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Fightin' words

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My super-Southern grandmother, who liked the Miami Dolphins, Marlboro Reds, and a drink or three, had a term she liked to use--"burnt up"--when she was some kinda upset. Her green eyes would flash, her lips would quiver, she'd swear a bit more, and all us grandkids would be truly afraid of her for about five minutes--until she finished burning up in her wooly recliner and became lovely, benign Grandma again.

Last week, sitting at a "certificate of appropriateness" hearing regarding Peace College's proposed changes to 702 N. Blount St. I was channeling Grandma: I was burnt up something awful.

My husband and I moved to Pace Street two years ago from Washington, D.C., and thought, "Surely it's a good thing to be this close to a historic college."

However, neighbors soon told us about a historically significant structure that Peace College purchased on Blount Street years ago, which the college neglected and eventually demolished. Recently, Peace tried unsuccessfully to squeeze a parking lot between five historic homes on the empty lot that now, after a small victory, stares at passersby like a gap in an old smile--and does a helluva job breeding mosquitoes.

Now, the Peace administration plans to assault the grand old house at 702 N. Blount, which has never seen a commercial day in its century. It has endured rough and tumble renters, who spent their last month without running water and left human and dog excrement--and an impressive number of beer cans--littering the halls.

When the renters skipped town, we hoped for a restoration, and offered to buy the place. Unfortunately, we learned of a restoration plan as charming as a rusted car propped up on cinderblocks, surrounded by a thousand plastic pink flamingos. Peace College will turn the backyard into a parking lot, remove historically significant windows in the rear of the house, and throw on a steel fire escape for good measure. It's a brute move straight out of a 1970s I-don't-care-about-my-neighbors-or-the-historic-integrity-of-the-community playbook, a publication I imagine Peace College secretly hawking under a pseudonym on Amazon.com.

Preservationists--professional and occasional--tend to get our feelings hurt when people go about mucking up old houses in an insensitive way. This old house was a place for families--it gave them a place to sleep, a fireplace to warm themselves, a kitchen in which to laugh like hell about whatever the day held over a pot-roast supper. It watched over years of the city's transition, presiding over the street, sighing at the crazy neighbors and rejoicing and mourning in flux with its inhabitants.

There's something sweet about hardwood floors worn down by little feet and paws, and delicate cracks in drywall that say how a house has been loved and lived in. It's why people like me gravitate toward these neighborhoods--to be a small part of a long story. I've heard there is a 90-year-old man who would love to tell Peace officials stories of the old white house he grew up in on the corner of Blount and Pace, but they're not listening.

That's the thing with this one--miraculously, 702 has made it this far, soldiered on intact, to the brink of the Blount Street revitalization project--only to get worked over in an unflattering manner at the very end.

Look, Peace, I get it--I know you're strapped for space, and you apparently think the urban plan that asks you to respect the historic character of the neighborhood is really a neat piece of scratch paper, but I'm tired of gossiping behind your back. I'll tell you what I really think: You're a crappy neighbor, and I'm burnt up over it.

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