Sunday, July 4, 2021

Zoning and the Restoration Drama: Different Perspectives on the Buchner House

On Friday Salem Reporter published a nice history piece on the Buchner House on the corner of Court and 14th, "A firebombing brings a neighborhood together to restore historic home."

It focused on recent history, shortly after neighborhood historians and preservation advocates successfully nominated the Court-Chemeketa Historic District to the National Register in 1987.

Buchner House described in 1987
Historic District National Register Nomination

As a history column, it's also a first-person narrative, which insulates it from many kinds of comment. It's their experience, no matter what anyone else might think. More, it's the experience of one of Salem's great citizens, a person of extraordinary good faith who has undertaken many terrific projects and exemplified a spirit of volunteerism. It deserves a certain deference.

Still, the piece participates in our larger culture and politics, and expresses a kind of conventional wisdom on zoning, historic preservation, and neighborhood character.

As we think about climate and about our housing crisis, the conventional wisdom is not adequate, and we should reconsider some of it. Here are some different angles for approaching the house.

Privileging the Narrative of Single-Family Dwellings

As a type of narrative about neighborhood character and historic preservation, the piece shows some of the ways we overvalue housing for "single families," and ways exclusion is often a feature rather than bug for our single family zoning scheme.

Early in the piece there is an implied three-act restoration drama, a narrative arc in residents and visitors as the house is saved and restored:

  1. House of Hell: People engaging in outright criminal conduct
  2. The Crisis: Firebombing
  3. Restoration of Neighborhood Order and House: People of virtuous character, "single family ownership"

As historically informed reflection, it does not fully situate the story in history and elides the fact that we are today again in the middle of a housing shortage.

From the piece:

Neighbors in the Court/Chemeketa Residential Historic District called the classic bungalow located at the corner of 14th and Court the "House from Hell." Built in 1914 by Walter and Mary Buchner, the once stately home had been converted into apartments following the housing shortage after World War II.

When we moved our 1895 Victorian home into the neighborhood, we were told an absentee landlord had managed to create nine apartments in the house: three on each floor including the basement.

The home became a magnet for all kinds of destructive behaviors including fights, drugs, prostitution and constant noise at all hours....

What to do as we watched our neighbors leaving and trying to sell or rent their homes? We too were wondering if we had made a terrible mistake choosing this area to plant our home. Then, about 3 a.m. on the morning of September 25, 1992, two Molotov cocktail bombs were thrown into the small basement windows of the Buchner House. Fires erupted in the basement. Two people died: Hattie Cohens, 29, a Black woman, and Brian Mock, 45, a gay man. It was declared a hate crime and aggravated murder. Two self-described skinheads went to prison. ...

Then we all pitched in and began a work project that lasted until we handed over the keys to the new single family owners December 1994.

There is a residual subtext of the right kind of people and the wrong kind of people here. The final sale is not just to "new owners," which is a more neutral description, as a more responsive landlord could prevent much of the crime, but to "new single family owners." Even without necessarily intending to, the piece subtly aligns apartments with bad people, and single family housing with virtuous people. (We also forget about the white-collar crime that happens behind closed doors among otherwise respectable neighbors.)

A shabby old house carved up into nine apartments is cheap housing. The people who live in them might in our current housing conditions be living on the street.  Moreover, the neighborhood has a grocery store in walking distance and is close also to downtown employment and to merchants. Saving the house here meant a net reduction in the number of homes. Especially under a climate lens, there are ways that keeping it as "single family" housing is wasteful.

The Historic District is very walkable - via City map

Embedding the story of the firebombing and murders as part of the larger story of the "house from hell" also risks minimizing that as merely one crime among many. Reading the firebombing under the "house from hell" makes it part of an ongoing story of petty crime, and less of a story of murder and of white supremacy.

Finally, there is also the insistence on maintaining home value with a focus on housing as asset class rather than as shelter and human right. The people "pitching in" are saving a nice house, not building new shelter or otherwise helping people on the margins. It's not that restoring a house in not laudable, but that the implied audience here already understands that home value is the preeminent value.

