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Jane Ahlin, Published November 23 2013

Ahlin: Historic neighborhoods important to all in Fargo

The Hawthorne neighborhood is feeling threatened – not by urban blight; rather, it’s insidious infill. We believe there are home buyers out there to resurrect and rehab old homes, even if 75- or 100-year histories have taken a toll on those homes. (Fargo does sit on clay, folks.) The menacing trend, however, is for demolishing homes.

So here’s the question that was posed to the Historic Preservation Committee, a question really intended for all city governing bodies – zoning, planning and City Commission: When does the trend for tearing down old homes and replacing them with brand-new structures turn a historic neighborhood into something else entirely?

In this case, why is the city of Fargo suddenly so enthusiastic about demolishing homes along Eighth Street South? Be clear, these are not condemned houses; they are simply houses that need lots of rehab. Also, why do the zoning and planning folks appear more eager to satisfy the desires of people building brand-new homes in old neighborhoods than they are about helping current residents keep old homes livable and lovely?

A few years ago, a home was built two blocks north of us on the west side of Eighth Street where one had been razed. Nobody was thrilled to see a house go down, but at least the replacement was small, centered on the lot, and not obtrusive. This year, a home is being built where one was demolished on the west side of the street one block north of us. It is not centered and is way too big for the lot, covering probably 85 percent with house, attached garage and (likely paved) driveway. Now a house on the west side of Eighth Street – directly across from us – is scheduled for demolition and a request is in the works for yet another house to be demolished farther south on Eighth Street. Suddenly, our area is a hot spot. Tear down a house that shows its age and build something new: never mind the loss of history and neighborhood integrity.

A different house – still on Eighth Street but on our side of the block and across the avenue from us to the north – puts the lie to this demolition-first attitude. This particular house probably is as old as ours (about 100 years) but was cared for only sporadically and suffered decades of hard use and abuse. At one point owned by a slumlord (a woman … slumlady?), it was rented by a group of guys who kept an upstairs window open so their dog could go out onto the porch roof while they were away at school or work. Garbage (beer cans) littered their lot and our boulevard, and our driveway often was blocked when they had raucous parties.

Another time, a family renting the place skipped town, leaving their animals locked inside where they died. The slumlady then promised another family she would waive a down payment and sell the house to them at a reduced price if they cleaned up the place. Too late, they discovered there were liens on the property. Finally, a man with a good reputation for fixing up houses was able to buy it. He put I-beams in the basement to shore up the foundation along with many other structural repairs. A nice man bought from him and lived there with his partner. It has been lovely ever since.

Many times, that house could have been condemned, or if not condemned, certainly by today’s criteria, torn down. But it was fixed up and was affordable for the young man who recently bought it. He loves it and works on it all the time.

Not everyone wants to live in an old home because old homes are a pain in the pocketbook. And that is as it should be. For those of us who love them, however, they are historically important pains in the pocketbook. For Fargo, the worth – and magic – of old neighborhoods lies in architectural heritage that includes diversity in design and size, but their strength comes from the community that values and protects them.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.