On defining legacy assets.


As an addendum to the preceding post about assets in a “legacy” city, the following is an excerpt originally penned as part of a student discussion a couple years ago:

 “the glory of New Albany is in her construction of magnificent steamers. In this noble art her mechanics stand unrivaled. She is second only to Pittsburgh in the number of tons launched from her shores; but in the size of her boats, their models and strength, beauty and finish, she has no rival. The mechanics that have framed the Shotwell and Eclipse, and given them their grace, beauty, and speed, may challenge the world.”

That was written about New Albany in the 1850s. Much of our early history is owed to steamboat building and the associated industries and businesses that sprang up around it. It’s very much a part of our cultural capital. When I ask people here what our heritage is, what our tradition is, invariably a lot of them will take an object-oriented view and mention steamboats. My answer is that our tradition is innovation.

Why does that matter? Because I’m interested in identifying and/or constructing an inclusive narrative with which people can identify and engage, a story of who we are and what we want to be in order to inspire and frame collective action. Whether that story is aimed at an internal or external audience, buy-in and some sort of shared meaning – a unifying way forward – is necessary.

Steamboats as objects represent a past with no real hope for future development. For all practical purposes, they’re over. It’s not true of every object, but we’re simply not going to create a sustainable community future building or interacting with them. Except in very limited ways, people can’t be a part of them. If we talk about the steamboats in terms of innovation, design, engineering, and craftsmanship, though, the story is just as accurate and respectful but much broader and more inclusive. That sort of creativity and skill mastery are present in many facets of life and work now as they were then. As Max-Neef referenced, there’s great creativity and ingenuity in poverty that too often goes unnoticed. Survival makes it a necessity.

So, in trying to implement an asset based strategy for instance, it doesn’t matter much to me if creativity and innovation currently exist at a cultural institution, a software company, a machine shop, or in someone’s backyard. It matters if I can draw lines between them from the past to the present and between various elements of that present in a way that can help people feel a valued part of a common, connected whole over time.

I’m looking forward to digging into heritage issues further but experience tells me that if I let an asset building strategy occur here without intervening to help nudge some of the terms along, we’d be talking about historic buildings instead of the practice of architecture; the condition of sidewalks instead of street life. It’s the difference between dead and alive and creativity provides a bridge that might not otherwise exist.