Many of Pennsylvania’s communities face the challenging task of adapting to a vastly different economic climate than the one that led to their historic growth and development. This new economic reality of dramatically reduced population, deindustrialization and loss of tax base has resulted in historic downtowns and residential neighborhoods pockmarked by disinvestment and vacant properties. Abandoned, demolished or marginally repurposed historic churches, schools and factories are especially vivid reminders of changing times and the large social and economic forces at work.
As an architectural historian who reviews HUD funded projects in Pennsylvania for compliance with federal environmental law, I have had a front row seat to witness this rather dismal reality. Many of the projects submitted for review are intended to address blight by the demolition of abandoned and vacant buildings. Sometimes demolition seems the only viable option for properties so neglected and deteriorated that rehabilitation seems all but impossible due not just to the cost, but the diminished circumstances of the communities. The loss of landmark historic buildings represents far more than the absence of a particular church or store or theater or local mansion. Losing those places somehow chips away at the very sense of place that communities need to retain their character and identity. A downtown with vacant buildings and worse yet, vacant lots in every block says visually what many believe—that this place is in decline and its economic heyday is long over. What does the future hold for such communities and can preservation help?
While examples of this kind of economic reality can be found all over the state, some communities in the northeastern anthracite coal region offer a good illustration of the challenges to be faced. A recent site visit to Mount Carmel Borough in Northumberland County demonstrated the impact of the loss of both population and industry. Mount Carmel is set in a naturally mountainous landscape made more dramatic by the resculpting caused by mines, collieries and culm piles of the coal industry. While not far from similar size boroughs and larger cities like Pottsville and Hazelton, Mount Carmel functioned as a regional marketplace for it residents with a distinctive commercial core along Oak Street and surrounding residential neighborhoods to house its peak population of 17,967 in 1930. Mount Carmel could even boast the world’s first home to be lighted by electricity in 1884, the William Schwenk House on Oak Street. While the commercial core along Oak Street has lost many original buildings to demolition or alteration, some handsome banks, churches, ethnic clubs and private residences remain in Mount Carmel to demonstrate the wealth and prosperity of the community in the late 19th and early 20th century. Mount Carmel is in some ways a community living in its own shadow, now possessing about one third of its peak population. (The 2010 census’s population was 5,893 down from 17,967 at its peak.)
It is a similar story of shrinking population in nearby Shamokin where the 2010 population was 7,374 reduced from 21,204 in 1920 and Ashland where the 2010 population is 2,817, from its peak of 7,164 in 1930. All three communities developed and thrived during the late 19th century when the anthracite coal industry was booming, but none served as county seats or college towns to help sustain economic activity beyond the small knitting mills and other diversified industries in the area. Clearly the issues are regional, but the losses to each community are individual and personal. Each lost landmark leaves a scar, especially when replaced by a vacant lot.
The problems facing communities coping with changing economic roles and declining population and industries are very real and difficult to address. Pennsylvania’s abundance of local governments (2,562 municipalities, the second highest in the nation) can make the development of effective regional economic and development strategies more difficult. From a historic resource management perspective, much of the state does not have up to date historic property survey information, so understanding where the most significant and perhaps most threatened resources are is very difficult as well. While preservationists know that not everything can or should be saved, how do we make responsible decisions that affect the economic and historic settings or these communities without a comprehensive understanding of the inventory of historic buildings and communities or the context for their significance?
Sadly, there is no shortage of examples of architecturally splendid buildings reduced to near ruins, caught up in a cycle of neglect, abandonment, tax sales and legal entanglements which make redevelopment an often impossible challenge. This is especially true for small municipalities which may lack the staff and expertise to address widespread disinvestment or sufficient economic incentives to attract developers. Of course, it is often not much better in large urban environments where there are more entities to address the issues, but there is greater redevelopment pressure in the commercial core and the sheer number of vacant properties may be intimidating. Whole websites filled with heart-breaking photos have sprung up to document the terrible architectural and cultural losses in places like Detroit. For some, looking at such shocking decay may do little more than create a sense that preservation is doomed and thoughtful remaking of our large and small cities is not possible. Maybe it is like the nightly news—while the worst stories are the most compelling (and the biggest ratings grabbers), they do create the impression that everything is terrible everywhere much of the time. Therefore it is critical that preservationists document and publicize, not just the stories of loss, but those where concerned communities and committed property owners use creative revitalization strategies to produce major wins for historic buildings and communities.
For that reason we must be sure to recognize the accomplishments of historic places which have successfully reinvented themselves, despite economic or locational challenges by emphasizing the architectural and cultural resources which make them special — places like Jim Thorpe in Carbon County which has sought revitalization via recreational tourism or Oil City in Venango County which offers an artist relocation program to create an arts district in the downtown or Dillsburg in York County where local groups are working to preserve the historic Dill Tavern and encourage streetscape enhancements along the commercial corridor. Times change and economic climates do as well, so preservationists need to work with community organizations and leaders to develop more effective strategies to save the places that matter most. While preservation is not possible in some circumstances, failure to acknowledge the depth of the problems to be faced and to understand the wealth of historic resources at risk guarantees continued loss at an unacceptable level. Combatting economic decline goes far beyond historic preservation efforts, but without a place at the table when revitalization programs and plans are developed at a local, state and national level, the value of historic buildings will not be addressed. History demonstrates that communities must adapt to new circumstances and reinvent themselves all the time. The most successful are those which do so while retaining their authentic sense of place and the local landmarks which help define them.