“Salvage City” and Historic Preservation

Photo Credit: http://www.thestlouisegotist.com/news/local/2013/december/21/st-louis-salvage-city-new-show-cfmoriginals-airs-tomorrow-discovery
Photo Credit: http://www.thestlouisegotist.com/news/local/2013/december/21/st-louis-salvage-city-new-show-cfmoriginals-airs-tomorrow-discovery

A friend on Facebook recently shared an article about a new reality TV show that made its debut on the Discovery Channel on December 22. The show is called “Salvage City” and it’s taking place in St. Louis, where a businessman in the downtown area is going into abandoned properties with a camera crew and finding items to repurpose and sell in his shop.

Apparently this businessman (Sam Coffey) has been searching for items in abandoned properties for years, and he readily admits that sometimes he goes onto private property without the permission of property owners. “Am I breaking the law?” remarks Coffey. “I think it is on a case by case basis. Sometimes I probably am . . . If I have to break the law [to save the item], I absolutely see the greater good.”

While highly unlikely in this particular situation, such comments remind me of the recent fire that burned down the historic LeBeau Plantation in Louisiana last month, where seven “ghost hunters,” frustrated because they couldn’t find any ghosts within the building, decided to burn down the property instead. Two completely different situations of course, but the attitude of “I’ll go there if I want to” appears to be the same in both.

Since the legality of such activities is rather dubious, the Discovery Channel has already made sure to receive approval from property owners before filming. Even if the legalities are taken care of, however, I’m still not sure if this method of searching for “repurposeable” items is in the best interest of historic preservation.

On the popular History Channel show “American Pickers,” the two pickers (Frank and Mike) go to properties and work with owners to purchase goods that they can resell at their shop. I think “American Pickers” is more fair to property owners that “Salvage City” because they discuss the historical provenance of a specific item, negotiate a mutually fair price for purchasing the item, and then make efforts to preserve the item and sell it to customers who will take care of the item. With “Salvage City,” it seems as if Sam Coffey’s decision making process is rather arbitrary. He alone assesses the historical provenance of an item, determines its monetary value without input from the owner, and repurposes the item for uses that he deems important. For example, the article I link above mentions that Coffey once grabbed a bowling pinsetter and turned it into a whiskey rack for his office.

I’m glad that Coffey and the Discovery Channel took efforts to gain permission from property owners before hunting on these derelict properties, and perhaps this whole idea of salvaging “trash into cash” isn’t a big deal. As long as the property owner says it’s okay, some will say, then there’s no problem. Nevertheless, sometimes what’s okay with a property owner is in direct tension with the need for historic preservation of buildings, artifacts, and human stories.

What do you think?


Update: Here is the Riverfront Times‘ take on “Salvage City.”