By Mark C. McDonald, President and CEO, The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation
Through the history of our planet, the concentration of people in villages and cities has been the key factor in the development of civilization. The exchange of technology, specialization of craftsmanship, trades, agriculture and communication between citizens has created freedom from subsistence which has enabled man to develop philosophy, religion, arts and humanitarianism.
The gathering of human beings in urban areas has also created the phenomenon of cultural individuality. The relationship between the climate, geography, customs and history makes each city a unique place. We can look at culture by examining its cuisine, music, religion, art, political structure and other means.
I am particularly interested in the icons of a city or culture. Icons are those symbols which represent the collective memory, ideals and values of a particular culture. Frequently these symbols are buildings or monuments and the complexity of a city can be expressed by the number and enduring quality of the places which are revered as icons.
A small town in Georgia may only embrace one building such as a county courthouse as a symbol while a huge city may have dozens of icons.
Often the symbols of a city change as that city develops. For instance, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta would not have been seen as a landmark 40 years ago, but now it is unquestionably so and reflects the complexity of Atlanta’s culture and history.
As Americans, we have a great opportunity to better define ourselves and reclaim our individuality by preserving the buildings, monuments and sites which set us apart from other nations. As citizens of our distinctive and unique cities, we possess the ability to restore and revitalize our city centers, historic neighborhoods, churches, schools, theatres and other places which illuminate our history and culture.
We undertake the revitalization of our historic towns and cities for cultural and economic reasons. Studies have repeatedly shown that those places that are distinctive and have a high quality of life attract higher economic investment. Economic investments mean higher paying jobs, an expanded tax base, philanthropy and development of the local culture and other amenities that in turn spurs more investment. This cycle often starts with an area’s decision to perceive itself as a place of quality and is followed by the development of a strategy to preserve those landmarks that define it as a place of culture for future generations.
As a city is an assemblage of its neighborhoods and commercial areas, Georgia is a collection of our urban areas spread across a beautiful rural landscape. Our country and state deserve no less than our complete devotion to preserve and enhance the icons that make our cities and towns unique.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of Georgia Cities Magazine. Click here to read the issue.