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"WITH HERITAGE SO RICH"

By Patricia Grabow

It’s Called “Smart Growth” for a Reason

By Patricia Grabow
 

It's easy to forget, but the old saying "where there is no vision the people perish," is about not just downside, but upside too.   
 

I've advocated in past that the best hope for the Livingston area's future is found in its past because it's not only what put us here but is the thing of greatest value we have to offer those who visit.  And the greatest threats to that well-being in recent time have come from those who seek to make a quick killing off the destruction of that unique historic character, whether from the assault on our Growth Policy, the one on the Civic Center, or the related attempt to destroy our community's heart with constant sprawl plans out by the interstate.  
 

Only recently did I more fully grasp that people have difficulty conceptualizing what they don't experience.  I was talking with someone, here nameless, about how Livingston was built as the original rail gateway to Yellowstone and how the families, including my grandparents, who built the 20 hotels that constituted the core of downtown Livingston worked closely with families who built the hotels in Yellowstone like the Childs family. The person I was speaking to looked blank.  And it happened heavily in a key boom time for the Yellowstone.  For example, Josephine Kline's Elite/Murray and the NP's third Livingston Depot were built around the same time as Old Faithful Inn and other structures.  They were all connected and mutually beneficial as a child, I met and loved many key Yellowstone concessionaires: I spoke of the Yellowstone concessionaires as being good friends of my parents and grandparents:  the Childs and Nichols families, who owned and operated Yellowstone’s hotels and transportation, Elizabeth Trishman and Anna Kay Pryor who had Pryor Stores, Aubrey Haynes, photography, the Hamiltons and Povahs and their Hamilton Stores.  He had never heard of them. 
 

For whatever reason, my explanation barely registered.  The person stood in the kind of silence that tries not to offend but understood nearly nothing.  The individual, originally from New York, basically took away no idea of what Livingston's unique role in the world as the first National Park’s gateway city actually meant.

When I used to teach in rural Alaska, I remember evaluating reading comprehension with children who encountered the term skyscrapers.  The problem was few Yup’ik Eskimo students had ever seen such a building.

 

So, using our research tools, we found that the students basically combined in their mind’s eye, a house and a tree, in a complex process and understood the word, to some degree, but nowhere close to those who had ever seen a skyscraper.
 

We might need something basic to explain to people whose only universal center is an urban metropolis the idea anything else in the world can be of significance.  If not, we could lose our historically rich core including our Yellowstone 20 hotel buildings still standing, to save it from becoming a post-sprawl dead zone like Belgrade or Columbus. We had better as a community begin to create the verbal image and visual image of what a thriving, not dead, downtown could mean.  There's not much time either, since our Master Plan for the downtown will be decided by this spring.

When I returned to Livingston 25 years ago, I realized that most here knew little to nothing about its hotels or its formative period. Fifteen years ago, a group of us created the Livingston Downtown Building Owners and Business Association (LDBOBA) to help.  I served on the Historic Preservation Commission and produced the Walking Tour of the city's four historic districts.  And the LDBOBA did things like the downtown mural that highlights the city's role as “The Original Rail Gateway to Yellowstone.”  After three years of persistent asking and going to Yellowstone, I persuaded Bruce Austin of the Jammer Trust to loan us the 1938 Yellowstone Bus he had saved from destruction so we could help tell Livingston’s early story. (Maybe a topic for a future guest opinion.)  Practicing my preaching, my family and I worked to save my grandparents former hotel from years of neglect to serve once again.
 

Livingston was fortunate in one respect, because in a program in the 1970s, over 400 building in this community were placed collectively on the National Historic Register. I am told this effectively put more buildings on the listing than those in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia combined.  Our Historic Preservation Commission was created that helped keep the historic character of the downtown alive.  Obviously, someone back then valued laying the foundation for Livingston’s economic renaissance and vitality. 
Challenges arose, of course.  One was the crushing railroad pullout and shrinkage of the 80s.  Another was the recent COVID lockdowns, and a third has been the shadowy infiltration, direct and indirect, of the uber-wealthy I have discussed in past guest opinions.   (Is she really going to mention that book Billionaire Wilderness again?  There, I got it out of my system.  But there's a good similar one to note called Winners Take all: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas.) 

