2014-09-25 / Opinion

History Is Our Texture

If only we could all see the world through an artist’s eye. A few days ago, an altogether forgettable chain link fence bordering Newport’s historic cemeteries along Farewell Street came down, revealing a clear view of one of the city’s more somber scenes.

As Newporters, we’re constantly aware of our history, surrounded by reminders both overt and those that are hidden in plain sight. If our natural surroundings make up our canvas, then history is our texture.

Although the fence removal is only a slight change, little improvements can collectively make a big difference.

For our economy, for our property values, and for our overall sense of community, there is no bigger influencer than our surroundings. Having a sense of place that is both well defined and a source of pride is critical to building a vibrant and viable city.

That a simple change to a fence line could have such a big impact is a testament to that concept.

That is why, whether it’s a change to a streetscape, an addition to a notable structure, or an entire re-envisioning of a neighborhood, we must all be mindful to not tug too tightly on our historic fabric. And when the opportunity arises to enhance or reclaim some of the character – some of the detail – that has been eroded or lost over time, then we should seize it.

Thankfully, we are fortunate to have generous benefactors and organizations who have dedicated themselves to preserving our past. But we shouldn’t leave it all to a few.

Our history is not a static offering, and it shouldn’t be looked at as a burden. Rather, it is a component of our culture and a large part of what bounds us together as a community.

In the rush to fill budget gaps or seek out new economic opportunities, it’s easy to play to the lowest common denominator, or like water, to seek out the path of least resistance.

But make no mistake about it, there is a danger in that mindset and history has a way of repeating itself in the most unfortunate of ways.

There have been times in the past when Newport has traded in its history for an easy economic boost or purported quick fix.

Whether it be cobblestones or street lights, reclaiming our historic town spring or contemplating the merits of new developments, we must all do our best to play an active role in promoting and protecting our historic character. But just as small improvements can have a significant impact on our everyday lives, so too can small missteps.

With the sale of the Newport Yachting Center, the impending vote on the casino, and the proposed redevelopment of the North End into a hub for innovation, we’ve once again found ourselves acutely contemplating our future in the grandest of terms.

Few communities in Rhode Island, and even fewer that are as historically intact as Newport, can enjoy such a dialogue.

Making sure that we don’t lose sight of the small things in the process will be an important factor in determining whether we succeed in leaving this place better than we found it. Perhaps we can all take it as inspiration to begin taking small steps to improve our own lots.


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