Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
In early July four of the Thamms – two of us from Fernandina and son Erik with his wife Jackie from Manassas, Virginia – set out on a long-planned adventure to sail from Budapest to Amsterdam. Thanks to Debbie Kellogg of The Travel Agency, we booked the right cruise at the right time, enjoying everything the rivers and surrounding countryside could offer during a patch of rain-free weather. Not to mention the fabulous ship and our companionable fellow travelers.
Although the trip left us with wonderful memories, it also left us with uneasy feelings when we compared our towns with European towns. Many ship passengers asked unsettling questions of each other, like: “Why do small towns in Europe look so well maintained in comparison with many small towns in America?” and “Do Europeans enjoy their cities more than Americans do?” and “Do Americans feel a sense of responsibility to their communities writ large, or does pursuit of individual happiness and/or wealth outweigh the importance of the communities in which we Americans live?”
While we traversed 68 locks on our journey, three major rivers and many smaller ones, we saw no billboards. But we did see bike paths, hiking trails and probably what Americans would regard as “primitive” campgrounds: no concrete or black- topped camper pads but clusters of small tents or small camper trailers known as caravans in Europe. Except for industrial sections of the rivers, people swam, kayaked, waterskied and fished. Powerboats were small by American standards. The plentiful birds and waterfowl, including families of ducks and regal swans, even in the industrial areas, co-existed with sometimes heavy river traffic.
But for me the most amazing aspect of the river scene was NO TRASH. No trash in the water, no trash hanging from the trees recently inundated by historical floods, and no trash on the riverbanks. And apparently no need to put up “No Dumping” signs to further litter the landscape. Do major American waterways receive the same respect from our citizens?
Barely a month ago, the picture-postcard historic center of the city of Passau looked more like Venice than a quaint, Bavarian town. Located at the confluence of three rivers – Danube, Inn and Ilz – Passau exceeded its 500-year flood mark, thanks to torrential rains and melting snows. Our local guide told us that 3,000 university students, who had been given the week off from classes because of the floods, chose to stay in Passau to help with the cleanup. She said that everyone knows that Passau depends on tourist traffic and that the entire town worked together to get back on its feet as soon as possible so that local businesses would remain open and tourists could continue to visit. The cleanup was not easy: a thick layer of mud coated roadways and buildings, doing more damage than the actual floodwaters.
But the people came together and did it, combining care for their fellow citizens and hometown pride with the practical consideration of needing to get back to work. Visiting in early July, we would never have known that such a disaster had befallen the town, but for still fresh high water marks on buildings, still closed parking garages and the pronounced odor of wet basements that pervaded certain neighborhoods. Shops and restaurants were once more open for business, streets and sidewalks were clear of mud and debris, seasonal flowers overflowed public and private flower boxes. Would Fernandina’s citizens likewise work together to help the historic part of the town recover from a disaster, even if they had no personal interest in that part of the city?
As we traveled through 5 European countries, we saw how joggers, hikers, bicyclists and people just out for a stroll made regular use of the abundant trails, paths and pedestrian malls not just along the rivers but in their towns, too. They pushed buggies and strollers, grabbed an ice cream, and often sat on park benches chatting with friends or eating a sidewalk lunch.
Young people, kids, the elderly, the disabled – all seemed to be able to get along together in the same spaces. Sometimes they watched street performers, along with the tourists. Sometimes they probably just watched the tourists, marveling at our girth and the wonders of polyester stretch fabric. They looked happy and engaged with each other and their surroundings. Do we Fernandinians look toward our public spaces as destinations or just places we need to get through on our way to some other place?
You don’t need to explain the importance of historic preservation to Europeans. Their history is part of their daily existence; the buildings, monuments and city layouts are viewed with pride as opposed to obstacles to development. The genius of the people is in finding ways to lead modern lives without sacrificing their spectacular architectural history. Buildings constructed long before indoor plumbing or electricity continue their useful lives. Parking garages are carefully put underground or placed in areas that do not spoil the sense of place or time of the community. And yet new construction is a constant, with cranes ever present building modern structures that harmonize with older ones and cleaning or painting older ones so that they look clean, protected and valued by their citizens. Public investments in art and open spaces attract both residents and tourists.
Do Fernandina residents believe that there is any value to them or the future in preserving the architectural heritage so important to understanding the dreams and plans of the folks who founded our city?
Returning to Fernandina Beach was a bit of a culture shock. As we drove home from the airport we contrasted the appearance of 8th Street with the areas we had visited. We saw that even more paint had peeled from the Historic Post Office Building on Centre Street. The Front Street area seemed to look more like Third World landscape than ever.
We also learned that our historic downtown Post Office building will close on August 9. In a public hearing held a couple of years ago with USPS officials, the main concerns of participating citizens centered on service issues, like the future of existing boxes and the numbering system, as opposed to preservation and use of the building. Discussions held at that time resulted in no clear consensus on the way forward for this structure. Some people said, “Watch. This is just a scare tactic. The Postal Service will never close that building.” Wrong. Others said, “Not our problem. Let the Postal Service fix it up.” At least one individual during that time said, “Tear it down. I live at the beach and I never go there.”
The future of the Post Office building could be the topic that forces us as a community to grapple with that thorny, pointy-headed concept called “vision.” What do we, all of us, see as the future of Fernandina Beach? Do we have pride in our city and its history and wish to build on that? Or is our only interest in cutting public expenditures in hopes that private citizens and/or granting agencies will invest money where we are not willing to do so?
I care about our city. I hope you do, too. And I hope that our community can come together to convince city commissioners that we need leadership and a plan to deal with the Post Office Building before it is too late. If we as a community of old-timers and newcomers, working folks and retirees, residents of the beaches, the Southside, and the historic districts can put aside our differences to save a cornerstone of our downtown, it will speak volumes about our character, our respect for those who came before us and reinforce the cherished notion shared by many that Fernandina has a small, hometown feel about it.
If small towns and cities in Central Europe can manage to keep their towns vibrant and modern without forsaking their history, can’t we do the same?
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.
July 25, 2013 6:57 a.m.