It's (temporarily) over, and I'm less than thrilled with the results. If you've been reading my blog over the last few weeks, you know that I've been following the debate over changing zoning for a section of Washington Street in Middletown.
Like many once industrial cities, Middletown has been struggling for decades to keep itself vibrant. New opportunities are understandably embraced with open arms. Tax breaks, new permits, and ease of development are used to draw new businesses into the city. Unfortunately, it often comes at a cost: the loss of historic homes.
Do you remember Middletown's vibrant historic waterfront or the older homes that filled the streets between Main Street and the River? If you've ever passed through town or gone to the movies there, you've probably seen them. Still confused? The harbor homes - or the remnants - are under Route 9. River access is limited to one street, and one often flooded tunnel. The sites of those old homes are currently parking lots surrounded by retail strip malls. The end result of "urban renewal" isn't pretty.
I had hoped that Middletown had finally learned its lesson. While "urban renewal" draws businesses and traffic into the city, it doesn't often keep them there. Those retail strip malls stood empty through most of the 1990s. Most businesses turn over within only a few years leaving storefronts empty for months or even years at a time. And empty storefronts aren't good for business. Route 9 did temporarily draw shoppers to Main Street, but how many bypass the city completely? It's impossible to bring back the lost history, but it is possible to prevent more from being lost.
Last night's Planning and Zoning decision will not protect the town's historic homes. You can read the coverage of the meeting here at Middletown Patch and on the Hartford Courant. P&Z permitted development (including drive-throughs) within the only remaining area of Middletown with a large group of historic homes, provided that it fit within the "character" of the area and met certain limitations. They made a nod to historic home preservation by agreeing not to demolish any home on a 2005 inventory of historic places.
I went to take a quick look at that "inventory." If it's the one I found, it was first published in 1979... which means a house in the area being demolished was not currently on that site! It also clearly states in the introduction that the inventory was of "outstanding and representative structures." In other words, it does not include every building in the area. Basically, what the committee agreed was that any structure that wasn't "good enough" could be demolished, without regard to its history or the continuity of a historic neighborhood. Never mind the fact that it was on the National Register of Historic Places... Because, yes, the National Register listing does not stop the home from being demolished.
This plan bothers me on so many levels. First and foremost, there is the loss of history. Important people lived in these homes. Frankly, they're what makes Middletown beautiful. How much would you like to visit your ancestor's home and discover that it is now a parking lot or drive-through? Second, what's to guarantee that this great new development won't be empty in three years?
I'd love to see Middletown and the United States start talking about this logically. For me, the issues boil down to this:
1) What can we do to accommodate the business and development needs of town? The developer likes the site. Honestly, I can't blame him. It's close to Main Street and the (captive) audience of Wesleyan University.
2) What can we do to protect our history? Making way for new businesses doesn't mean we need to knock down the past. Older buildings can be adapted to new purposes. If that process is taken seriously, all sides can benefit. An owner can get his site - and coexist with an 1860s home.
Where do we go from here? As genealogists, I feel like we have to make some attempt to protect the past. If you're interested in becoming involved in Middletown's debate, you can volunteer your efforts to the appeal process. I'm sure they could use genealogists and house historians to research the sites, as well as people familiar with historic preservation. On a greater level, let's start talking about development. This discussion needs to move beyond a small percentage of Middletown's residents. NGS and other organizations have mentioned the idea as a kind of genealogy advocacy but rarely addressed head on.Working together, perhaps we can find responsible ways for towns to meet their present needs without destroying their past beauty. Are there ways to rehabilitate old buildings? What benefits can be offered for doing so? We need to decide what we consider important to preserving in our ancestors' pasts. Is it only going to be their gravestones?