A Note on Historic Preservation: An Open Letter to the Old Town Triangle Association Board

Dear Ms. Pfendler and the Old Town Triangle Board:

As a writer, and a hopelessly optimistic lover of both equality and happy endings, I followed the story of your refusal to allow the Deakin family to make accommodations to their own home to render it more accessible with interest. I was thrilled when the family won their case, and saddened to learn about the Old Town Triangle Association’s doubling down with a lawsuit. What stuck out to me in the reporting most, however, was the following statement from former board president Mr. Steve Weiss:

“I understand that the people who purchased the house have a child that requires special needs,” he wrote. “What I don’t understand is why they chose to buy a house in a Landmark Zone when you have these needs. I don’t mean to be heartless or uncaring but this is not the neighborhood for that. Here you conform to the rules, not the other way around.” 

Similarly, current President Karen Pfendler’s statement that “…every resident has been required to forgo additions and improvements that are out of character with the district,” which erroneously equates accessibility with aesthetic-driven changes, disturbed but did not surprise me.

(But more on this later.)

I followed the story closely in part because I have a vested interest in this brand of discrimination. My husband is a quadriplegic; he is also an excellent college professor and a loving parent to our 21-month-old. The idea that someone with his level of dignity, capacity for critical thought, compassion, and work ethic–levels that your board has repeatedly failed to demonstrate over the course of this embarrassing case–could be considered unworthy of inclusion in your community due to mere facts about his body is, obviously, both ludicrous and sickening. You can imagine, perhaps, with the bit of empathy you could drum up, the feelings that disabled people and their families and loved ones have when they see this kind of exclusionary rhetoric of the “they don’t belong here” kind.

When I read this, the rhetoric was, on its face, more than overtly discriminatory, but that wasn’t what stuck out to me the most; instead, it was the fact that, if your primary goal is historic preservation, you’re actually doing an excellent job.

The idea expressed by Mr. Weiss that people who “have these needs”– needs you could acquire at any time, by the way, along with anyone in your family, through illness, injury or delayed diagnosis–don’t have the right to be where you are, is, after all, a deeply historical one.

Disabled people are used to this rhetoric, this dehumanization and exclusion masked as “concern”–eugenics programs targeted disabled people with just that kind of thinking, and disabled people’s confinement to abusive institutions was justified with this exact brand of rhetoric– one that covers over its subtle hatred with euphemisms and denial even as it does violence.

And I have to give it to you: Inaccessibility, too, is historic. Practically speaking, that’s why the buildings need renovation in the first place. Preserving inaccessibility is, indeed, a matter of preserving an imagined past where disabled people did not exist–imagined, because they did exist, but they were shunned and physically excluded, forcibly removed from society (so you’re right: your precious buildings didn’t have to accommodate them).

“You can exist, just not here” is a form of erasure and active exclusion that has always been used to deny disabled people everything from health care to freedom from abuse, and to justify the right to force a family, an individual, even a child, to fight tooth and nail for rights that are afforded to many people by default. Fight endlessly, causing perpetual stress and strife for people who simply want to live. Fight like you’re forcing them to do now.

And of course, if we’re being honest, it’s neither a matter of buildings nor eyesores, is it? It’s a matter of superiority–of who goes where, who is included and who’s excluded, who is meant for utopian enclaves of the “right” kind of people. “This is not the neighborhood for that” is simple code for “Your kind doesn’t belong here.” It’s predictable. It’s everywhere. It’s old.

So I have to admit that you’re correct. You are indeed preserving history–a history of the exclusion, fear, snobbery, pain, humiliation and hatred that disabled people have been asked to endure just to live their lives, raise their families, go to school, work, and even live in homes they paid for. It was employed, in fact, quite widely during the time period when the architecture that you value over human lives and prize over human dignity was built.

People all cling to something different as proof of their inherent superiority. Some, to cars or money; some, to spotless floors; and some, like your board members, to buildings. This, too, is historic. Unfounded arrogance due to things that do not belong to us, or that were thrust upon us at birth and maintained through sheer happenstance–in this case, an abled body– and that we secretly know makes us neither more special nor more deserving of the privileges we’ve been afforded, is part of the American dream that you are striving to protect.

The kind of clueless bigotry that undergirds Mr. Weiss’ statements and your continued harassment of this family is older, even, than your beloved buildings. It’s part of the very human tendency to define other people as subhuman in order to cling wildly to a false sense of inherent superiority. It is intoxicating, obfuscating, even hallucinatory–it must be, I think, or we would not strive to limit and restrain and torture other people as much as we do based only on our desire to preserve it with every kind of available tool (in your case, codes; buzzwords; zoning ordinances; lawsuits).

If it wasn’t so very tempting, we wouldn’t do so much to cling to a utopian past that never existed, where we could have curated what was around us, and who was around us–from the people we don’t want to see in case we are reminded in an unguarded moment that our sense of superiority is indeed false, to the ones we don’t because they remind us of our own plodding march towards mortality and our own vulnerability to pain and prejudice, no matter how many zoning ordinances we write up and how many buildings we refuse to alter and how many minds and doors we prefer to remain closed.

What you’re doing is, in that sense, the purest form of historic preservation. It is the oldest thing in the world. So for that, I say: Well done.

You are fulfilling your mission.

Laura Dorwart

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