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If the movement to preserve old buildings wants to stay powerful, it needs to start recruiting younger members.
Bellies full from lunch, 20 or so historic preservationists lumber into the mauve-walled Great Hall of downtown’s Charles Sumner School. The month is June, and this is the afternoon session of the D.C. Preservation League’s (DCPL) annual Preservation Conference. After a morning spent listening obediently to scheduled speakers, the participants in the Ward 2 break-out meeting get down to the business of picking preservation battles.
But the group looks sluggish. Perhaps it’s food coma. Or simply the exhaustion of so many years waging war against the wrecking ball. Among the assembled, there are bald heads, gray heads, and a few extra pounds around their collective middle. And not a whole lot of youthful idealism.
Indeed, as the group gets down to making preservation plans, issues of mortality bubble up alongside talk of porch moldings. Juliet Zucker of the Citizens Association of Georgetown worries aloud about the future of historic churches in her neighborhood, whose care and feeding are currently supervised by aging congregations. “What happens when the churches lose their parishioners?” she asks. A nod here, another over there. This group understands.
And when talk moves to regulations on Georgetown curb cuts, someone pipes in about the impossibility of enforcement. One older gentleman says, “I’ll be dead by the time they do that.”
A chorus of “Hush, now”s explodes from the group.
Yet if the assembled activists are serious about remaining a force in local politics, mortality is something they ought to seriously think about. This crew is a far cry from the strapping radicals who, enflamed by District and federal government lust for demolition, founded Don’t Tear It Downthe DCPL’s original monikerin 1971. Far, too, from the group that rallied around the venerable Old Post Office building downtown and devoured copies of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
By 1973, D.C. preservationists had won the Old Post Office a place on the National Register of Historic Places and persuaded District politicians to draft historic-preservation policies. Since then, the DCPL has saved more than 75 buildings from certain deaththe Warner Theatre, the Cairo apartment building, and the Willard Hotel among them.
But preservationists nationwide haven’t managed to leverage that past into a way of recruiting new activists to their movement. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has only an estimated 200 student members out of a membership of 260,000, according to Melissa Bermudez, senior customer service representative in the trust’s membership office. Locally, the numbers are also meager. “I think student membership is much smaller than you’d expect,” says Liz Gibson, the organization’s membership chair.
Given its shining record of activism, the countless lectures sponsored, and the historic districts designated, you’d think the league would have an easy time bringing young folksthe kind of monied dreamers who buy up old townhouses to renovateinto the fold. But according to disgruntled members, the organization hasn’t done nearly enough to attract them. As a new generation of political leaders rises in city politicsAdrian Fenty, who last week defeated longtime preservationist foil Charlene Drew Jarvis in the Ward 4 D.C. Council primary, was born the same year Don’t Tear It Down was foundedthat could become a serious problem for their cause.
Earlier this year, DCPL activist Wanda Bubriski organized walking tours of the dilapidated Georgian Holt House in Adams Morgan. At several of the walks I attended, most attendees were pushing 60. “In 1974, it was an activist lay-down-in-front-of-the-bulldozers organization,” says Gibson. “We’re in desperate need of people with energy for our committees.”
Bubriski, who in addition to her preservation duties is also membership chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, says that the environmental movement “is full of the young, young set.” But although the two groups have some of the same concernsconservation and reusethe environmental cause attracts youth in numbers preservationists only dream about. “I don’t know why the preservation movement can’t hone into that,” Bubriski remarks.
DCPL trustee Farleigh Earhart, 34, sees recruiting younger activists as a challenge particular to Washington. “In New Orleans, everybody volunteers for preservation [groups]. I volunteered when I was in college,” she explains. “Here, historians, developers, and architects are involved in preservation…but not so many regular people.” Especially young ones.
It doesn’t take a lot of demographic research to tell you that one way to draw younger folks into an unchic movement is to make activism seem fun. That’s the idea behind the DCPL’s “Most Endangered Happy Hour,” analmostmonthly get-together to rally around buildings threatened by the wrecking ball. At the happy hours, says 30-something Amanda Ohlke, who co-chairs the league’s Education Committee with Earhart, “[you can] know as much or as little as you’d like” about the endangered sites. And you can also drink beer. Sort of like Preservation à la Carte.
The idea for the happy hour grew out of one of Earhart and Ohlke’s walking tours around Brookland about a year ago. A group of young Catholic University architecture students suggested a post-tour tipple at Island Jim’s, a local bar. Since then, they’ve held events at bars near endangered sites across the city. Although she can’t quantify the number of new members recruited through the happy hours, Earhart thinks they’re essential. “In order to survive, we need strong membership,” she explains. “I don’t know where we’re going to get that if we don’t reach out to new groups.”
