Commentary: Justice Cunningham on city preservation

Mar 21, 2011

Murray, KY – A decade ago, many communities in our region suffered a similar problem. Their downtowns were dying. Old buildings had fallen into disrepair, and many historic places faced extinction. But revitalization efforts have sprung up in many towns, such as Murray's Main Street Program, Paducah's Renaissance Alliance, and Princeton's Paint the Town. Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham is an advocate for city preservation. Cunningham praises the citizens who've had the vision to keep history alive.

People like to read interesting books, see interesting movies, meet interesting people.

And people like to go to interesting places.

That's why we spend thousands of dollars to travel to Europe and walk down narrow, ancient streets of cobblestone. There we stand in awe of crooked old buildings centuries old. That's why millions go each year to Epcot in Orlando to view newly created villages made to look like old ones.

Closer to home in Kentucky, that's why people motor up to Midway, Stanford, and even our state capitol, Frankfort, to see the historical houses and buildings where history pours out to us from every pore. These well-preserved landmarks are pleasing to the eyes. Old buildings anchor us to a sense of place. They are what make our town different from your town, our place different from your place. Pikeville different from Paducah. Danville different from Smithland. Community leaders are now learning that these old historic homes, churches, courthouses, hotels, restaurants and office buildings can also mean money because they are interesting. And people flock to see interesting places.

Joe Riley is the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. He has been in office for over thirty-five years and has made preservation the cash cow of that charming city. And, most importantly, he has started a wave of preserving and restoring our architectural history across this land which has economically revitalized communities.

Charleston was transformed from a sleepy little southern city on the coast to a vibrant and bustling city through the preservation of historic buildings, which in turn attracted downtown businesses. The place is now teeming with tourists who come to Charleston by the millions each year to walk about its interesting streets or enjoy the carriage rides along its tree-lined avenues. The revenues of the city have grown in leaps and bounds because of the added vitality and growth. Clean industry and financial and informational businesses rush to locate there because of the town's livability. And it is due, in large part, to the historic preservation efforts of Mayor Riley and other leaders of the community. He is the "Double P poster child" -- preservation and progress. A leading executive of the National Park Service has said: "Joe Riley has perhaps the best understanding of any mayor in the country of the fundamental value of preservation." Notice that he said "value," which includes the monetary boost to the local economy.

But Joe Riley doesn't have the field to himself. And you don't have to go to Charleston to see the economic benefits of preservation. Here, in Kentucky, many little towns are experiencing a resurgence of economic growth by protecting their histories and interesting pasts. Stanford, Kentucky is a delightful little town to visit. One can walk along its downtown and see what has been done with the interesting architecture of the past. People drive for miles to see an old filling station and garage which was slated to be demolished. Instead, it was preserved and renovated into a downtown covered parking garage which also serves as a sheltered bazaar for vendors during the town's periodic festivals. "In 1990," says Stanford's Mayor, Bill Miracle, "we could not give one of the old buildings downtown away. But since our Main Street project and the renovation of these historic buildings, they are in great demand. We have people moving here because of our preservation. A while back a couple from Maine were on their way to Berea to live. Seeing our historic and interesting downtown, they decided to move and live here instead. Preservation has been a tremendous boost to our local economy."

In Stanford, and other small towns, preservation requires not just political leadership, but the support of bank presidents and merchants. In west Kentucky, the little towns of Cadiz, Princeton, Hanson and others have become interesting places where tourists like to visit. These towns do not have a symphony or a major league baseball team. Neither was Abraham Lincoln nor Jefferson Davis born there. And no massive Civil War battles were fought there. But they have saved what the past has given them and made the best of it.

The preservation movement is loading up and getting ready to leave the station. Those old communities which are destroying all of their old buildings with random recklessness are going to be left at the station. My good friend, Bill Black of Ray Black Construction in Paducah and a working preservationist, has correctly stated: "A community not interested in preservation is not proud of its past." Neither does such a community have a vision for its future. Progressive community leaders are capable of seeing not just what old buildings are, but what they can become. They have vision.

There is a scene in Man of La Mancha which speaks to the value of the preservation of old buildings. Don Quixote and his servant, Sancho Panza, stand gazing at a dilapidated inn. The building is ugly and unpainted. Its windows are broken out, the roof full of holes, and the shutters dangling at all angles. Quixote describes the inn as having turrets and magnificent gates, comparing the building to Alc zar, the royal palace in Seville, Spain. The servant tries hard to shake him into reality after failing to see the ruins as Quixote sees them. Quixote is unfazed. He responds: "I will not allow your facts to interfere with my vision."

Author of six books about regional history which chronicle the struggle for racial justice in western Kentucky since the Civil War, Lyon County native Bill Cunningham serves as Kentucky Supreme Court Justice for the Court's first District. This is the first of an ongoing series of reflective commentaries from Judge Cunningham.