, long-smoldering social inequities sparked into open flames. Complex layers of hardship and societal stress – along with constant reminders of visual ruin – blurred together in a depressing fog slowing forward progress. 

“The sunny side of the street is dark…. Maybe the dark is from your eyes?”

A common failed post-industrial reaction was to demolish fallen neighborhoods and displace those who lived in them. This Etch-A-Sketch approach of trying to erase blight tore the guts out of many cities while wiping out blocks of historic structures. Fortunately, some cities – whether through vision or, in most cases, inaction – remained somewhat intact and provided fodder for future vision. The reuse of warehouse districts as trendy night spots, or restored railroad stations kicking off downtown revivals eventually proved that historic preservation could be cornerstone of revival. 

Due to the needs of railroads and industry, the real estate of the industrial revolution shared quite a bit in common with attributes that drive the modern house hunter’s Zillow-madness: waterfront, level lots, lofts with exposed brick walls, good access to transportation… Of course, if that land is currently a superfund site or tied up in decades long litigation it might not seem quite that attractive, but scores of towns and cities still have viable opportunities that lay in wait for leadership ready to act. For some, they still just see the darkness. 

“You think you’ve seen this town clear through. Nothin’ here that could interest you.”

Part of moving forwards requires understanding what new visitors and residents could be drawn to. When blocks of downtown Scranton were turned to dust 20+ years ago, the pervading “wisdom” was that people would only be attracted to something new… which is why a modern mall was built on the site of what was one of the world’s most intact early 1900’s commercial districts. One of the justifications was simply that people who watched the city decline couldn’t believe there was anything left that would draw people in. Fast forward to the present day and the mall has been a failure while Scranton’s remaining historic structures are starting to draw the kind of residents and businesses who want to coexist with history. In the long run, those people will do infinitely more good for a city than the erase-the-past planners of the recent past.

Can the world’s remaining underutilized historic infrastructure still catapult cities into new economic futures? London’s railways lands suggest it can. Look to Buffalo, Fort Wayne, Detroit’s Corktown and other diamonds in the rough for more answers.

The Grateful Dead sang “well, well, you can never tell”* but let’s hope that that a combination of vision and civic leadership can bring the sun back to Shakedown Street.

Rob Davis

Rob Davis has been active in historic preservation for over 40 years. He is currently a principal/founder of the Railroad & Industrial Preservation Society, Inc. which is restoring Lehigh & New England locomotive #611. Rob founded Ahead of the Torch in 1992. Rob brings over 25 years of digital communications and marketing experience to AOTT. In his profession, he is engaged as Chief Digital Innovation Officer at MSL Group, the PR arm of Publicis Groupe. Rob was previously Head of Digital/North America Innovation Lead at the legendary global advertising agency Ogilvy. Rob previously led the digital businesses for the Independent Film Channel and AMC TV networks, as well as running the experimental programming team at MTV Networks. Rob holds an MS from the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University and a BS from the University of Scranton.

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