“The guy who is now our webmaster [showed up for the first time] at one of the happy hours,” Earhart continues. “If we got [him],” she muses, “you never know who’ll turn up. So I keep doing them.”
At the very least, bars like Island Jim’s are good places to kill off any stereotype of preservationists as do-gooder bluebloods. The turquoise-painted wood walls of the faux-island paradise open out into a large wood deck. Strains of recorded reggae waft around palm trees and blue umbrellas. Out back, a handful of young professionals, cocktails in hand, lounge on cloth beach chairs corralled in a sand pit, their polished loafers and pumps cast wantonly into sand.
Among them sits Paula Phipps, her legs dangling over her chair. Phipps is a happy-hour success story: She’s in her 30s, she works at the National Gallery of Art, and she just became a DCPL member.
Phipps showed up at her first DCPL happy hour several months ago, at the behest of a friend. “I hate it when I see them crumbling,” she says, dipping her toe into several inches of sand. She says she is enjoying this evening’s get-together. “It’s a good way to reach people: Lure them in…and then start talking about [the issues.]”
Two gentlemen who look to be on a latter round of Red Hook lean over a leaflet listing the DCPL’s most endangered structures. The pair study the black-and-white photograph of the McMillan Reservoir’s several huge filtration vats.
“Why are we saving that?” the guy in the rolled-up cuffs asks his companion.
“They want to turn it into a brewery,” the other replies. Both laugh. “Really,” the companion insists.
The question of how to lure in younger activists has vexed old-school preservationists. Off the record, many DCPL partisans blast their organization for not doing enough to reach out to the young, among other groups. Some members say it’s simply a matter of tactics. At the Capitol Hill Eastern Market Preservation and Development Corp.’s annual recruitment drive, young folks “run up to the table” to sign up, says leader Mary Farrell. “Preservation is easy,” she continues. “[It’s] a couple walking tours….Young people are flocking back to the city. They’re easy targets.”
But other members of the generation that invented D.C.’s preservation movement are willing to blame a decline in younger membership on changing times rather than faulty outreach. “Don’t they call this the ‘Me Generation’?” asks former DCPL leader Sally Berk. “[Back then,] people valued volunteerism,” she adds.
It’s July 13, and Club Heaven teems with good Samaritans out to save Columbia Heights’ endangered Tivoli Theatre. A $6 admission buys a very loud cover band and a buck off each drink. Billed as the yuppie philanthropic group Capital Action’s third annual summer fundraiser, the event benefits both Save the Tivoli and Greater DC Cares, a local volunteer organization.
The place is packed with post-college guys and gals grooving to a bad cover of “Jane Says.” I spot a foursome at the bar and begin my approach. “Are you concerned about the fate of the Tivoli?” I shout.
Four pairs of quizzical eyes meet mine. I figure they didn’t hear my question, it’s so very loud in here. I repeat it.
Turns out they heard me fine the first time. They just aren’t particularly familiar with the Tivoli. They do understand it’s somehow being aided by their Stoli-and-tonic purchases this evening. “My friend works for DC Cares,” a frizzy blonde says. “That’s why I’m here.”
“The only thing that’s going to get people outraged is when it directly affects their life,” says Bubriski. “[That’s] the way most people operate, especially in this town where they’re so wrapped up in their work that they don’t have time.”
In fact, such circumstantial preservationists probably make up a good chunk of the young preservationists in town. Take the scrappy artists occupying the dilapidated storefronts in the 900 block of F Street NW: They’ve allied themselves with DCPL and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City to save their studio space from demolition by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which owns the property.
“F Street is my first involvement with and exposure to the D.C. Preservation League and Committee of 100 and the Historic Preservation Review Board and its processes,” says painter Michael Berman, co-founder of the Downtown Artists Coalition and leader of the fight. “It has been a rapid education, and [I’m] now intimately knowledgeable on the historic law for D.C.”
But it’s one thing to become a preservationist when the wrecking ball is about to come crashing down on you. It’s quite another thing to take an interest in buildings you don’t happen to live or work in. And as far as recruiting a new generation of preservation activists goes, it remains to be seen if proceeds from drink sales equal the trench warfare necessary to sustain DCPL’s potency. “We fight the image of little old ladies with tennis shoes,” says a 28-year-old employee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation who didn’t want to be identified.
“I don’t see young people jumping into it,” Berman admits. “These people have their careers. Let’s face it, you’re not going to get paid money to be a grass-roots activist.” CP