How about a forward-looking plan for preserving the past?

On my bucket list before the roll is called up yonder is completing the doctorate in history in which I was engaged in 1980, when I answered the Sirens' song and came here.

If you are as enamored of history as I am, Philadelphia is as good a place as any to spend the time. This city and the region are awash in history, if you haven't noticed, especially of the mid-17th century through 1800, when the nation's capital was removed to Washington.

My interest lies just a bit later - from the post-Civil War to 1920 - so when in 2011 I coauthored St. Peter's Church: Faith in Action for 250 Years, published by Temple University Press, I got to focus on the church and the city in those years.

I still enjoy wandering through the industrial districts of Philadelphia, imagining what these rusting hulks of factories and warehouses were like when they employed hundreds of thousands of people living mostly in neat little rowhouses nearby.

As I watch these buildings decay faster than they can be saved, and witness the low-rises and high-rises sprouting in these neighborhoods, I can't help but wonder if there is a way the city can retain the important pieces of its past without jeopardizing the progress it seems to be making.

Or, as Harris Steinberg recently put it, "embracing the promise of Philadelphia's future while honoring its past."

Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University, told the fall meeting of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia that we have to find a way to "allow the historic fabric to grow and change" without getting into the warfare that typically erupts when someone wants to alter the city's landscape in some way.

"Part of what sells Philadelphia is its historic essence," he said, adding that the city had a special quality "like Amsterdam."

If I hadn't wandered around Amsterdam for four days last fall, I wouldn't have understood that comparison, but Steinberg is absolutely right.

Think of the Schuylkill from the South Street Bridge to the Waterworks as one big canal, then learn to dodge bicyclists while walking along the trail, and you're there.

Over the last 60 years, some of the efforts to remake the city have been done in historical context, such as I.M. Pei's Society Hill Towers and his new townhouses around it, Steinberg said.

Edmund Bacon "carefully edited" the neighborhood's past, he said, referring to the legendary urban planner.

Those efforts have been carried into the 21st century from the late 20th, said Steinberg, who called Tim and Pat McDonald's Onion Flats on Norris Street just south of the Berks El station "a riff on townhouses" along the lines of Pei's.

He also pointed to saving the facade of the Rittenhouse Club in the construction of 10 Rittenhouse as another example of efforts to honor the city's historic fabric.

Yet as change is proposed, he said, "the battle lines are drawn again and again" because we don't have the tools for a reasoned and intelligent approach to preservation.

When the demolition of the Boyd Theater voided the city's preservation ordinance, for example, history was, for a time, left undefended, he said.

Steinberg recommended that we adopt a citywide preservation plan, along the lines of those in other cities, such as Charleston, S.C., and Los Angeles.

"In 1959, we were a model. We've let other cities get ahead of us," he said.

There is the challenge. If we wish to embrace the promise of the future while honoring the city's past, we need a plan.

That way, the energy we spend fighting could be put to much better use.


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