Recently I’ve received many emails about a “celebration” of historic preservation in Delaware. From my perspective the hypocrisy of this is breathtaking.
It can be said that there are three broad categories of “resources” needing preservation. Natural resources such as air, water, forests, plants and animals. Cultural resources, meaning objects or materials or works created by humans. These are buildings, roads and other “infrastructure,” farms, villages, stations on the underground railroad, books, scrolls, music, and so on. And human resources, meaning ourselves, people.
All are interdependent. Delaware abuses them all.
People cannot thrive without clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and uncontaminated food to eat. Cultures cannot progress without building on the past, without people having some sense of where they came from and where they think they are going. Individuals and families can’t thrive without basic social, economic, and health care needs being met. These needs include the ability to participate meaningfully in the political decisions that they have to live with, access to health care, freedom from violence…..
From Green Delaware‘s point of view, these factors are interdependent. All our resources need advocacy and protection. None can really stand alone. For example, without democracy, and meaningful controls on corporate power, we can’t protect our environment.
From that point of view it made sense to take on the Stewart House in Port Penn, DE, dating to approximately 1755. After all, we needed a place to live and work. It was centrally located. It was the most historic house in the community, utterly dilapidated and threatened with demolition by it’s owners. The early history is not well known. There is a story of a cannonball embedded in this walls from a bombardment of Port Penn by the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. I have never found one.
We bought it, with some assistance, and started work. One of our first visitors looked around and said something like “You must be crazy.” Well, yes ,but not entirely for the reasons he had in mind. The house was surrounded by rotting porches, a decayed barn in the yard, had no usable plumbing or electricity, the previous owners had buried their garbage in the yard. and so on. All of that we could cope with. Not easily, of course, or quickly.
Stewart House–looking a lot better but having a long way to go……
Historic preservation is difficult and burdensome. It costs far more than building new. It involves exposure to lead, asbestos, dust, molds, and other health threats. it involves either hundreds of thousands of dollars, or thousands of hours of “sweat equity,” or some combination thereof. We knew that going in. At least, we knew it in the abstract.
But there was so much we didn’t know, or hadn’t realized.
That there would be no support, but infinite harassment, from officials. (This is not true of local residents, who have mostly been very helpful and supportive.)
We should have realized that Green Delaware, as an activist organization, would be disliked, if not hated, by the sorts of people–mostly wealthy and politically reactionary–who associate themselves with “historic preservation.
Thus, “Preservation Delaware,” (now gone and unlamented) occupied itself trying to get public funds for the preservation of a DuPont family mansion in Wilmington, but circulated it’s hostility to Alan Muller and Green Delaware. These are people who would have been after Thomas Garrett with pitchforks. Who would, in their day, have refused to ratify the 13th amendment. Who would give an award to Pete DuPont. (Of course, not everybody involved in historic preservation fits this mold.)
Thus “Delaware Wildlands,” supposedly a preservation organization, radiated hostility towards us but itself demolished a house of similar age in Port Penn, with the permission and approval of New Castle County.
At first, we seemed to have a nice relationship with some agencies. The archeology operation in the DNREC came various times, at out invitation, to dig in the yard and further clarify the history of the property. We never heard from them again once New Castle County began harassing us.
The Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, seems, at this point, to be staffed with actual haters, who *like* to connive with New Castle County to make life more difficult for people with historic properties. Assistance to ordinary people attempting preservation? Not on the agenda!
Always, always, it seems to come down to New Castle County. Notoriously corrupt, the servant of development interests, the County regards civic and environmental activists as the enemy. This, fundamentally, is what we should have anticipated and did not. That any historic property is gong to have lots of “property maintenance code” violations and these could be used as a vehicle for harassment. Never mind that the Stewart House owners were never cited during the decades that the property was falling to pieces and the property covered with debris and actual garbage.
Did you know that it is a criminal offense to have a cracked windowpane or loose caulk? Did you know that it is a criminal offense for a visitor to park on your unpaved driveway? Neither did I. I do now, and have a criminal rap sheet pages long, courtesy of New Castle County, that might make life harder on some other context. Not to mention thousands of dollars in fines.
