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Sept. 11 reaffirms trust's mission to 'save history'

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 21, 2001

When the catastrophic events of Sept. 11 occurred, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, found himself in Chicago. His first instinct, he says, was to get back to the trust's offices in Washington, D.C., in order to urge people to "keep on doing what they were doing."

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Since 1949, when the trust began, it has grown into the largest nonprofit preservation organization in the United States, with approximately 270,000 members. It provides leadership, education, and advocacy to save America's diverse historic places and to revitalize communities.

This work, Mr. Moe is convinced, has taken on greater-than-ever relevance in recent months. Preservationists, he believes, play an important role in protecting the cherished places and symbols that terrorists realize are the glue of American society.

"Think for a moment about where the blows fell on Sept. 11," he said in addressing the recent National Preservation Conference in Providence, R.I. "Not on missile bases or factories or power plants or shipyards. No, the targets were people and buildings that symbolize America's military and economic strength."

Moe, a Minnesotan who was chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and a member of the Carter White House senior staff, says America's cherished places "surround, support, and illuminate almost every aspect of our lives," while embodying Americans' fundamental values.

Many of these - from neighborhood schools and town squares to barns and farmland - are on the trust's preservation agenda.

"If we're going to meet the challenge of living in a changed world," he says, "it is imperative that we pledge our best efforts to recognizing and safeguarding the places that help give us a sense of community."

Courthouses, he points out, embody a commitment to the rule of law; state capitols and city halls point to the grandeur and stability of democratic government; and Main Streets all around the country are living symbols of the virtues of hard work and free enterprise.

Such places, Moe asserts, are especially needed by a nation at war for their ability to teach, enrich, inspire, and, in the words of one historian, to cultivate a communal sense that is "the very backbone of human dignity."

The World Trade Center towers, Moe says, were not historic, or greatly admired architecturally. And their loss isn't likely to have the same catalytic effect on the preservation movement as tearing down New York's beloved Penn Station did in 1963.

Still, he believes, the loss of the towers will "reaffirm" the preservation movement's mission and help people focus on what is really important in cities, communities, and neighborhoods.

The National Trust is lending a hand in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks by participating in a public- and private-sector alliance that is assessing damage to historic buildings in lower Manhattan in order to deal with preservation issues.

While attending the National Preservation Conference, Moe sat down with the Monitor to discuss the issues surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as preservation efforts generally. Some of that exchange follows:

How will the terrorist attacks affect the growing momentum of the back-to-city movement?

In the first few days after the attacks, there were reports that people might want to leave New York, leave Washington, because they were understandably scared about what might happen. Some people with younger children have picked up and moved. I think those concerns have abated somewhat, however. The numbers are not huge yet in the back-to-city movement, but the trends are very definitely in that direction. I think that will continue because people are attracted to urban life.... They like the notion of living in a large urban community in which they can walk to work and not have to fight traffic [and] sprawl....

In what way was it evident that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had an impact on public actions?

One thing immediately apparent after the attack was that people went to national parks. Attendance [at other vacation destinations] dropped, but people went to national parks for solace, for comfort, and maybe security. Historic sites of many different kinds, and natural sites, bring people back to places that are special.

Are preservationists sometimes typecast as building huggers?