Years ago, I saw a patient in the outpatient clinic who came in complaining of a heavy cold. All his symptoms were consistent with a cold, and in fact, we both agreed it was a cold. But he wanted antibiotics — and I could not convince him (he was a junior high school principal) that antibiotics were of no use for the common cold. He left, mad at me, the clinic, and the whole managed health care system — but without antibiotics. My preceptor agreed with me, of course, but being older and wiser, advised me to “document everything.” And she wrote a preceptor note at the bottom of the chart, beginning with: “An unfortunate encounter …”
Today I had an “unfortunate encounter,” different setting, different profession, but it left me feeling about the same: rather inadequate. I am working on a architectural survey of a somewhat run-down neighborhood near the university; as the city and the university have grown, this neighborhood, established in 1920, has evolved from owner-occupied residences to student rentals and commercial conversions. It is, basically, a student ghetto. The powers that be in the city government have finally decided that they should figure out 1) what properties are in this area (the inventory survey), 2) which properties are of historic value (intensive survey), and hopefully with all this information, come up with 3) a development plan that not only makes sense from an economic and preservation point of view, but that also do not impose on private ownership rights.
The “curbside” surveys look a lot like laundry lists: the form is essentially a checklist for things like what sort of roof, what sort of foundation, what type of material cover the exterior walls … things, in other words, that can be seen from the sidewalk without stepping onto private properties. One building we were interested in had been converted into a hair salon almost 40 years ago, and remains one today. The owner noticed me taking pictures a week ago, and asked me what I was doing. I explained, we chatted, and she seemed amenable to having an intensive survey done, which involved digging around for more details with regards to the construction and uses of the house, as well as establishing the chain of ownership and occupancy — but again, these were all information that could be gathered from public records (much of it online). She gave me her phone number, and told me she had records she could share with me, but probably would not be able to get to them until the new year.
Today I saw her again, and she was deeply unhappy with me, my demeanor, my approach, my qualifications, my explanation of the project, the project itself, and of course, the city:
“How long have you been a historian?”
“Five, six years.”
“You have a lot to learn. How long have you lived in the city?”
“You have a lot to learn,” she sneered. “And see, you’re not happy about me asking you these questions.”
Well, actually, I didn’t mind them at all.
“You know, you are very antagonistic. You come in here, and you want to know about changes to the building. Why should you care? It’s not your business, and you are just being a snoop.”
And so it went. Not only was I a crappy historian, but I have not lived in my city long enough to be any sort of historian, even a crappy one. And since I have not lived here long enough, I could not possibly be interested in its history, let alone actually care about what happens to buildings miles away from my own neighborhood. So therefore, I am nothing more than a snoop butting into private business. Moreover, the city is far too late getting into the act of figuring out how to protect her neighborhood — they let the beautiful old frat house be razed, didn’t they?
Well, yes, they did. And perhaps it is too late, but this is a step in the right direction — isn’t it?
Two minutes ago she called me to find out exactly who I was working for. I’m not sure if working on a project for the city is any better than being an actual city employee. But I suppose, ultimately, none of this matters. I assured her again that because of her reservations and objections, we would not be doing the intensive survey of her property. And she muttered, “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter — I don’t care what the project is about, I don’t want to know; I don’t know what the city is doing, I don’t know what’s going on.” And she hung up.
So what have I learned from this “unfortunate” encounter? It was much like the earlier encounter with the patient with the cold. This time, I did my best to address her concerns, I did my best to explain what it is I am trying to do with the survey, and I apologized for whatever I did that offended her — I know there is always room for improvement in how I approach people. I understand that she is afraid the city will impose more rules and regulations on her property, and it is a legitimate fear — although I also know that nothing I do will have any direct impact on what the city chooses to do or not do. Historians know better than to believe that they have any influence at all over decisions that are ultimately economically driven; I am the information gatherer, not the policy maker. I understand she feels that what I do is an invasion of privacy, and the fact that by law all the information I have found are available to the general public is of no consequence to her. She has taken good care of her house — it is in wonderful condition, and she has done a good job of preserving its exterior — so what right does the city have to tell her about historic preservation? I recognize her fears, and I begin to doubt myself, that what I am doing should be done at all. Perhaps it is all an academic exercise, and the whole idea of “historic preservation” is akin to a paternalistic conceit.
So here I am, trying to “let it go” by writing about it. I am still learning, I say to myself. But I am also left with an uncomfortable truth: I had compromised my integrity. With respect to Albert Einstein, I should have remembered that insanity is doing (in this case, saying) the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. The property owner was right about one thing — she really did not want to know what the project is about . . . . and I should have taken her at face value and walked away. I had pandered to a narcissistic woman who thought she had exclusive rights to the city’s past and future — and I had grovelled. It makes me physically sick to think of what I had been willing to do for the job. I Will Not Grovel Again — not for my work, not for the project, not for the city.