True Green Cities / Happy Halloween – Building Community: One Pumpkin at a Time

Carving Jack-o-lanterns for Old Salem

My pumpkins strategically placed on the fence surrounding Old Salem's Town Green with Salem College in the background.

Last week I was giving tours to a National Historic Landmark asylum that hadn’t been opened to the public in a decade.  This week I was helping keep the jack-o-lanterns lit on the town square at the historic Moravian town of Old Salem.  There’s been a lot of talk recently about “building community” and that preservation is no longer about saving the jewels and the monuments, but about revitalizing and maintaining the communities and neighborhoods we all love to be in. While I won’t disagree with the building community bit, I do have a difference of opinion about saving the jewels.  Background buildings are important, often because they support the jewels. Neither would survive without the other.   We need them both for a healthy “community”. We Haven’t Lost Interest in Our Monuments Whether it’s an H. H. Richardson and Olmsted & Vaux-designed asylum in Buffalo or an entire Moravian town
H. H. Richardson's Asylum Towers

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, designed by H. H. Richardson and Olmsted, Vaux & Co. is one of Buffalo's great icons.

in Winston-Salem, NC, our monuments (National Historic Landmarks) continue to provide the focus and hope for our communities.  During the National Preservation Conference last week, we welcomed almost 2,000 people through the halls of the once-abandoned (now undergoing rehabilitation) Richardson Olmsted Complex. Because the site is under construction and still owned by New York State, we have a limited building permit which only allows us to have a certain amount of visitors at pre-approved times.  While most people made their reservations ahead of time, by the end of the conference we were so overwhelmed with requests via email and phone, we couldn’t even respond to them all - leading to many people just showing up hoping to get into the tours and events, which had very limited availability.  We had to turn away many interested people and we are sorry about that, but we were quite thrilled that we were able to open up the site to as many people as we did.  We even had to turn away friends but since getting into the Richardson was the “buzz” at the conference, we hope that it will encourage people to come back to Buffalo and visit again. Everyone Wants to Live in Winston-Salem
Old Salem streets

One of the great walkable streets in historic Old Salem, Winston-Salem, NC.

And just this week a Yahoo!Travel survey named Winston-Salem’s downtown as one of the top eight downtowns in the country, based mainly on the historic tours and buildings at Old Salem.  Old Salem and the Richardson have a neighborhood similarity – large cities have grown up around them, so they both now find themselves in the heart of lively communities, and in some respects have the ability to knit their communities together.The Yahoo!Travel findings were based on information from Forbes.com and another site, Livability.com, which earlier this year ranked Winston-Salem’s downtown as the second best downtown in the country, behind Indianapolis. When Pumpkins Can Generate the Excitement of a Rock Concert Old Salem Museums & Gardens is a very interesting “museum”.  While at one level it is a reconstructed and restored 18th/19th century Moravian town, at a more important level (I think), the historic town remains alive and vibrant.  People still live and work in the restored houses and retail buildings (in fact I am very fortunate to live in an 1839 Moravian home in the historic district).  The Museum operates about 10 buildings as “exhibit” buildings and sets the philosophy for the rest of the over-100 buildings and historic landscapes.  It is indeed hard to tell where the Museum ends and the living city starts.  The Museum offers an amazing amount of events, many of which are free.  And this is where the pumpkins come in.
Lining up in Old Salem

People in line to see the jack-o-lanterns lining the historic fence in Old Salem's town green.

This year, for the second year, Old Salem hosted a jack-o-lantern carving “display” and trick-or-treating event to the community, for free. The Museum bought hundreds of pumpkins and asked residents and visitors to carve them and then display them on the fence that surrounds the historic town square (which is framed by Old Salem Museum & Gardens buildings and Salem College buildings).  The event was advertised through posters put up around town and on Facebook.  Now it was certainly helped by the gorgeous fall weather we had, but thousands of people showed up between 6 and 9 pm last night.  It was a like a rock concert.  Everyone was jockeying to see the jack-o-lanterns and to get one more handful of candy.  It was hard to keep up with keeping the jack-o-lanterns lit and the candy bowls filled. Sharing Community Through Social Media While I live in Old Salem and my partner is the Vice President of Restoration, I didn’t really pay too much attention to the pumpkin event until I saw it advertised on Facebook.  I’ll admit, I spend way too much time tweeting and posting status updates on Facebook (especially given that I live and work among the jewels of our society!), but I think I’m like many who have been subsumed by social media, and this is where I get most of my information now.  Once I dragged myself away from my mulitiple computers yesterday, I didn’t want to leave the jack-o-lanterns and the town square.  And my Facebook photo album shows that! Community Means More than Just a Nice Neighborhood
Jack-o-lanterns in Old Salem

The jack-o-lanterns lining the fence in Old Salem's town square drew thousands.

So, in summary, what these past two weeks of “storming the historic sites” have shown me is that:  1. Our monuments and National Historic Landmarks are as important as ever, and generate much of the desire to be in a certain neighborhood or city. 2. Social media can easily and readily bring together various online communities and encourage them to head out into the real world.  3.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, can replace being in a beautiful place with your neighbors, whether it’s to see the inside of a local icon which has been closed for decades or to eat candy in a Moravian town square. This is part one of a series I’m doing on “Building Community”.  The next one will examine some of the online places I go to build my virtual community. And if you’d like to “subscribe” or follow this blog, True Green Cities, please sign up through the “Subscribe” button at the bottom left of this page. You’ll receive a daily recap when new blogs are posted.      
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