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.

3 Responses to “Preservation as Straw Man”

  1. […] I read that Goldhagen piece and my reaction was similar to this except with some sputtering and swearing alongside. 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 d … Read More […]

  2. George Dodds said

    Thank you Mark for the lucid response to Goldhagen’s rangy review (NYT, June 11, 2011) of the status of historic preservation in contemporary American urban development. In her defense, she takes on a vast topic in a relatively short word count. Yet, the comparison of American and European cities continues to miss the point, as does the simplistic argument that trained aesthetes will solve the presumptively visual problem of the generally poor quality of most American urban environments. Cities are living, three-dimensional political mappings of the times in which we live — for better and for worse.

    To wonder why Washington D. C. cannot have the urban vitality of Berlin or London is the same as asking why Rome has so much better Baroque architecture than does Manhattan. The differences between “a European city” and its American counterpart are complex and profound. Curiously, when most of the Europeans I know and meet (in Europe, not in the US) talk of visiting this country, the first and often only city they want to visit is New York — meaning Manhattan. And, curiously, Manhattan is hardly a model American city in the sense that there are no others like it, yet it remains quintessentially American. What many Europeans seek in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, is difference, the marked difference from the places with which they are familiar. Just as most Americans seek out London, Paris, and Rome, because they are most unlike our own urban environments, built over two millennia, emerging out of complex religious, political, cultural, economic, and environmental factors.

    American cites are not like European cites for the same reason that the cites in the Netherlands that Goldhagen so admires are not more like American cities — because of where they are and the peoples who have continuously inhabited them, over vast stretches of time.

    It is not surprising that historic preservation is gaining ground once again, largely because it is environmentally sustainable. In the main, un-sustainable urban development is a 20th-century phenomenon, and mostly post-war at that. Cities have always been “green” — particularly the practices of “mixed-use” and of integrating the building stock of previous epochs into contemporary construction. These are hardly new ideas, but they are once again gaining broader support as their base moves beyond the narrow (and almost exclusively visual) strictures of aesthetics and “style.”

    A longing for the new is no less nostalgic than is the longing for the old — it is “homesickness” — a desire to feel grounded, centered. For some, this sense of grounded-ness comes from a deep abiding belief in the continuous avant-garde. For others, it is a longing for the familiar. Both are parts of the ongoing process of city-building.

  3. George: Thanks for your embellishment and vote of confidence. MAH

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