Monday, May 19, 2008

May We Have the Envelope, Please?

The National Trust’s 2008 list of Most Endangered Places is out. This annual rite gathers historians, naturalists, and architects in nail-biting suspense. What monuments to our heritage are closest to being razed, paved, or mutilated? Which historical sites, architectural treasures, cultural resources, and natural landscapes should we visit now, before they vanish forever?

Among this year's lucky winners I found the spectacularly elegant Boyd's Theater in Center City Philadelphia. It's an eighty-year old movie queen, the architectural equivalent of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. It was the first of the great Art Deco theaters, and it is the last movie palace in Philadelphia.

The Boyd used to be the SamEric, which closed in 2002, and I have very fond memories of its spacious auditorium and fine acoustics. The Boyd was convenient--a block from Rittenhouse Square, close to bookstores, restaurants, and transit. Nearby was a small State Store where, one sultry night, my date and I picked up a flask of Old Granddad to smuggle into the theater. The film was noir, the stars were Nicholson and Lange, and between the bourbon-fortified fountain Cokes and the Art Deco ambiance, the movie looked wonderful. No big-screen TV can do what the Boyd did so well.

Another old friend made the list. The entire California state park system.

The state park system is falling apart. There's no money for maintenance, and hasn't been for years. I was appalled when I first went to a California park and was charged an admission fee, but taxes won't cover operating costs. And this is a tragedy.

California is one of the richest states by any measure and one of the top economies in the world. It hosts the insanely lucrative high tech and entertainment industries as well as its vast and productive agricultural sector. From wine to lettuce, carrots to cotton, California produces more. Think Wisconsin is the dairy state? Think again. We're number one. And there are plenty of other industries -- fishing, manufacturing, lumber, tourism. The real estate is some of the most expensive in the world. And, at least in Silicon Valley, you can meet millionaires and billionaires any time you go to Fry's computer store.

The parks preserve wild lands, protect redwoods, open history to visitors. They save the smaller patches of the great historic redwoods and joshua trees and offer sanctuary to birds from egrets to condors. Once you've seen the bleakly indifferent peaks of the Sierras, the passes deep in snow, the brutally sheer mountainsides, you gain a new comprehension of the courage and fortitude of the people who crossed them in wooden wagons -- or who died on the frozen heights above the lushly blooming valleys.

The parks provide recreation and education and green space. In the state that boasts Big Sur, Death Valley, Yosemite, and the Avenue of the Giants, the state parks shelter the smaller local spaces where people can picnic, camp, hike, watch birds and wildlife, or frolic with their dogs. One of the things that makes the crowding of the East Bay endurable to me is the presence of parks, acres of countryside I can visit easily and always see on the horizon. They keep our spirits going.

This state can afford to preserve and share its magnificent natural resources and historic heritage. If California is punished by God with a disaster, it won't be for recognizing love and commitment between same-sex partners. It will be for allowing greed to destroy our endowment of history, landscape, and human potential.

Link to list from Still a Ways Away.

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