Who's Benefitting From Historic Preservation?

As wealthy communities learn to use historic districts to inflate property values, socially conscious urbanists must think twice about the purpose and place of preservation, Will Doig reports.
April 18, 2012, 5am PDT | Ryan Lue
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The popular image of New Urbanism as a movement centered on local character and human scale lines up nicely with the themes of historic preservation. But when it comes to protecting old neighborhoods, the lines of alliance and opposition are shifting, on account of new trends in how and why communities push for historic designation.

As Doig explains, New York's Greenwich Village tells the story of this sea change: "Fifty years ago, a high-rise urban-renewal project threatened to eviscerate the neighborhood. But local activists successfully quashed it, and the Village, now one of Manhattan's most desirable neighborhoods, has enjoyed historic designation since 1969." And now, after two expansions to the historic district (in 2006 and 2010) and with average apartment prices rising above $2 million, the Preservation League of New York State is pushing to expand it yet again.

Quoting sociologist David Harvey, Doig warns that these moves are turning Manhattan into "the world's biggest gated community," noting the patently anti-New Urbanist outcomes that historic districting can bring about. "Restricting development in pricey neighborhoods, the new thinking goes, not only cements a city's best sections as enclaves for the rich, it has wider anti-urban reverberations. It promotes suburbanization by pricing out the middle class. It prevents densification, the greenest, most efficient use of space and the defining characteristic of cities."

But as Doig points out, the philosophy has its detractors, too: preservation architect Jeffrey Chusid has "written about a working-class historic district in Austin, Texas, whose protected status has helped prevent speculative land grabs." And journalist Roberta Brandes Gratz "says the market itself shows that people like these neighborhoods as they are."

The question, ultimately, is whether history can hold up as an excuse to shield whole tracts of the city from the needs of its present-day citizens.

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Published on Saturday, April 14, 2012 in Salon
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