We can be pretty wasteful when it comes to just about everything, from straws to plastic bags and food to, yes, even buildings.
I was in another city recently, and everywhere we grabbed a drink on the go, we noticed that they offered paper (compostable) straws. We later discovered that the city government had launched a “Stop the Straw” campaign to dissuade businesses and patrons from using plastic straws. It was a simple solution to a really wasteful practice; the city seeks to reduce the use of single-use plastic pollution, starting with drinking straws.
Every little thing we dispose of has to go somewhere. Apparently, 80 percent of ocean debris is land-based, and 80 percent to 90 percent of that debris is plastic. It’s estimated that each day more than 500 million straws are used and then discarded into landfills and oceans.
Beginning July 1, Seattle has prohibited food service businesses — restaurants, food trucks, coffee shops, grocery stores, delis and cafeterias — from providing customers with plastic utensils, plastic straws or plastic cocktail picks. (They will be replaced with biodegradable options in most places.) Seattle has become the first major U.S. city to enact a plastic straw and utensil ban, though there are similar bans in Santa Cruz County and Malibu. They will not be the last.
Also wasteful: the amount of food the average person throws into the rubbish bin. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that 40 percent of the food Americans buy finds its way into the trash.
And all of this relates to our “throwaway” society, strongly influenced by consumerism. The term describes a critical view of overconsumption and excessive production of short-lived or disposable items over durable goods that can be repaired.
It struck me that structures built today are also susceptible to this wasteful influence. Suburban communities are especially vulnerable, based on current financing models and our transportation choices that allow us to move farther and farther out. While we often abandon older inner-city neighborhoods, the investment and embedded energy in those properties remains. We should work together to adopt new strategies so that we can fully activate the underutilized areas in our cities.
In stark contrast to our country’s throwaway mentality, in Japan, families have taken out 100-year mortgages on homes, with the intention of passing these dwellings down for generations. Two years ago, Sweden capped mortgages at 105 years; prior to that, the average was 140 years. These are much longer than our traditional 30-year home loans. It seems these houses were built to last and meant to stand the test of time.
Preserving historic buildings is an environmentally responsible practice. By reusing existing structures, preservation is essentially a recycling program. An immediate advantage of older buildings is that they already exist: Energy is not necessary to demolish a structure or create new building materials, and the infrastructure may already be in place.
But these are not the only reasons historic preservation is important. Advocates for preservation say it can serve as a catalyst for growth. Of course, preservation of existing buildings should take place in the midst of other economic development.
Historic buildings add to the authenticity of a place. They add warmth and character. They help us think about things in new ways, tell a story about the past and dream about the future of a city. This is why I think historic preservation is all the more important. It’s a progressive movement that still feels a bit counter to today’s “in with the new, out with the old” world.
Our business recently opened a new office in the historic Sill Building in downtown Bakersfield. This 1930s art moderne building has a distinct wrap-around terrace and stands as a beautiful beacon downtown. It is owned and managed locally by the Sill family.
We love that it was constructed in the thirties under the direction of Catherine Ann Bresnahan Sill, at a time when a woman staking her claim in the business world was still a very progressive thing. It’s fantastic to see this building’s rich history immaculately maintained, right down to the original metal-inlaid terrazzo floors, elevator dial and wall clocks. Every detail speaks of another time yet still feels fresh today.
The Sill Building at Chester Avenue and 18th Street, Sillect Avenue and Sill Place are all named for the pioneering Sill family. The Sills arrived in Kern County in the late 1800s, and to this day continue to farm, develop real estate and give generously to Bakersfield.
I was shocked to learn that the suite we decided to rent had been vacant for six years. Perhaps concerns about parking and the perception over the last few decades that downtown was not the most desirable place to locate an office kept potential tenants from setting up shop in the Sill. Fancying ourselves as downtown pioneers of a sort, we saw the potential in this space from the minute Nika Sill Morse gave us a tour. Together with two other local businesses, we decided it was time to activate the space.
We often comment how lucky we feel to work out of such a unique historic building. Any other well maintained, retro-cool space would be completely out of reach if we were in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco. It’s almost comical how many of our guests have commented that they don’t feel like they’re in Bakersfield when they visit our office.
But here’s the funny truth: We are in Bakersfield, and it can be cool. A metro area of half a million people should not have a homogenous built environment. We are a diverse city and should have a diverse stock of neighborhoods and buildings.
It would be inefficient and impractical to recreate structures like those that already exist in our downtown. We should embrace and preserve the gems that already exist, just as the Sill family has modeled.
Preserving old buildings helps us better learn about the history of this place. It’s a good way to bring the community together through a shared understanding of the unique cultural identity these structures give to our area.
Every city has its own identity, embodied in its citizens and also its buildings. It’s not only good for the environment and a positive way to fight wasteful, throwaway culture. Historic preservation means preserving old buildings and saving the entire identity of our city.
Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.