Altogether the frame here is not responsive to our current housing situation, and we should want to think more deeply about the reasons for this.

The Name of the House

In the original Nomination (at top), Walter Buchner is described as a "capitalist" and hops farmer. We don't remember him at all nowadays. There could be more to say about him, more detail, but perhaps not more of enduring historical significance. He was at least for a brief period around World War I a local politician. There have been many members of City Council over the years, and we have not found it necessary or desirable to remember all of them.

March 3rd, 1918 and
July 15th, 1919

Our historic preservation scheme is more about pretty houses and pretty buildings, more about aesthetics, than about remembering important history. Historic preservation is not generally effective as historical memory and telling true stories about our past. As we currently understand the house, it tells us nothing of importance about Walter Buchner or of Salem history associated with him. The crucial fact about it is that it's a pretty, big, and old house.

It is likely, in fact, that the more important history associated with the house, the "period of significance" in the jargon, is from the later period outside of the Historic District's defining era, 1860-1937: The firebombing and an unhappy reminder of our traditions of white supremacy in the later 20th century (and now into the 21st). It is possible that we should rename the house as the Cohens-Mock House or something similar. Even though they did not build it, and lived there for a brief time, at this moment remembering them is far more important than remembering Walter Buchner.

Other Contexts: Reactionary Conservatism and Autoism

There are other, larger historical contexts that should be given more weight and detail. Of course a piece can only be so long, but two omissions or elisions are of interest here.

Most important is the early 1990s context. Lon Mabon, the reactionary Oregon Citizens Alliance, and the 1992 anti-gay campaign for Ballot Measure 9 is missing here.

The Buchner house was not just local news. It made the national news. From the New York Times back in 1992:

Although recent polls indicate that an anti-homosexual measure on the Oregon ballot is headed for defeat, the referendum has produced a sharp increase in recent weeks in harassment and violence, by both sides....

Four young people have been charged with aggravated murder, assault, arson and intimidation in the Sept. 26 firebombing of a basement apartment in Salem. The police say all are white supremacists with links to Oregon's highly visible "skinhead" community.

Hattie Mae Cohens, a 29-year-old black lesbian, and Brian H. Mock, 45, a white homosexual, were killed in the firebombing. Some witnesses have told the Salem police that the firebomb was thrown hours after a relative of one of the victims had a fight with skinheads.

Witnesses have also said that Ms. Cohens, along with several black youths who were staying with her, had been feuding with the skinheads for several weeks.

Probably a DA today would speak differently about motivation for the crime:

"This clearly was not a crime targeted at homosexuals," said Dale Penn, the District Attorney of Marion County, prosecutor of the case. "When all is said and done, the primary motive for the killings will likely not be race or sexual orientation, but both of them played a role."

As the periodic street fighting and attacks on the Oregon State Capitol and the Nation's Capitol attest, these are hardly academic matters and remain intensely relevant today.

A different subtext is our road expansion and autoism. The reason the author had an "1895 Victorian home" to move and a neighborhood to select for "planting" it, was because of the Mission Street Overpass. (See more here and photo credit with links.)

The house faced demolition

If they hadn't stepped in to move the house, ODOT and the City were fine with demolishing a functional house, prioritizing the movement of cars over housing.

The tension between accommodations for cars and accommodations for people also is a debate we are still having.

The piece in the Reporter is a modern barn-raising, a story of neighborliness and community and DIY spirit. That should be celebrated. 

But there are also exclusionary subtexts that undermine its central point about community.

As we think about zoning in Our Salem, about historic preservation, about our housing shortage and people camping on the streets and in parks, about climate, and about the current resurgence of white supremacist street gangs, the way we narrate and frame on saving the Buchner house, and on other "stately homes," deserves more thought and critique. If we remain bound by these narratives, we will not make very much progress on climate, on housing, and on homelessness.

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