Review and Comment: To Save or Not to Save?

April 18, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Henrik Krogius

How much respect does the past deserve? Readers of the recent New Yorker or New York Review of Books will have seen stories on the great Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. The accounts in both publications note that traces of the past in Mecca — including the supposed birthplace of Muhammad and the home of his wife — have been obliterated, and that even the Great Mosque that holds the venerated Kaaba continues to be rebuilt with no regard for its earlier architectural features. The Kaaba itself, which is not a solid stone, has evidently had its interior redone various times. (And in Afghanistan, as will be remembered, during the rule of the Taliban a while back, pre-Islamic monuments were shockingly demolished.)

What really got me into this question of preservation vs. replacement was my starting to read Rome, the latest historical narrative by Robert Hughes, the former art critic of Time magazine. I had read his earlier Barcelona before visiting that city, and likewise his Australian history The Fatal Shore before going to Australia. Hughes is always provocative. In Rome Hughes quickly makes clear that the “eternal city” is one that has undergone so many changes that it is really a succession of cities replacing earlier ones, with many once-significant buildings and monuments gone.

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Now, clearly, the attitude toward ancient structures is not as cavalier in Rome as in Mecca. Elements of the Roman Forum are carefully preserved, and no one would think of razing St. Peter’s with its great dome by Michelangelo. Still, Hughes makes a crucial distinction between the Romans and the Greeks. “We cannot make the mistake with Romans of supposing that they were refined, like the Greeks they envied and imitated,” he writes near the end of the book. “They tended to be brutes, arrivistes, nouveaux-riches. Naturally, that is why they continue to fascinate us — we imagine being like them, as we cannot imagine being like the ancient Greeks.”

Is that right, or have we in fact started to become something more like the Greeks? Not long ago, just past the middle of the 20th century, New York City was going through such an explosion of change that in many a single year more office space was created than existed in entire, other American cities. The overwhelming part of that growth occurred in Manhattan, while other borough were left largely to languish. Then, starting with Brooklyn Heights in the 1960s, a new view toward change emerged. History mattered; it was desirable to preserve whole sections of the city as they had been in the previous century. The 19th century — we didn’t have much of anything older — was given a pride of place beyond, perhaps, what its architectural achievements truly merited. Nostalgia, the sentimental attachment to what we remember from childhood, or think we do, threatened to become a paralyzing obstacle to planning and building for future growth.

In the past two-plus decades a resurgent Brooklyn has seen repeated collisions as the push toward change and growth has been met by a desire to keep things just as they are. We’ve seen Brooklyn’s downtown expand and grow skyward even as new historic districts have been established to keep change at bay. Landmarking has unquestionably ensured that a comfortable scale and charm survive in many residential neighborhoods; yet we also have to recognize that many people have adapted very well to — indeed, have come to prefer — living in tall new buildings with their services and modern amenities. Whereas preservation runs the danger of becoming simply a retreat to the past, by creating for the future we are creating what will become the present — a present whose advantages will outweigh the increasingly to-be-forgotten inconveniences of the past.

If Caesar Augusts a little over two thousand years ago hadn’t laid the groundwork for a European roadwork stretching, according to Hughes, somewhere between 55,000 and 80,000 miles, and if Pope Sixtus V, 1600 years later had not upgraded 120 streets and built about seven miles of new ones within the city of Rome itself, we might have been left with a lot of old stones that aren’t there any more, but we would also have lost out on a great deal of history and advance of civilization.

Where is the original site of Rome, Hughes wonders. “It must have been one on one of the Tiber’s banks — which one, nobody knows.” The past is beyond full recovery. What past we possess also cannot be fully held on to — it passes, as life passes — and to try to hold on to the past too hard will at best lead to stagnation. In the face of the very considerable resistance we see to change in Brooklyn, we should remind ourselves that Brooklyn a generation or so ago was a place of decline that many were fleeing. Like Rome, Brooklyn needs to evolve.

— Henrik Krogius, Editor

Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News

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