 

With the lockdowns, the LDBOBA had to stop the historic district tours, and the direction of Livingston’s economy began to change, but like the nation's, towards concentrated wealth and power, and not for the better. 

Many of the billionaires that have planted some form of toehold into the Livingston area including the Paradise Valley and the Shields came from urban areas and did not grow up here.  Critically, important players do not remotely rely on the local economy for their living, so Livingston’s economy becomes more and more distorted in invisible ways and our core threatened, unless we help grasp our past and see how critical things like our downtown and historic hotel structures are to our livelihood, - as positive economic forces instead of negative as forced low-income housing.  These are the simplest realities of any competent urban planning.
 

Flip the conceptualization around.  If you've ever seen the extremes of urban decay, they're often anchored in the best-intentioned urban housing projects like Boston, New York, and Chicago, and they are government-fostered economic disasters.  This is what awaits if we let well-meaning bungling entities like HRDC take over our downtown, funded by affluent grantors and their handmaidens who accept with little question whatever they read on some grant application, thereby often empowering demise instead of health.  In fact, the economically elite individual I mentioned, being

 soft on our history, suffered this same lack of vision.  People are assembling a housing coalition lacking in this same perspective and lessons from history.  We already have over 140 low-income apartments in our commercial area squeezing out business attracting space and taking up valuable parking.  It was the consensus of the downtown building owners attending the Master Plan breakfast that we do not need more affordable housing downtown, and even a nonprofit or two sited there were an unpositive influence.  They can easily afford the rent, but they are not as such actual tax and economic value creators there. There are those, however, who do it right, like Aspen.

 

They have smaller units in town, but none in the commercial area.

On the LDBOBA Yellowstone bus tours front, things are hopeful again.  This month a very helpful nonprofit, our wonderful Community Closet, made a small award to help get our Yellowstone bus up and running again, and with a new wonderful volunteer driver, this 15-year tradition can resume.  It has been received consistently with surprise and appreciation by learners both local and from afar.  Good things can happen when people learn to appreciate what we have.  (A shout out in passing to the Yellowstone Gateway Museum's walking tours while we're at it too.)  
 

The LDBOBA has set out 18 objectives in its strategic plan to fend off threats to our well-being and preserve our downtown and economy.  As part of that we envision creating another downtown walking tour like the one I put together, but this time telling the story of the Yellowstone tourist hotels, their relation to Yellowstone, and their potential interest to future visitor-based economic viability.  It's early-stage: I have a decent archive on the Grabow Hotel, but little as yet on others.  

 

Perhaps readers can help.  I have yet to find a copy of Patty Miller’s book on the Murray.  I also know of five people with extensive knowledge of Livingston’s 20 hotel buildings, but there are doubtless others out there.   With John Fryer and others gone, it becomes that much more important to set history down, even roughly.  
 

When I asked, the Yellowstone Gateway Museum said they would be willing to gather historic hotel related contributions to help assemble this walking tour.  If you have something to offer, consider being in touch with them for either interview or historic material to lend or donate for scanning and/or use as record.    
 

The potential is not just rediscovering our own fascinating stories in the Yellowstone connection, but even imaginably better valuing existing structures, inspiring or enriching creative works like books or film or more.   Since structures then as today were multi-use (commercial, accommodation, and hotel rooms all at once), it can be a wide net.  
 

We are still significant to travel to the world's first National Park even close to a century and a half later, not just another backwater to be looted for sprawl.   Like the basic laws of physics, intelligent planning can work today as much as it did then.  We have little to lose except blank uncomprehending stares. 

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