Preservation as Straw Man
June 20, 2011
Urban planning, as understood in Europe, does not exist in the United States. With only one-dimensional land use laws called zoning ordinances, no American city government has the power to control the interest of developers, and hence lacks the tools to shape urban form for the public good. This was not the case during the era when historic preservation first appeared in the U.S., from 1930 until 1966.Planning and preservation moved in separate directions only when conservative, “free market” forces began to shift power to the private sector during the last half century.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a former Harvard professor and now critic for the The New Republic, misinterprets the malaise that has stifled creative urban design in cities like New York and Boston during the post-Reagan era. Like the polemical Rem Koolhaas, Dr. Goldhagen sees “nostalgia” as a sort of opiate, “a recipe for insipidity and urban incoherence.” Her Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on June 11 makes some excellent points about the ineffectual planning policies that have created the mess we have today, but her criticisms of historic preservation deflect the blame for these policies from government and developers who were often complicit in creating banality and chaos in our best cities.
Because preservationists have become the most active advocates for neighborhoods and urban vitality, we have taken the brunt of criticism for the inevitable gentrification that has occurred since Reagan opened the floodgates of laissez faire capitalism. If one skims the surface of history, as Koolhaas and Goldhagen have done, it is easy to render such misplaced judgments. Goldhagen thinks that our movement began during the 1960s, after Grand Central Station, but she hasn’t done her homework. Instead of the “blue haired ladies in tennis shoes” from the DAR and Colonial Dames, we should thank the citizens of New Orleans and Charleston during the New Deal for saving some of our best historic districts. All preservationists are not political conservatives; indeed, the most effective have been progressive liberals like Nellie Longsworth, Jim Fitch and Richard Moe.
It is time for intelligent urbanists to stop painting historic preservation as an agent of the capitalist elite. To be sure, early efforts to save Founding Fathers’ houses were often spearheaded by the upper crust, but since the 1960s the movement has, in the main, been a people’s effort sustained by small-scale, grass roots initiatives. If educated critics are to understand what is happening today, they should read the work of Ned Kaufman, Dan Bluestone, and yes, yours truly. We all taught in Columbia’s Historic Preservation program in the mid-1980s, and our students are now leading the movement toward greater pluralism and sustainable practices. Don’t make us out to be our grandparents; we are moving on.