A Source of New Ideas for Historic Preservation


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Historic preservation is a very important element of local history. There is a good deal of literature on the topic. But every now and then there is a new book which advances fresh ideas and puts the issue in a new light.

One such new book is Stephanie Meeks’ The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America’s Communities (Washington: Island Press, 2016). Meeks is President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She has made a number of presentations about the book where you can see the book’s major points.

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is its presentation of data and other evidence and examples of the benefits of historic preservation rather than just theoretical advantages. Much of the data is drawn from the Older, Smaller, Better project that was sponsored by the Trust.

The book has many strengths but a few of the most notable ones:

The history of historic preservation

The first chapter in the book reviews the origins and development of the historic preservation movement, particularly citizen initiatives to save endangered old buildings. New York City is an important part of this story. The book summarizes the work of Robert Moses, New York’s great builder of highways and architect of urban renewal who, in carrying out his work, was also responsible for the destruction of many historic buildings and disruption of historic neighborhoods.

A broad, convincing case for historic preservation

The book makes a convincing case for the value of historic preservation. It advocates changing our image from one that is often mostly identified with preventing people from tearing down old buildings to one that is more proactive, suggesting alternative uses for those buildings.

“….people love old buildings. They love their character, their history, and the sense of connection they provide — put simply, the power of place….,” says the book. “Historic buildings can spur economic growth, nurture start-up businesses, and create jobs. They can reduce energy costs and environmental impact and can encourage health living practices like walking and cycling. They can help provide solutions to critical challenges like access, affordability, displacement, and climate change. They help turn diverse neighborhoods into communities and help us know who we are, where we come from, and where we must continue to go to achieve the full promise of the American dream. They are building the foundations of America’s future and keeping our communities vibrant and strong.”

Examples of how older buildings enhance urban vitality

The book presents examples of how areas with “older, smaller, more age-diverse buildings” compare to areas with “mostly newer, larger buildings.” For instance, the areas with the older buildings have more:

*Non-chain establishments
*Jobs in small businesses
*Jobs per square foot
*Businesses with women or minority ownership

The book also devotes a chapter to the connection between historic preservation and initiatives to combat climate change.

Older buildings and diverse history

Chapter 5 of the book discusses how to use historical buildings to tell stories of diversity and change rather than just the story of the building itself or its builders. This helps situate the building in the community’s setting and its history. “The best preservation projects can create opportunities for community residents at all income levels to live, work, and play, all the while retaining the local history that ties together current and future generations,” says the book. “To make sure preservation and adaptive reuse [are] happening in the right way, however, everyone has to have a voice at the table.” Part of the challenge is to “confront our difficult history,” for instance, how to deal with great buildings constructed with slave labor and with Confederate memorials in the South.

Try new things

One of the most impressive features of the book is its discussion of new approaches. “…we must look to the future and try new things. Communities should not be afraid to use their older neighborhoods as real-world experimental laboratories to test out policies, flexible zoning and codes, financial incentives, and other innovative ideas that might further encourage revitalization.” The book advances several new approaches and also cites another book with additional innovative ideas, Max Page and Marla Miller, Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Preservation in the United States (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016).

Historic preservation fits in well with other programs, including the work of the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Path Through History, the State Historian’s work and other initiatives. This book is a helpful addition to the literature and should be useful here in New York. Toward the end of the book, Meeks quotes a 2014 speech by longtime preservation leader W. Brown Morton who said that the preservation movement needs “to regain its earlier excitement and reconnect people with their deepest hope.” Too many preservation activities “have lost their original sense of urgency. They have become unnecessarily frozen in a bureaucratic system of regulations, criteria, and standards….” An exciting new approach is dawning according to Morton, one that Meeks endorses: “What makes this possibility of change especially exciting at the present time is the growing awareness that historic preservation has moved in a very real sense beyond history. Our work is no longer perceived as managing the past. It is more and more understood as wisely managing change.”

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at dearstyne@verizon.net.

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