Monday, March 17, 2014

Progress or Regress?

The subtitle of this post could very well be: How to Start Your City's Downward Spiral with One Fell Swoop. I have blogged about the loss of the Lewis M. Green mansion before but some recent historic artifacts were turned over to me that once again sparked my dismay over the whole matter. The outcome of the senseless demolition still affects us today and we should really take note.

 In 1869, Lewis M. Green, a five-term Mayor of Woodbury, NJ, had built for the pride of the city a magnificent four story residence of handmade pressed brick, featuring 10 bedrooms, walnut floors, French glass windows, gas lit crystal chandeliers, white marble steps, wrought iron trim, and formal gardens across from the Town Hall at the corner of German (now Barber) and Broad, the most public street in town. After many happy years in the community, the mansion was sold to Gulf Oil Corporation in 1944 and promptly torn down for a gas station. Don't believe me? Let's have Gulf Oil tell the story for you. Here is the postcard they sent out to Woodbury residents (this particular one to G.G. Green, Jr.) announcing the "great" news!

Front
Back
In case you don't believe your eyes, let me transcribe what the back of that postcard actually says. For added effect, try reading the following in your best 1940's narrator-voice... you know, the same voice that told you to "Duck and Cover" in case of a nuclear bomb blast in your area.

"Do you recognize this picture? 

Yes, it's the corner of Broad Street and Barber Avenue as it looked not so long ago. Now this familiar landmark has given way to the construction of a modern "One Stop" Service Station and Merchandising Center. When completed, we know you'll be proud of this modern addition to Broad Street. Watch for the opening date announcement. 

Gulf Oil Corporation"

There's a word for this sort of candy-coated corporate public relations nonsense... it's called "bullshit."

The lesson? Let's take away that not all "progress" is very progressive when you consider the future health of your community, especially when it calls for eliminating proud historic structures from the urban fabric, negatively impacting the quality of life for everyone. I would LOVE to sit down today with the very folks at Gulf Oil, city leaders and citizens in 1944 who sat back and let the Green Mansion "give way" for "modernity." Mostly I would want to know how that worked out for them. Did they make that killer profit!? I have said that an ounce of forethought is worth a pound of future investment, and apparently no one in 1944 had even close to an ounce.

I heard a great story recently of an 85 year old lifelong Woodbury resident standing up to City Council in the late 1970s when they proposed to return the brick sidewalk and decorative streetlamps along Broad Street. His statement was simple, "You might call this progress, but we had all of this and more when I was a kid. Why did the city rip it all out in the first place?" I think it's wonderful to recognize that certain actions were bad in the long run, such as originally removing the brick pavement and decorative streetlamps the first time around, but by then the damage is done and I'm certain that what has replaced the originals is a second rate knockoff, an insincere fake.

So the next time you hear someone argue the senseless destruction of quality urban fabric in the name of "progress," question that it will not ultimately be in the name of regress. I've said it before, the art of a good preservationist is concerned more so with the future and for the quality of life for residents in the "here and now" and for generations to come. It should alarm every one of us that America is starting to look like a substandard, plastic-wrapped, third-world country. This affects us all, whether you want to see the bigger picture or not.

Top: circa 1900 Mayor Lewis M. Green's mansion on Broad, a place worth caring about
Bottom: Same location now, the curb cut between the Bottom Dollar and the Rite Aid
(both currently vacant buildings, humorously enough)

Do we really wonder why we can't attract new residents, customers, and businesses to the area when these are our aesthetics... fake windows, unwelcoming storefronts, and MORE setback parking lots? The bottom photo does nothing to inspire the soul.
___________________

Many folks are quick to blame the current climate of politics, etc. for the ills of the world today, but the truth is that things were set in motion after WWII in America that has lead us to today. Since roughly the 1940's, all across America, seemingly nothing better has replaced what was torn down for "progress." The Lewis M. Green mansion stood for 75 years, the cheap plastic gas station that replaced it only lasted about 30 and then a vacant lot stood there for nearly the same amount of time. The Rite Aid business that eventually replaced the gas station lasted about 20 years... are we getting the picture, yet!? We are constructing increasingly worthless buildings, housing increasingly worthless enterprises.

Today, many studies show that the auto-centric "modernizing" of America through horizontal development (sprawl) has had devastating effects to our once proud towns and cities. The effects reveal themselves through crime, anti-socialism, depression, segregation, isolation, and more. "Anybody who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the differences between European cities and ours, which makes it appear as if World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam." - JHK. Do not Americans deserve better?

Progress should be measured over time, and the demolition of the Lewis M. Green mansion certainly did not progress the city, but rather I would argue the opposite holds. By tearing down that mansion and other proud buildings during the same time period, Woodbury entered an age of blight. Holes or "missing teeth" from senseless demolition and an over-catering to the automobile were beginning to form downtown which eroded its walkable functionality and aesthetic appeal. Coupled with the growing trend of suburban flight, it was a one-two-punch that has left Woodbury reeling.

Lewis Morris Green Mansion in a wintry photo from 1898
Moving forward we must realize that our actions today WILL affect future generations. It's not all about the immediate rewards... how about some forward-thinking? A single action in the past, by a single-minded person (or corporation) can deprive all future generations from enjoying a better quality of life and experiencing our American Heritage in the form of our proud local landmarks.

"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set." - Proverbs 22:28

The dreaded For Sale ad!

Thanks for nothing, GULF Oil!
Below: some rare photos of the mantels that once adorned and warmed the interior of the Lewis M. Green mansion.

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