Monday, May 18, 2009

The Real Value of Historic Preservation

By Ariel

In 1964 Pennsylvania Station was demolished to make room for the construction of Madison Square Garden. Its destruction was the impetus for the birth of the modern Historic Preservation movement. Despite the fact that this movement gave birth to The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Register of Historic Places with over 80,000 buildings on its rolls, and despite the fact that the federal government has spent over $37 million since 1970 to help preserve these buildings, it is one that is constantly trying to justify its existence and worth.

Earlier, in 1961 Jane Jacobs gave one of the first economic arguments for historic preservation. Jacobs noted that old (though not necessarily historic) buildings are important to cities because their rents are cheaper and they provide an opportunity for what we now call urban pioneers to set up artist lofts and new shops or restaurants.

Today Historic Preservationists argue, and rightly so, that historic buildings are more sustainable. Their mantra “the most sustainable building is one you do not tear down,” alludes to the amount of energy (and the carbon footprint) required for new construction. Old buildings are generally also far more well built, they are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and are the evolution of centuries of human adaptation to their environment.

The problem with these two arguments, and almost any other argument, is that they are what scholars call apologia. Apologias are rhetorical defenses and justifications of positions taken by classical writers in ancient Greece. The problem with these arguments is that they require a larger consensus to already agree with them in order for them to carry any weight. It is very hard to convince a developer or a public official to ignore today’s bottom line for tomorrow’s benefits, ones that they themselves won’t reap.

The problem is one of values; historic preservationists value a place’s past, while many developers (not all) only value a good rate of return, and public officials value a ribbon cutting. Against such forces Preservationists and their allies bemoan their perceived position of weakness. However, nothing could be further from the truth; Preservationists must realize that their value lies in “Values.”

What does that mean?

Last Friday (May 15, 2009) the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia hosted A Sense of Place: Preserving Philadelphia Neighborhoods. A Sense of Place brought community developers and community activists together to discuss, through a series of panels from “Religious Properties as Community Assets” to “Affordable Housing and Preservation,” how historic preservation can bring benefits their communities. The keynote speaker was Patsy Fletcher, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Historic Preservation Office in the District of Columbia Office of Planning. Mrs. Fletcher noted that all too often when historic places or neighborhoods get listed on a register of historic places, “official” historians with doctorates come and tell a neighborhood what is historic and of value, as opposed to listening to the community and their own home-grown historians who understand what the residents value as historical.

What Fletcher gets, and what more and more people need to get, is that historic buildings and a neighborhood’s history are the repository of a community’s values. Our desire to preserve old buildings has little do with how much energy they save, or how important they are for urban revitalization, but rests solely on our attachment to them as the building blocks of identity for a community.

So how do we use that as the basis for an argument for preservation that trumps any specific rate of return a developer tries to make, or how we make laws that govern and shape development in a city? Well, for that you we need to take a short digression into budgeting and management.

Any given organization has an operating budget and a capital budget. Operating budgets are the things that pay for electricity and paper clips. But they also pay for luncheons and conferences. What a good manager understands is that the soft costs of operations, the ability for people to get together, share ideas, are just as important as keeping the lights on.

Historic Preservation is or should be part of the “programmatic budget” of any community. To preserve old buildings, to create historic districts, communities have to get together and talk about what they value and what their community means to them. The act of historic preservation forces neighborhoods to come together and talk about values. In an age of declining social cohesion (as documented by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) there can be nothing more important.

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