As a student of architectural history at NYU and having lived in New York for the past four years, it is still such a delight to be able to walk around and see such an eclectic mix of buildings in the same neighborhood; to see the old and the new nestled together either in congruent harmony or juxtaposed with blaring contrasts. I observed some Landmarks Preservation Commission public hearings and was pleasantly surprised at the fervor with which preservation societies lobbied to landmark not only iconic buildings but also entire historic districts, an idea that was quite undervalued in the countries where I have spent a significant part of my life. Born in Karachi, Pakistan but raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the two cities have a wealth of historic value yet their treatment of historic buildings is vastly different from that in New York.
There are many reasons for why we should preserve cultural heritage. Historic buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes embody the intentions, assumptions, and lives of those who built or lived or worked in them. They have stories to tell about what the community was and how it became what it is, and that helps us to understand who we are. It can also help a city become more competitive because it is the unique and the historic buildings that give areas more prominence when compared to the homogeneous skyscrapers that dominate the skyline of many cities today. When you see the 19th century former stables on MacDougal Alley, or walk by Gothic Revival churches and the Jefferson Library Market (which used to be a courthouse) standing in pride in between the cleaner and crisper new buildings of Greenwich Village, you find yourself immersed in a whirlwind of great architecture through the years.
Yet, that is not the view that is shared by many. The immediate economic prospects that new constructions might bring an underdeveloped country far outweigh the need to preserve the old. The concept of a blank slate that needs to be filled with the newest and tallest in the world seems to be the prevalent view in the Gulf countries. An old Bedouin neighborhood would be wiped away without a second thought to make way for a massive new mall, home to the latest over-priced international brands that one can also find in any of the other multiple malls in the city.
In Jeddah, for example, there was only one designated historic neighborhood, Balad, or according to the expatriates it was simply Old Jeddah. The historic buildings in Balad once used to be beautiful, but unfortunately much of the district has fallen into disrepair and deterioration, and a lot of the old houses have either been pulled down to make way for new construction, or have simply collapsed out of neglect. There have been some municipal efforts to restore the area, but much more needs to be done before the city loses its historical heritage entirely. There are no non-profit preservation organizations that rally against the new developments or attempt to gather funding for restorations. Not too far from Jeddah, lies the sacred city of Mecca where millions of devout Muslims travel across the world to visit in holy pilgrimage. However, the once religious mosque complex has now been consumed by a Vegas-like essence, filled with high-rise hotels and recreational provisions turning the religious journey into more of a tourist trap.
Historic sites like the prophet’s home was cleared away to expand a luxury hotel that lured in the rich pilgrims. Had there been a stronger preservation movement in Saudi Arabia, Mecca would have been able to retain its historical essence and provide the pilgrims with not only spiritual enlightening but also a sense of time and place, much like Greenwich Village manages to achieve in New York.