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Pondering Alpena’s lost heritage

I’m a sucker for old photos.

All those black-and-white photos of historic Alpena, photos of old buildings and old homes. Photos with people in suits and top hats, dresses, and curls. All those photos that transport you into a different world and time.

It’s easy to get lost in old photos, especially when they’re of a place that you call home.

The questions begin. The imagination runs wild. Where is this building? Is it still there? Where was it standing? How would that street look if it were still there? What would it be used for now? How many people walked by that building, created memories in that building, used it as a landmark in their own mind?

All those old photos of our hometown and our downtown, old photos with buildings and blocks, many of which were torn down before I was born.

Scrolling through social media this week, I came across an article listing the top “senseless building demolitions” in Detroit. Old City Hall, the second Opera House, Hudson’s Department Store. Many buildings that over the years fell prey to neglect, left to deteriorate, and were eventually torn down or imploded. Many left to become parking lots or vacant lots in hope of “attracting new development.”

Senseless demolitions of architectural, historic treasures — buildings that told the story of Detroit’s history that can never be rebuilt or reconstructed.

I was left to wonder: What buildings would make the list of senseless demolitions in our own town? The former train depot on the corner of Saginaw Street? The historic firehouse where now sits a parking lot? The Culligan block, with its turret overlooking 2nd Avenue and Chisholm Street?

Historic buildings carry no innate protection against alterations or destruction. If you were to purchase a historic building, in most places, like Alpena, nothing would stop you from painting it whatever color you would like, cover up the facade with aluminum panels, or, worst, tear it down all together.

Communities can, and do, enact policies that protect their historic buildings and ensure they are protected for the future. Communities can create local historic districts, composed of homes and buildings deemed important to the area’s culture, which require a public board review before any changes to the exterior are made or demolition could occur.

Michigan preservationists are also working to reinstate the state historic tax credit, which would encourage owners of historic homes and commercial buildings to maintain and renovate their historic buildings by offering a tax credit that would reduce up to 25% of rehabilitation expenses on their state tax liability.

Incentivizing the rehabilitation of historic buildings is just as crucial to ensure they are protected for years to come — not only by helping to make those projects financially viable, but by preventing them from falling into such disrepair that the best option seems to demolish them all together.

The luxury watch brand Patek Philippe has an iconic advertising campaign that features a father and a son and bears the simple lines: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

A community’s historic buildings should be treated as such — no individual truly owns them, they merely serve as stewards, ensuring that the history, our culture, our built heritage, is able to be passed down and shared.

It is easy to get lost in the magic of old photos.

Imagine if those historic buildings and homes and blocks were still there, if they didn’t only have to exist in our mind’s eye. Imagine if we never had to comment “what a shame it is they tore that down,” if we could show our children and grandchildren all the buildings that were important to us, the homes we grew up in, the businesses we shopped in, the movie theaters we went to, the schools we went to.

Imagine if we viewed our historic buildings as necessary to protect and took the legislative action necessary to do so — transcending our own time and ownership, stewarding them for the next generation.

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.

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