Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Historical Context and Planning - Waterville Maine's South End Neighborhood

What does it mean to be either a  historically recognized or a historically significant place in the context of planning; especially when that place is no longer tied to the historical conditions that created it? Waterville Maine's, South End Neighborhood is just the sort of place where the deindustrialization experienced in the Post-World War II era has left a place behind.

I wrote a paper for a class on the Waterville South End Neighborhood, and in that paper I spent a some amount of time discussing the historical significance of the neighborhood and why it is where it is, what happened to it, and how does that shape it for the future. The South End owes much to it's water powered industrial past, but how much of that past will play into the present? In terms of planning for a future where energy is much more expensive, a place created before the advent of the automobile will be poised to do well in that future. The dense working class neighborhood of Waterville's South End may be considered a model for future development, as well as a place for emphasizing redevelopment in an energy limited future. The easily walkable streets characterized by the dense arrangement of the built environment may once again prosper at the intersection of resource limitations (namely petroleum) and climate change.

The adjacent Kennebec River once played a significant role in powering the industrial fortunes of Waterville and its cross river neighbor, Winslow. Perhaps the already damned rivers will once again be responsible for generating much of the power needs for the citizens, industrial processes, and fortunes of these towns again. At one time the Hathaway Shirt Factory was at the heart of Waterville's economic might. Times changed of course as firms focused more emphasis on labor costs as the criteria for profitability. This ultimately led to the deindustrialization of the region, and much of the United States as firms seek every economic advantage they can to remain competitive in a global market. Places that succeed in adapting to a changing economic landscape will be places that succeed. Places that don't will suffer, and ultimately wither away. It is my hope that Waterville, and especially the much beleaguered South End Neighborhood will adapt, and thrive once again. This will involve creative reuse of existing infrastructure, wise use of resources, and a community effort to imagine a place that can roll with the punches and adapt to a rapidly evolving landscape.

Hathaway Creative Center Along the Kennebec River, once was at the heart of Waterville's industrial past, now looks forward to being a part of its economic future.

Below is a snippet from that paper regarding the historical context. I wish I had spoken more to the role that the urban design of the late 19th century would play in an energy limited world. Alas I didn't but here is what I wrote:

The Waterville South End Neighborhood was historically and still is the modest working class neighborhood of Waterville. The South End was originally home to French Canadian families that came to the area to work in the mills and factories located along the Kennebec and Messolanskee waterways. These waterways were originally integral to providing these burgeoning industries of the early industrial period with mechanical power, which eventually became electrical power, both allowing the region to prosper. These mills and factories focused on numerous industrial sectors important to Maine’s economy at the time, but had the strongest relationship to locally sourced wood harvests, abundant throughout the state of Maine. The locational advantage provided by a steady supply of power, close proximity to forestry resources, and a waterway and its’ abutting flat railroad grade along that waterway, allowed the region and Waterville to prosper greatly in the early American industrial landscape. The South End Neighborhood as a result, prospered as well.
The homes in the South End Neighborhood are modest in nature and reflect the working class roots of the community. The spatial layout of the neighborhood reflects the era in which it was built, harkening back to the days before the automobile. The neighborhood was built with a considerably dense layout, and that density is currently reflected in the housing stock seen today. Many of these closely spaced houses have been neglected in recent times, which paint a telling picture of the change in fortunes for the residents of the neighborhood. While the economic fortunes for Waterville have fluctuated throughout the last 50 years, the South End Neighborhood’s fortunes have been in a steady decline. The Town of Waterville is home to two colleges, three regional medical centers, and serves as a regional hub for retailing. This service sector economy has been largely shielded from the Post-World War II deindustrialization experienced in the United States. However, the South End Neighborhood, whose residents were largely dependent on the manufacturing sector for wage labor, saw their stable lower-middle class working lifestyles decline rapidly, as manufacturing companies sought new locational advantages, in cheap labor. No longer was the proximity to raw materials and water powered locations key components to profitability. With the introduction of cheaper fossil fuel based power, and along with that cheap transportation, products could be manufactured anywhere in the world, with inexpensive labor being the key to profitability for many firms focused on labor intensive manufacturing. These changes hit the Waterville South End Neighborhood especially hard.
As people adapted to these changing economic trends, many residents sought opportunities elsewhere. The strong social fabric that once bound the neighborhood together was coming unraveled. This resulted in a severe decline in the condition of housing and an uptick in crime that has further eroded the community. However, fortunes have a tendency to change and in the South End Neighborhood, they have been slowly changing for the better.
The neighborhood has a strong group of concerned citizens who are playing a key role in the revival of the neighborhood. They have formed the South End Neighborhood Association (SENA), and have been active agents of change in the neighborhood. The neighborhood has also seen a resurgence in community organizations that have based their operations in the South End, taking advantage of commercial and institutional space that was vacated during the neighborhoods decline. These will play a key role in helping to shape the changes that the neighborhood needs in order to be prosperous again.   

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