With a meteorological snap of the fingers last Sunday, New Albany found itself challenged and changed. What I believe to be the single most significant architectural feature of our city, St. Mary's church, has been de-steepled, hopefully this abasement is only temporary.
The wind blew the dust off another more troubling weakness in our civic infrastructure: vivid recognition and willing acceptance of limitations. In some instances this could be called fear: fear of the unknown, fear of other people getting what is mine, fear of other people simply getting something I don't have, fear of other people's dreams eclipsing or supplanting my own limited vision of the what can be, fear of change.
Two issues come to mind when thinking of this creeping paralysis of fear: repairing Spring Street Hill and dealing with the new reality confronting the Baptist Tabernacle building.
I received an anonymous correspondence from somebody who apparently thinks it is foolish to repair Spring Street Hill. Quoting from this correspondent's letter,
"What are the Council's and this England administration's priorities?
Two-way streets? Spring Street Hill?
What the hell is wrong with this England Administration and Council?"
I walked through much of the city during the primary and general election campaign. While walking through Silver Hills, one issue received nearly unanimous support, repairing Spring Street Hill. Yes, it's an expensive project but it's one that simply must be done. I am by no means wealthy, but if I lose one or two of my front teeth, I will find the money somehow, someway, to get those teeth fixed. Likewise, a viable city can not simply write off parts of its infrastructure if it wants to be seen, or perhaps more importantly, if it wants to see itself , as viable. Perhaps the anonymous writer sees Silver Hills residents as "others" not entitled to claim what the rest of us take for granted, such as easy access by police and fire departments during emergencies. The writer may also take a less forceful view of dentistry than I.
The Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, was on one of the Sunday morning talk shows today. He said New York went through a spell in the late Seventies when leaders just threw up their hands and basically gave up; grafitti was not cleaned up, streets weren't paved, maintenance was deferred. He said decisions prior to his election, perhaps Giuliani's, recognized that the failure on the part of the city to uphold its end of the bargain, turned people away from the city, something like, "if the city doesn't care about keeping itself up, why should I want to try to set up a business there?" Anticipating the anonymous writer's response presaged by this quote, "Don't you realize we are not Jeffersonville, Louisville, Clarksville or Madison or any other city?", we're not New York. But, human nature is not bounded by geographic lines: people don't want to invest, not money, not time, not hope, in a city that has given up hope in itself. Failure to fix Spring Street Hill would have been a loud and clear statement that we had given up hope.
The second issue, the Baptist Tabernacle, shares many of the same contours of the Spring Street Hill debate. As most people know, the Baptist Tabernacle on Fourth Street was purchased by the city earlier in the year. It has been largely untouched awaiting a clear choice of what its use, beyond the laudible and defensible one of an example of the city's commitment to preservation, should be. Last Sunday's storm ripped the roof, original wood decking, rafters and shingles, completely off the intact brick walls. Reports say the plaster inside and the Dedication Stone are also intact. I have maintained that the building would make an oustanding, if small, City Hall. The second floor would be an unrivaled meeting hall. The first floor would make good office space.
One problem with the building before the storm damage is the fact that it would not fully alleviate the ovedrcrowded conditions facing city offices, which is a major impetus for a move from the current City County Building. The storm also damaged the metal building next door to the Tabernacle, about ten feet distant. If this property were acquired and a new City Hall built on that parcel, the combination of the new building and the restored Baptist Tabernacle would make a fully functional and inspiring building-complex in which to conduct city business. It would also direct the nearly $150,000 in yearly rent toward a city-owned asset. And it would form a clearly defined eastern boundary to the downtown section of the city. This would help transition from the commercial activities downtown to the residential nature of the surrounding streets.
The desire to move out of the City-County building is real and has been expressed by members of the Council and the Administration. These are difficult times and plenty of arguments can be expressed to wait for a better time to make this move. The condition of the Tabernacle itself can be seen as reason to abandon the project. But as a contractor I spoke with on the site of the Tabernacle said, "It's a good building, it just needs a new roof." The building is insured and the best use of the insurance settlement should be to replace the roof and commence the move toward construction of a new City Hall complex incorporating this historic jewel as the meeting room for city government.