Morton J. Marcus is an economist formerly with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
Historic preservation never interested me. Public television’s Antique Roadshow is a farce about the monetization of memory. Junk shops, occupying valuable downtown space throughout Indiana, only trumpet our economic and social decay.
Nostalgia, to me, is a disease of the mind. I delight in seeing the past transformed into a promising future. Reuse of a beautiful building, restoration of landmarks pointing to tomorrow is inspiring.
Today, communities are falling all over themselves to attract imaginary young adults. It’s like seeking a new factory instead of working to retain and develop existing businesses.
Indiana’s many small towns and older urban neighborhoods deteriorate when businesses and families leave. Disinvestment, the neglect of maintenance and rotting of physical assets, creates open wounds and ugly scabs.
Instead of wondering how to attract unknown businesses or workers, we might try improving the assets we have.
Often a coat of paint helps to transform a derelict into an opportunity. A row of houses with well-maintained yards and borders of bright flowers raises hopes and property values. Clean windows and sidewalks attract customers to shop on Main Street.
These areas can be saved, when residents, property owners, and governments make the effort. Yet not enough examples exist.
Some of the decline and decay we see is the fault of indifferent absentee owners. Heirs to the modest fortunes of former merchants often own buildings around the square. Their interest is to derive sufficient rent to pay taxes, leaving miserable monuments to their ancestors.
Grand old houses and modest cottages are neglected because the residents are too poor or too enfeebled to maintain the property. Neighbors and volunteer painters, plumbers, and roofers could help, but they are reluctant to interfere or impose on the pride of the occupants.
Mayors tell me Indiana’s economic development programs give money to restore building facades, but not for reroofing damaged structures. The result: a brilliant exterior fronting a rotting interior.
Small, narrow properties usually surround town squares. This 18th century land ownership pattern impedes development. It might be better if a single corporation, composed of existing property owners, directed the use of the land and buildings. The facades, perhaps, could be saved, but the structures could be connected and modernized.
Indiana must enforce its already moderate building codes so that decay does not become an epidemic. Delinquent property tax payers should not be allowed to go years without payments. Unoccupied residential, commercial and industrial properties are not comparable to fields lying fallow.
Sentimentality, however, retards many economic development efforts. Readers repeatedly tell me how comfortable they are in this state. They enjoy seeing what they have seen in the past. For them, change is risky and repugnant. Restoration or new construction is messy, noisy, and jarring to memories.
This befits self-centered people who see life behind them. For those with a social conscience, those who value children as pathfinders, true landmarks are guideposts to a desirable future.