Conversations with a Shrinking City: Interning in Saginaw, MI

article and photos by Scott Slagor, Eastern Michigan University, MS Historic Preservation Student and MHPN Volunteer

As preservationists we are taught to look critically at our urban fabric and judge it based on “significance” which is determined by the “criteria” for the National Register. Significance can be a planning tool, and a planning challenge. Many of the shrinking rustbelt cities are losing population in core historic neighborhoods, neighborhoods that are often deemed significant. When funding for “blight removal” is funneled down the pipe to the local level, how does a city determine the “most significant” properties, and demolish other areas?

December_2011_003 (1)During a nine month internship in Saginaw, I worked with Brenna Moloney*; the National Trust’s Right’Sizing coordinator, to discover what rightsizing means to residents of shrinking neighborhoods. “Right-Sizing,” is the buzzword for reducing a city’s size and infrastructure to better serve its population. With Ms. Moloney, I attended community meetings, documented resources, and conducted an oral history project. The interviews with residents recorded where they found their significance or sense of place in a time where the city must reinvent itself.

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The upper east side of the city has been designated the “Green Zone.” This zone is planned to be returned to nature, or used for some type of urban agriculture or green industry. The ultimate goal of this is to reduce infrastructure. The Green Zone contains two National Register districts, and multiple properties that are likely eligible. The neighborhood is also largely African American and low-income. While there are advocacy groups on the East Side, disinvestment continues.

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 Some structures are left to rot for weeks after they are demolished, the schools in the area are closed, and some less traveled roads have been blocked from main arteries. In interviews, nearly all residents labeled the east side as having historical significance and beauty. They listed the Potter Street Station, the Potter Street commercial district, the old General Motors plants, and the neighborhood surrounding N. Jefferson and N. Franklin Avenues as significant. One resident living in the Green Zone whom we interviewed said “They are restoring houses on the West Side of the city, why can’t they do that here?”

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This statement stuck with me while exploring the city, and while watching its development and investment patterns unfold. What about this community makes its “significance” disposable, while other areas are finding investment? Are population loss and, inability to maintain the infrastructure and protection reason enough to erase a neighborhood?

Truthfully, I cannot answer these questions in a short article. What I have learned from Saginaw is how to look at all aspects of a community, outside its architectural history alone. Every resident finds a sense of place and significance in different resources. Preservation is more than just history and material; it is building on a relationship between the current population and cultural resources. Right-sizing is a planning approach being considered by cities across the Midwest. The idea of shrinking  a city may be practical, but the minute an area is targeted as disposable it marginalizes its population. How then as preservationist and planners do we assess the cities’ needs, while being sensitive to the significant history of those living in affected neighborhoods?  I have come away from this experience feeling very inspired by the resilience of Saginaw citizens, and their ability to find a sense of place in challenging times. This internship took me out of the classroom and allowed me to engage in a dialogue about community with residents. Not all of this dialogue was positive, but all of it was authentic. These interviews and encounters have fostered a perspective of how I view significance.     

*Since Scott first wrote this article Brenna Moloney has left her position with the MHPN/NTHP and has herself returned to school.

Want to know more about the work that happened in Saginaw?  Check out Putting the Right in Right-Sizing published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

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