Is Preservation Elitist?

As part of the Museum of the City of New Yorks Saving Place, 50 Years of New York City Landmarks exhibition and lecture series, a group of prominent historians, developers, planners, preservationists, and journalists gathered for a public symposium on June 20th to debate the politics of preservation law and its impact on the economic and cultural life of the city. The topic was Is Preservation Elitist?

On the panel were …

  • Paimaan Lodhi, land use and public policy expert and the vice president of Urban Planning for the Real Estate Board of New York
  • Tia Powell Harris, arts educator and the president and executive director of the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn
  • Nikolai Fedak, the founding editor of New York YIMBY, a pro-development website
  • Claudette Brady, community preservation organizer and co-founder of the Bedford Stuyvesant Society for Historic Preservation
  • Kerri Culhane, architectural historian and associate director of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council.

The discussion was moderated by Laurie Beckelman, the chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission from 1990 to 1994.

The panel dug into these questions with frequent, spirited vocal disagreements and challenges:

  • What happens to affordability and supply of housing when we restrict certain types of development in one area but not in an adjacent area?
  • How do you preserve a neighborhood and a culture, not just a streetscape of facades?
  • Whose history are we preserving and memorializing when we create a historic district?

The preservation movement has long history, starting with frankly elitist and nativist motives in places like Monticello and the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, evolving through a less overtly political “beautiful buildings” phase and in recent decades embracing a very wide range of social histories (preserving industrial sites, working class immigrant neighborhoods, etc.). Historic preservation, in my opinion and in the opinion of several of the panelists, is primarily a tool for recording and transmitting a story. Preservation is no more or less elitist than a hammer or a pen and paper; the patron who pays for the work may or may not be elitist. Answering the question of whether preservation is or is not elitist is really an inquiry of whose history is being preserved and retold. Kerri Culhane, Tia Powell Harris, Claudette Brady, and Laurie Beckelman discussed many examples of decidedly non-elitist preservation initiative such as Tin Pan Alley and the Bowery in Manhattan, Weeksville, Crown Heights, and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Mott Haven in the Bronx.

The NYC Landmarks law has the happy (again, in my opinion) coincidental ancillary effect of slowing the pace of change in landmarked neighborhoods, preserving affordable housing, and keeping communities of people bedded down and connected in one place. The Landmarks law, and others like it around the country, however, has had perhaps-unanticipated effects such as gentrification and its counterweight to affordability as well as “Disney-ifiaction”. Cities are incredibly complicated organisms and our urban planning policies (the NYC Landmarks law included) have all sorts of unanticipated (and frankly unpredictable) effects.

The pro-development panelists seemed to put the burden of creating affordable housing on the preservation movement. Their simple argument is that landmarks law restrictions on development increase the upward pressure on prices by restricting supply. This argument is the central “elitism” criticism of preservation movements from developers. However, developers have a pretty lousy record of building affordable housing on a purely altruistic (and not publicly subsidized) basis. Preservation has a contribution to make to affordable housing and it may also work against affordable housing at times; that is not however, its raison d’ĂȘtre. Affordable housing, not unlike historic preservation, is likely a social good that is just not quantifiable with our currently crude tools for pricing non-material goods.

Preservation and the NYC Landmarks law are a check on unrestrained market capitalism. Preservation and the NYC Landmarks law are an assertion of a public demand for history and education and quality of life (and other qualities) that are not accurately valued by (and therefore not supplied by) an unfettered capitalist system. In the absence of a consensus on how to adequately price these things, the government makes laws to provide them, which by large margins the public supports. Perhaps one day we will find a way to put an accurate price on things like diversity and history (and for that matter: clean air, water, quiet, and darkness at night). At that point, I’m sure we will all be happy to observe the invisible hand most efficiently deal out goods and services. Until that point, I am glad we have the NYC Landmarks law and I was certainly glad to hear an overwhelming defense of it in the packed hall of the museum.

-David Calligeros

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