Sometimes, biking back to West Philly via the Spring Garden Bridge, I slow down and look around. The route takes me past the border of Mantua, a neighborhood that’s been down and out* for decades but is still kicking, and then into Powelton Village, which was constructed as grand estates and later infilled with upper-class commuter-suburb houses in the mid-1800s; it has seen recent widespread settlement from Drexel students and staff. The houses in Mantua are pretty modest and spread out over the conditions spectrum, while Powelton Village boasts bigger, better-kept houses with some great brick detailing. Though not everything on the route is lovely, it’s all interesting.
I’m often caught by the stoplight at 34th and Haverford, kitty-corner from the Charles L. Durham branch of the Free Library. That turns my thoughts from ornamental brick towards other things. Like: what’s the point of preserving our neighborhoods and cities if kids aren’t learning to be excited about the world? How can we put bricks and mortar ahead of the next generation? Not only what sort of landscape will we hand over, but rather who will we hand it to?
Realistically, that’s not the question. We can keep buildings standing and preserve cultural landscapes at the same time that schools are funded. (This is not a political statement; I began drafting this post before federal and state budget cuts landed in the media spotlight.) Still, we have to think and care about the broader picture to be effective preservationists. If public schools don’t improve, middle-class families won’t return to the cities, each city’s tax base will shrink further under the burden of necessary services and outdated infrastructure, and politicians will continue to overlook urban areas. If most big cities remain home only to people who don’t have other options, even the most dedicated preservation advocates will be confounded in efforts to preserve imposing houses, lofty civic monuments and ambitious commercial buildings, shoulder-to-shoulder workman’s housing, historic park systems, old roads and bridges – everything. Without tax dollars and political sway, significance doesn’t mean much.
Public schools aren’t a panacea, but they’re a critical step in bringing people with resources – and political influence – back to cities.
The 21st Century School Fund is taking a small step toward that solution by drawing attention to school facilities. Its mission is “to build the public will and capacity to improve urban public school facilities.” Preservation isn’t its game, but historic school buildings can benefit from increased attention, care, and use by the community. And new school buildings? If kids are learning, they’re okay by me.
[Construction at Longfellow Elementary School, by Vicki from Moline, Illinois]
*Helped along by federal urban renewal policies, but that’s another story.