The Commercial recently reported that the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program will host a free cemetery preservation workshop from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 6 at Bellwood Cemetery, 2122 W. Pullen St., in Pine Bluff. On its face, this sounds like a workshop targeted to a very narrow and specialized audience. On some level, it probably is, but the larger issues this kind of programming represents should matter to all of us.
Preservation is something of which we need more in Pine Bluff. Just in the last few years, we have lost historic buildings and spaces that we should have protected. Sadly, it often takes a great loss to awaken us to the importance of resource preservation.
The great national instance of this was the destruction of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station in the 1970s. Developers destroyed one of America’s most magnificent edifices so they could build a soulless box on the same spot.
This is no knock on modern architecture, but rather a clarion to take stock of what we have and what makes us special. Penn Station was very special. It had one of the largest vaulted ceilings ever constructed. It was an enormous cathedral for mass transit. It was where the world passed on its journey somewhere else. Now, the thing in its place looks like a dirty bus station. It’s across the street from the equally squalid Hotel Pennsylvania.
One wonders whether that erstwhile place of luxurious accommodation would be in its present decrepit state had developers not choked the area with the “new” Penn Station.
It has been said here before, no tourists will pull off I-530 to take in the majestic grandeur of our Wal-Mart, lovely store that it is. They might, however, want to take a look at the Martha Mitchell House, The Railroad Museum, the Saenger Theater or the Hotel Pines.
Yes, some of the aforementioned venues have seen a better day, but as long as there’s any glimmer of former glory, we can work with it. Moreover, we ought to work with it.
Many readers may not know that we have several structures in Pine Bluff that are on the National Register of Historic Places. Where’s the tour map for that? Where’s the promotional narrative explaining the intricacies of the architecture, the famous people connected to the sites and why we hold this resource important?
Maybe we don’t have a Pennsylvania Station to protect, but we have plenty of things worth the effort to present them properly. The interesting thing about preservation is that things once taken for granted tend to be seen as much more special once we put a little polish on them. We create value by imparting value.
Preservation is not being yoked to history. It’s not pretending that bad things didn’t happen. It’s taking stock of who we were, where we are and who we want to be tomorrow. Acknowledging the past doesn’t mean giving undue credit. It means providing a frame for all that happened since… and giving motivation for more considered future steps.
Beyond all that it’s a way for us to tell the world, through deed and acclamation, that we matter. We are not just someplace that used to be. Rather, we are a place directed toward the future, but informed by the past. We should embrace the spirit of our community past and present — and in so doing, become the better for it.