Individuals who love history are naturally curious about the past. We see the present and can speculate about the future, but our primarily interest is uncovering the layers of experience sometimes covered by years of “dust and grime” that so often hide what may have really happened. The challenge is that when you see “backwards” the path to the present always seems rather clear. The reality is that when you live in the present there are many roads that may be chosen, all with different implications for the future. Living in the moment, the future almost always seems distant, and the many possible paths running in every direction fade into the forest and mist of time. The Apostle Paul was so right when he noted that, now, “We see through a glass darkly . . .”
It is an art to study the past and illuminate the various forces and eventual choices that push a culture or community in a certain direction. In our travels this spring, we have constantly been presented with perspectives on change. This past week we were in two of my favorite places in the U.S.: Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. I am a Southern historian by training, so I am drawn to the cities of the South. But beyond that, Charleston and Savannah trace their histories back to the very beginnings of the American colonies. The pace of life at least seems slower, and the respect for history is evident on most every block. They have painstakingly preserved much of their history, and one can see the unique interaction of the past and present over time.
It was a race that drew us to Charleston. The Cooper River Bridge run is one of the largest and most beautiful runs in the United States. Every spring, more than 35,000 runners gather to run the race, and I wanted to be among them. Life does not always go as planned. A week prior to the race, one of the most important contributors to the development of George Fox University, Roger Minthorne, passed away, and his funeral coincided with the run. While I could have still followed through on my plans, participating in Roger’s memorial was far more important than any race (read my comments here). We stayed in town and changed our travel plans, arriving later in Charleston than originally planned.
The city has homes that date back to the Federal period, and we happened to arrive on the weekend of the annual Charleston Festival of Houses and Gardens. It is the one time of year when home owners open their houses to the public to view. Ruth and I spent more than four hours walking the city streets and touring select houses. Local citizens provided context and history of each home, and it gave us a sense of the development of the community. In addition, they had incorporated the experience of the slave community, which provided a much richer history of the city than would have been the case even 10 years ago. Several days later, we visited Savannah and experienced very similar tours of homes surrounding the downtown corridor.
After a tour like this, one of the things I am convinced of is that I prefer to live in an era with indoor plumbing! Walking to the outhouses, finding fresh water for everyday existence would have been arduous tasks for any person. Of course, the families who built the homes we toured were dependent on slave or other labor for most of the actual work that went into day-to-day life. That is one of the most interesting things about trying to “look into” the past. The experiences we often see today are those of the elite – business owners, plantation owners, aristocrats. The homes and experiences of the middle class are nowhere to be found. My family, who came to Georgia during the Colonial period, were small farmers who lived at a subsistence level on the frontier. With the exception of the slaves, their experiences were more harsh and difficult than any we viewed in the city.
Nevertheless, it was not the actual history of the periods in question that was the most interesting to me. In both cities a group of women, in the 1960s and 1970s, set out to preserve the architectural record in both communities and formed historical societies. Without their efforts there would be little to “tour” in either city today. Essentially, about 50 years ago, there were competing visions of the future. Local politicians and city professional staff had a commitment to a vision of “progress” that excluded the old homes and history they represented. The emerging historical societies fought for preservation of the past and believed that such an effort would create a new opportunity and revitalized cities.
As we walked through the city of Savannah, our local guide pointed out home after home that had been razed for a parking garage in the late 1960s and 1970s. Following World War II, the automobile and the new interstate road system had given way to a new vision of the future. Many citizens were moving to the country where they could afford larger houses and property. The automobile made it possible to commute to work in ways that were not previously possible in many communities. As people moved to what became the suburbs in the South, the cities eroded. Shopping and business communities followed the exodus to the suburbs and the old downtowns and magnificent homes that surrounded them began to erode. The homes were often converted to tenements and rental properties, and the nature of both Charleston and Savannah began to change. In order to “save” the city, the politicians and professionals called for new development that would draw citizens back to the city center to shop and eat. In order to do this, they destroyed homes and replaced them with large parking garages and new shopping centers (with futuristic architectural concepts using large concrete forms). They were convinced that their actions would create a better future for their region.
Walking through both cities it is hard to imagine how creative, thinking individuals could come to such a conclusion. The concrete parking garages that were constructed are now eyesores, and they did not create the economic vitality that the planners envisioned. Amidst this environment, leading women in both communities rallied and raised funds for an alternative vision that leaned into the past to create a new future. In order to accomplish their goals, they used the money raised to purchase and preserve homes and the community’s past. Parks were restored and pedestrian pathways improved to encourage actual living in the city. The movement gained momentum, and citizens gained a new vision for the future that was informed by past beauty but had the conveniences of modern living (the restoration of the past did not include the outhouses.) They were drawn to return and revitalize the downtown. Now, of course, the future of both cities is closely tied to the history of the communities and consistent preservation of its architectural past.
As we look around us today it is clear that change is certainly inevitable. It has always been inevitable. Whether at the university or in our local communities, technology and the accompanying social changes are radically altering the way our communities are built and how they are modeled for the future. I was reminded, in our visit to Charleston and Savannah, that choices in the present have to be carefully considered – there are vital elements of our past and present that need to be retained in order to have a community in the future that reflects our most important values. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, where every single moment seems to matter, sometimes it is more important to just sit on the front porch of your house and consider what you are leaving before you simply jump ahead.