Thursday, October 05, 2006

Recycling Conundrum

The latest L.A. Times Sunday magazine, "West," devoted its entire Home Design Issue to "adaptive reuse," which refers to converting a previously commercial or industrial building to a living space. The magazine focused on seven radically reconceived homes that formerly had been a church, a water tower, a firehouse, a power station, a grocery store, a movie theater, and a Pullman railroad car. Each of these spaces had been cleverly altered, fashionably furnished (rather sparsely, I'm pleased to say), and, when completed, lovingly occupied by their new owners. I found the results very impressive.

I always appreciate the effort involved in saving old buildings and making them functional for the way we live and work now. It's a perfect combination of environmentally friendly reuse of resources and a respect for the unique history of the place. And I've noticed that it's become cool. Once again, I think the cool factor will help push forward an idea that is quite compatible with the concept of simplifying life by eliminating clutter. Like homes, cities can become cluttered, too, with old buildings and sometimes complete neighborhoods that are left to decay. Because it's wasteful, expensive, and often a loss aesthetically to demolish of a block of abandoned buildings, in most cases it's wiser and more practical to find a way to recycle these buildings and make them useful again.

But not always. Just as with some personal possessions, sometimes the cost of saving an old building is prohibitive. If it doesn't have historical significance, it may be better to demolish it, then replace it with something new and, perhaps, completely different. I'm a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so I tend to lean toward saving and adapting all that can be saved and adapted. I consider it an important part of our country's legacy. However, just as we must be thoughtful about the things that we save in our personal lives for ourselves and our families, it's important to be thoughtful about what we save in our public lives for society. Leaving behind "stuff" - buildings and monuments - as our only public legacy is as misguided as leaving behind nothing but the "stuff" we've personally accumulated over the years as a testament to the value of our lives.

A thought-provoking personal experience: I went to an art show opening not long ago at a charmingly retro cafe in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, where there's a vortex of loft/condo conversion activity. The bright little cafe was a shining beacon in an otherwise fairly scary-looking block consisting of single- and double-storey old business buildings and a parking lot. Across the street was a huge adaptive reuse building in which modestly-sized loft spaces were selling for well over a million dollars. But the neighboring block to the west I can describe only as the poster child for urban blight. It was horrifyingly bleak, decrepit, and filthy. Even worse, at the opposite end of the street, to the east, was a woman sleeping on the sidewalk, the totality of her possessions stacked in a grocery cart. Thankfully, we had parked our car right in front of the cafe. When we got in it to leave, we saw two huge rats foraging in the gutter across the street, ironically right at the underground parking entrance to the million-dollar loft building. I had nightmares for several weeks about that poor woman.

Of course we can spend our money on adaptive reuse of buildings and be pleased with our choice. Of course we can use our personal resources to acquire some lovely things to enjoy ourselves and someday leave behind for our families. But what about that woman? I'd also like to leave behind a contribution to society that would help eliminate the conditions that led her to live in such a tragically impoverished situation. I’d like to find a way to help "recycle" that woman and make her a functioning member of society again. I'd like to be remembered for what I did, not just what I bought.

© 2006 Cynthia Friedlob

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