Preservationists Plead Case to Country Stars
Even architectural preservationists find time to listen to country music.
A prominent preservationist group, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, on Wednesday had a blog post, written by a city employee in Spokane, Wash., about a 2009 song by country star Alan Jackson, called Little Man.
The song is a lament for small-time business owners, who Mr. Jackson observes during a long drive through several towns as downtrodden and taken advantage of by all the big chains coming and everything that takes over these days.
The blog post says the song is well-messaged, because it drives home the point that we are losing something culturally important when we lose small towns and local businesses. But the writer takes issue with a passing reference in the song about historic preservation. Observing a small town, Mr. Jackson sings:
I go back now, the stores are empty
Except an old Coke sign dated 1950
Boarded up like they never existed, or renovated and called historic districts
In response, the blog writer says the “implication that business and renovated historic districts are mutually exclusive made no sense to me,” adding, “My experience with historic districts is just the opposite.”
Earlier this week, The Journal wrote about the preservation of a historic commercial district in Brooklyn, New York, and the clashes between business owners and preservationists. In downtown Brooklyn, business owners argued that the city was landmarking away the citys economic future. Mr. Jackson seems to be on the same side of this argument, although he also decries the evils of strip malls:
Now the stores are lined up in a concrete strip
You can buy the whole world in just one trip
And save a penny ’cause its jumbo sized
They dont even realize, theyre killing the little man
The ironic thing is that historic preservation often prevents large national chain stores from moving into old, quaint towns or business districts. The debate in New York, for example, was not about driving out local mom-and-pop businesses. Instead, it was about how a historic district might actually discourage chains from locating somewhere.
This isnt the first time that country musicians have sung about economic development and real estate.
A recent essay on the cultural criticism website PopMatters discussed the singers Montgomery Gentry and the idea of The Mythical Country, or “the country that exists in the collective imagination of Nashville songwriters and singers.
The essay argued that most discussions about small towns in country songs typically ignore the reality of modern American small towns, which usually have business sections of town that dont look too different from what you see in suburbs around big cities, with big-box retailers just a stones throw from McMansion subdivisions.
But it seems Alan Jackson touched on part of the reality of small-town life and real-estate development. And with preservationists, he touched a nerve.