Guest post: A funny thing happened on the way to downtown…

A funny thing happened on the way to downtown…

Amid any cloud of dust, there can be confusion.

Let’s take a little trip back into recent history:

There was once this freight house on 4th street in Fort Wayne.

A demolition permit was acquired in late April two weeks after the property owners were approached with a new development idea that was surfacing in the city and getting a lot of buzz. Strangely, they would later claim that the decision to demolish had come months prior and that the public outcry that would soon erupt was perplexing.

Community protests spoke out against the demolition, the owners decided to delay it and consider donating the land and building to the city, though they believed the land to be more valuable without the freight house and that it could “collapse into Clinton Street” at any moment. Additionally, they placed absolutely no “historic value” on the property or the building, citing that “nothing ever happened there.”

In the News Sentinel on Saturday May 29, 2010, Dan Rifkin, one of the owners, is quoted:

“Rifkin…also plans to meet with officials to discuss whether the city would be willing to accept the depot as a donation – along with the expense, liability and pressure from preservationists that would come with it.

“The partners have been wondering what could change the outcome in a way that would be acceptable to everybody,” said Rifkin, whose family owned the OmniSource Corp., which occupied the 28-acre site for many years. “We’ve been part of this city for 70 years, and we’re not interested in doing anything detrimental to Fort Wayne.”

As far as anyone knew on Monday, October 11th those negotiations were still productive and ongoing.

Additionally, amid their public statements, the owners, among other gems showing their insight into the community, publicly wonder where all these people where ten years ago with their ideas before the building got into such disrepair.

Well, ah, gee sir it was your scrap yard ten years ago.

June – the Historic Preservation Commission decides not to pursue a special designation for the property that would immediately end the threat of demolition due to Rifkin’s ongoing negotiations with the city. Architecture and Community Heritage (ARCH) offers to do an independent engineering study at no cost to the owners to confirm the integrity of the structure, as the station as long been on its “endangered” list. Amid these negotiations, several organizations and individuals who have been active with the freight house since before it ended up in the news are continuing to work with the city as well. Everyone believes the outcome will be amendable to all.

To keep the issue current, I author a few whimsically worded editorials for both city newspapers, citing that though the Rifkins considered the building to be a site where nothing ever happened, I wrote heavily on what did happen on that corner every day for for decades: The coal to power the city was delivered here, the circus train was unloaded, the railroad that operated the freight house and adjacent railroad yard created the phrase “red carpet treatment” as we know it today because their service was that refined. The truth inherent in the freight house signaled that we were once part of an expansive, connected, industrious infrastructure that made and did great things. The list of social history lessons and of the day-to-day history we all make in our communities goes on and on.

Suffice to say, it was Fort Wayne that happened there.

August – I send a letter to Dan Rifkin to further underscore that I am actively engaged in working with the city and though the proposal of mine is still conceptual, I am nearing completion on a business and development plan that will provide the city with some ideas that show the potential of the idea and that I will make this available to him upon completion.

September – the Rifkin’s receive a Neighborhood Code notice that the building must be sealed, as a door is found open by the police department.

October 11 – demolition begins in the very early morning; city development offices are notified by property owners later on, the owners issue a press release proclaiming it was the city’s own code enforcement that spurred on the demolition and that no interested group or party has stepped forward or communicated with the owners any ideas, plans or offers.

Sorry, Mr. Rifkin. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t simultaneously offer the property for donation and complain at the presumed lack of offers, deny preservationists the ability to assess the structural integrity of the building, and tell the press you haven’t heard from any of them. You can’t be involved in negotiations to save the building and give the land over, make statements about saving parts of the building in the event things don’t work out, and then hair trigger a demolition without warning and without consideration for your own public promises.

October 12 – all of the interested groups and individuals who have been involved in the talks now stand around in disbelief, kicking bricks.

October 13 – after recovering with an endless supply of hot chocolate, I continue putting the finishing touches on the conceptual plan that for the last ten months has been called the best development idea for the property that anyone has seen.

And what has the city gained? Interestingly, we’ve made the Chicago Tribune and Indianapolis Star, though not for anything worthwhile, and the stories printed there lean heavily on the statement made by the owners for their facts. Many people say this is par for the course for Fort Wayne. I find the sentiment inexcusable. “This is where optimism gets you,” I saw one person write.

Good ideas take time and can’t be rushed; bad ideas take seconds. This little soap opera has clearly defined for me the people both in the city offices and the community who want nothing but absolute, enriching good for the community – people that want to see, make, and be a part of great things. People who aren’t just concerned about their own backyard, who look beyond their sidewalks to see a larger place worth elevating. Friends whose actions are meant to defy those who ask “why would anyone want to stay in Fort Wayne?”

People need to know that we’re not a bunch of “do-nothings.” People need to see the brazen and calculated superficiality that’s being advertised here by those who claim to want the best for the city. To assume that we did nothing only underscores the fallacy that Fort Wayne doesn’t care or that the city is populated with folks who prefer only to make a lot of noise and then happily return to our couches at the end of the day.

I don’t own a couch.

Amid a cloud of dust and soot, that’s something worth working for. Many significant buildings saved in Fort Wayne, including Baker Street Station, were once eyesores, neglected, underutilized, vandalized, and brimming with potential. It’s easy for people to not care what is taken when you have no idea what’s been lost before, as evidenced by the staggering number of arm-chair quarterbacks out there who have opined gems like “the inside was filled with graffiti” as a qualifier for demolition.

There is obviously more to this than just a building. We are at a time when our collective desire for a sense of self is searching for ways to cultivate our quality of life. The battle-cum-negotiation to save this little building represents a larger campaign to preserve not just structures, but personality. To say “hands off our buildings” may sound like an pandering cry of desperation, but it really means hands off our neighborhoods and social history; two things no longer shared – or likely ever enjoyed – by those who think erasing texture to make a clean slate promise progress and riches.

A building can be more than brick and mortar. They can hold intangibles like civic pride, character, and identity.

For people with short sight, such things must be hard to fathom.

Webmaster’s note: Special thanks to Kelly, who has become a solid friend over the last few years, not only for expressing so eloquently what sums up all of our thoughts, but for allowing it to be reprinted here.  But an even bigger thanks for being an advocate for this little corner of Fort Wayne that is now gone.

All of those emails, plans, hours spent dreaming will not be for nought, Kelly.  Keep fighting for the dream!  It can still work without this building and in spite of an indifferent property owner, indifferent not only to the dreams of a railroader with a conceptual plan that was gaining momentum, but a community at large.  It can still happen!

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