New Castle County, in it’s zeal to harass residents, was not happy that the state Justice of the Peace Courts did not invariably convict. Sometimes the magistrates (judges) listened to the defendants. This needed to be corrected. So, the County arranged a trumped-up investigation of the JP courts by the Delaware legislature. (Apparently the original impetus was a house covered with ivy. Apparently the local councilman, Bob Weiner, does not like ivy.) In any case the political pressure of the bogus investigation, courtesy of long-gone Representative Bob Valihura, created what the County wanted: a situation in which people charged by New Castle County were automatically convicted and fined according to the dictates of the County. Eternal dishonor to Chief Magistrate Alan Davis and Gov. Jack Markell for going along with this. (Unlike traffic cases, county code cases cannot be transferred to a “real” court.)
(For those who might think I am just whining about my own problems, I say: I have sat in the courtrooms and lobbies, and seen the parade of victims of “code enforcement,” mostly, from appearances, elderly and lower income people having difficulties in maintaining their properties. The investigating legislators never visited, although I challenged them to do so.)
OK, is that bad enough? Not for New Castle County, which got the legislature to authorize a system where, instead of going to court, the County simply fines people administratively, with no recourse, and the County gets to keep the fines. This is what the Tom Gordon administration is doing to me now.
One might wonder also: Why the Delaware General Assembly behaves as a subsidiary of New Castle County, when state law clearly says the counties are subordinate to the state. This might shed some light: It is common for the spouses and children of leading state legislators to have jobs with the County.
So, New Castle County, and complicit state officials, where handed a chance to get back at Green Delaware. They made it impossible not only to complete the fixing-up of the Stewart house, but for me even to live in Delaware.
What do I want the County to do: Expunge my criminal charges. Return my fines. Stop the “administrative” harassment. Apologize. Be helpful rather than punitive. Fat chance.
The real story: demolition
Lets close with another example of the true story of historic preservation in Delaware, from the Middletown Transcript:
Some Middletown-area residents pose for a photo in front of the 166-year-old Summerton mansion at a picnic on Saturday. The property will be demolished to make room for a new Royal Farms [convenience store] later this year. Some of the people pictured are: Nicole Squitiere, Lisa Johannsen, Roxane Ferguson, Anna Wooleyhan and Edith Carrol. (These last two are sisters who lived in the mansion with their family from 1942 to 1948).
]Demolition approved by New Castle County] Middletown Transcript May 4, 2016.
For those who might encounter this piece without knowing the context, a little background on New Castle County:
New Castle County has a dictatorial system of government, an elected County Executive whose power is not balanced by the weak and servile County Council.
When our harassment began the County Executive was Tom Gordon, formerly the Chief of the County Police. In 2004, Gordon and his chief aide were indicted by a Federal grand jury:
- “On May 27, 2004, the grand jury returned a 47-page, 11-count Indictment charging the defendants Gordon and Freebery with RICO conspiracy, substantive RICO, and various related mail and wire fraud counts; and charging the defendant Janet Smith with obstructing justice. The defendant Gordon was then the elected County Executive of New Castle County, and the defendant Freebery was his Chief Administrative Officer (“CAO”). The defendant Smith was an “executive assistant.” The Indictment was the culmination of an 18-month federal investigation into the operations of the government of New Castle County, Delaware.”
Gordon managed to dodge the charges, with the aid of a Philadelphia judge who seemed to find the alleged offenses minor compared to what he was used to in Pennsylvania.
Gordon was re-elected as County Executive in 2012 by the good and wise people of New Castle County. He hasn’t changed. For example:
- “New Castle County Executive Thomas P. Gordon is denying that a county employee abused his power by improperly accessing a confidential list of government housing assistance recipients for political purposes, in an unraveling controversy that involves accusations of a cover-up motivated by cronyism.”
All considered, it’s better to be in Minnesota, but I don’t think it’s better for Delaware to drive independent-minded people out.
Anyone want to buy an old house?
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