During the last three decades, according to a survey by a group of local preservationists, Alexandria has lost nearly 90% of its historic buildings. In large part, this was due to the construction of Interstate 49, which punctured through the center of Alexandria’s inner-city and Downtown. Indeed, the Alexandria Historic Preservation Commission was first established to save the structure that once served as the local train station; the building was subsequently moved and is now the main terminal for the A-TRANS.
In the back halls of the offices of the Alexandria City Council, you’ll see an amazing caricature of the Alexandria-Pineville skyline from the mid-1980s. I have copy of this painting, which I inherited from my father, and it hangs in my living room. I’ve been looking at this for years and years, and a few days ago, for the very first time, I noticed a small but significant detail: The beloved train station was on the back of a flatbed pick-up truck; it was being saved. I couldn’t believe I’d missed this.
Alexandrians have been stupidly obsessed with demolition. We tore down one of the most beautiful streets in the American South, Bolton Avenue, in order to make room for big box retailers that abandoned the place within a decade and moved to an indoor shopping mall on the edge of town. We impetuously placed asphalt over our beautiful brick streets. City Hall was once an architectural jewel, and we demolished it. We bulldozed the middle of the city during the 1980s and 1990s to make room for an Interstate. Even our most treasured Downtown asset, the Hotel Bentley, has been threatened with demolition.
I fully recognize that Alexandria still suffers with blight and disrepair. But I also know this: Alexandria has a terrible record in confronting these challenges. We suck. Don’t get me wrong: We have some incredible historic preservationists, but we, as a community, suck. We lend way too much credibility and authority to the tear-it-down mentality. Stop it. This mentality ruins the fabric of Alexandria; it undermines our authenticity, our heritage, and our history. It’s not simply about preserving our past; it’s about providing for our future.
The Town Talk may have thought they were being clever and civic-minded when asking for a “Wrecking Krewe;” I think they were being reckless themselves. After decades of demolition in Alexandria, maybe, for once in our lives, we can first demand adaptive reuse. It could save a ton of money, after all. We don’t have to destroy our historic buildings. We don’t have to pour asphalt over our historic brick streets. And we don’t have to realize our collective mistake, a decade from now, and spend millions of dollars to stamp that asphalt to make it look like the bricks we covered.