I see usability.
That was my dad’s favorite saying. Dad was a dedicated junk collector, a man with no hesitation about pulling things off the curb in front of the neighbors’ houses. But he wasn’t looking for salvage or a quick couple of dollars. He was looking for usability.
Dad was what I guess you would call a tinkerer. He always had projects in process – a car (or three) in various stages of disassembly on their way to being restored, an electronic gadget that he was convinced would work again if he could just find the loose wire, an idea for making something from the extra tin cans he brought home from the paint factory or the brass-plated fittings that a friend at the foundry gave him or the pile of tire irons he found on garbage day around the corner.
When I was an adult and went home to visit, I knew he would want my undivided attention as he showed me his latest finds and described his new ideas for making flowerpots or bird feeders or paint brush holders or whatever. One of my strongest memories of him: he would pull himself up to full (not very tall) height, puff out his (very slight) chest, hold up what looked like a random piece of junk, and declare:
Most of the time, I would nod and smile, but I didn’t see it. And even when he did complete something (which didn’t always happen), I failed to see the achievement in it (these weren’t great works of art by any stretch). But he never said he was going for artistry. He saw usability.
Maybe this is why my dad, the paint factory worker, understood the value of old places long before I did. Growing up in the small Rust Belt town where he also had gone to high school, the buildings and houses I saw everyday seemed…tired. I didn’t know much better – I never travelled much until I was older – but I knew that my friends who lived in the newer neighborhoods had whole house air conditioning, heat ducts instead of the metal radiator in my room that clunked and hissed but seldom seemed to heat anything, and walls that didn’t require tedious, unending paint scraping every damn summer.
I did eventually turn into a historic preservation specialist during the 90s — I have the distinction of being responsible for listing some of the ugliest buildings in the Badger State on the National Register of Historic Places. In northern Wisconsin at that time, preservation was mostly on the minds of a few disgruntled… well, the common perception was crackpots. I’ve written about Green Bay’s history with urban renewal before, and as late as the early 1990s, a blight removal plan that identified most old downtown buildings for demolition as soon as the city could get them was still in effect and being carried out. I crawled through the basement of one of the final ones, documenting its last days, before it was demolished. I’m sure I still have those photos.
Green Bay at that time was just starting to understand the economic benefits of preservation – but Dad understood entirely. He started to mail me clippings from the Cleveland papers (remember actual clippings?). And when I got on the phone with him, he was more excited to talk about a building or bridge rehab that he had read about than about what he and Mom were doing.
About nine months before my second son was born, Dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My last time with him was about a month before the baby was due – last time I could travel from Cincinnati, where we had moved, to Cleveland, a drive of about 3½ hours. Shortly before I left to go home, Dad sat me on the couch and pulled out a large envelope full of clippings. By this point, the cancer in the speech center of his brain was wreaking havoc on his ability to read or write, and my name on the outside of the envelope was spelled with three L’s. We spent a long time going through those clippings – all sorts of building rehabs and downtown revitalization stories in Cleveland and South Carolina and places that I had never heard of. And at one point, he looked at me directly, and told me that he was proud of me, that what I was doing was important.
This at a time when I was continually wondering how I could keep working, with a toddler at home and a baby on the way, when the cultural pressure to hang it up seemed to roar constantly in my ears.
These places matter. What you’re doing to help them matters.
I see usability.
Dad died a week after Jonathan was born. We gave Jon his name because that was one that Dad liked.
I still don’t really know why old places matter to us – obviously there’s the sense of history, the fact that these are often places that are built at the human scale and are thus more comfortable for us, the solid-ness of the materials, so on and so on. But why do they matter so much to so many, and on such a primal level?
Maybe it’s because even the most run-down, aesthetically unpleasing places have usability. They so often have the potential to be so much more than they are.
Maybe that’s what we really need to be working on: re-discovering and re-claiming our places’ usabililty.