Defining a sense of place, part 3: History

History determines the future. We all know that and we’re well aware that it’s true. What happened in the past will definitely effect the outcome of tomorrow.

With this being said, I’m going to give a disclaimer right up front: If you’re going to disagree with any of these “Sense of Place” articles, this would be the one to chose. I’ve been mulling over “sense of history” and honestly, I haven’t sold myself on it completely, but let’s see if I can convince myself that it’s a valid point.

A sense of history can be found almost everywhere if you look for it. I grew up (formative years 12-22) in the amazing town of New Ulm, MN. Now for those of you outside of Minnesota, just click here and look around. For those of you in Minnesota, go check it out now! It’s a phenomenal little town with lots of history and character.

I remember on about every street you could find a horse hitch. They were small, stone obelisks with an iron ring at the top for hitching your horse. A lot of home owners took care of them and considered them a point of pride on their property (technically they were on the public boulevard, but you get the idea.)

Clearly these horse hitches served zero purpose, but they were left around, why? Well, I guess the better question is why not? Better to just leave them there and reflect on a time gone by then to just wipe it from the face of your city, right? Yes! Obviously that’s the better option. Little things like this give us a reason to think about a time when there was no car, no electricity, no running water, etc… You could say that it gives us perspective.

This is a small example. The United States hasn’t been around that long so some of the things we see as “old” are comparatively young to structures in the rest of the world, but history is subjective to where you live. These horse hitches are old for us, and that’s a good reason to think twice about getting rid of them.

That’s part of the reason that Urban Renewal came at such a bad time in the United States, especially the Midwest. When Urban Renewal hit Mankato, some of the “old” buildings they were tearing down were only 60 – 80 years old, nothing too impressive by a lot of people’s standards. With the promise of a new economy and new buildings, the decision was easy to sacrifice menial (as far as number of years past) history for present day progress.

Sidebar: I heard a story one time about our old city manager. Apparently he yelled at a lady stating that “If you want old buildings, go to Europe!” Gotta love progress.

A sense of history allows us a kind of gut check. When we’re moving forward at neck-break speeds, it’s brings us back to the roots of our city, it allows us to see how far we’ve come and with the same amount of work and determination, it allows us maybe a glimpse of where we can go.

There’s no better way to do this than with old buildings.

Old buildings are free for everyone, they have no closing time (to look at them) they don’t take holidays and they’re often very beautiful. The act of keeping an old building simply because of it’s age can be a good measure of integrity. If your dog turns 20, you don’t just kill it because it’s too old to be fun anymore, right? You keep it around because it’s your friend and it allows you a chance to reminisce. Or use an example of an heirloom. I have a cool set of salt and pepper shakers that I asked my mom for when I got married. They were a wedding present to her, and they will likely be passed down to my kids and hopefully keep going. But what a stupid thing to save, right? Salt and pepper shakers. It doesn’t matter, it’s something nostalgic to me even if it’s not that old, it has the potential to represent past generations in the future.

But surely you don’t keep every old building, right? Right you are. The reason a building gets kept around is because it proves it’s historical significance to the community in which it resides. I’ll be literally rolling in my grave if in 100 years they decide to keep the Marigold because of “significance.” Again, the post office and the courthouse are great examples in Mankato because they proved their worth (and are beautiful to boot.)

Two great examples out of Germany: (Sorry, I know, but I’ve really only traveled to Europe.)

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Historical significance. The Germans knew that this building was important so they said, we’ll build around it. It’s kind of a beautiful juxtaposition.

Another great example out of the oldest city in Germany, Trier.

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This bridge is really nothing that impressive, just an old brick bridge that get’s you across the river. The difference? See the base? The black stones? Well, those were put there in 144 A.D. and they’re still in use today. Those pillars held up everything from Roman troops, to medieval knights, to Nazis, to people talking on cell phones. It’s mind blowing when you think about it. SERIOUSLY. JUST THINK ABOUT IT.

At some point it probably would have been easier to replace the bridge, but there’s nothing important about a new bridge. However, look at what you would lose by tearing that bridge down.

The point here is that there are lessons to be learned from craftsmanship. In an age when everything is disposable, it feels good to keep something that is defenseless against the whims of commerce and progress. Old buildings in your downtown were specifically built to last. Those who put them up wanted to have their wealth and hard work radiate into the following generations. Churches are the same way, why don’t we build a new church every two decades? Because there’s something proper about having a stalwart place of worship.

However, you can have sense of place without much history. Look at Seaside, Florida. An idyllic community built in this century. It has barely any longevity to its history, but history is being established every day by the people who want to preserve it.

Most of the stuff we put up now isn’t meant to last. No one is going to fight tooth and nail to save a Wal-Mart or a KFC. We need to start asking ourselves “what are we leaving for the next generation and what does it say about our society?”

It’s a powerful question that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Madison Avenue will be as forgettable as what you ate for dinner 12 days ago.

I think we can do better and I think we owe to the next generations to do so. It reminds me of a Greek proverb:

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.

P.S. I think I did a good job of convincing myself that Sense of History is important.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.