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Reassessing Our Agenda: The Importance of Historic Preservation to the Survival of America`s Cities 

12-09-2015 17:35

The population of our cities is becoming more brown, more black, and more yellow. These demographic and racial changes will have deep implications on the growth of preservation policy in the future. For example, is it reasonable to expect low-income Hispanic residents of a city to care about the preservation of a 200 year-old church in their neighborhood when they cannot even find jobs paying the minimum wage? Or is it not understandable that African-Americans might not relate favorably to the preservation of a historic neighborhood if they have been denied identification with the neighborhood`s history or heritage? Finally, what happens when culturally diverse minority groups gain political power? Are we to expect that they will give preservation a high priority when they perceive other pressing needs?

These are tough questions to deal with. As the mayor of a large southern city I have seen the forces of the marketplace wreak havoc on those who would seek to preserve our history. With the exception of cities like my native Charleston, Richmond, Washington, or Savannah, and a few other cities, most preservationists fight an unending battle against the forces of "economic progress" and those who argue that the highest and best use of the land always is some new massing of steel, concrete, and glass. Government itself has been too willing to destroy both the grand old buildings as well as the "slum neighborhoods" rich in ethnic culture in the name of progress. Former urban renewal sites, superhighways, and lavish new commercial ventures have become the graveyards where our collective histories have been buried. Cities receive diminishing support nationally. Mayors and city councils are increasingly caught in the trap of believing that aggressive "new" development will bring forth higher tax revenues to support an ever-dwindling tax base than will the restoration of old buildings.

Yet thanks to groups like yours and similar groups at the state and local levels, there are inroads being made. Key folks are becoming better informed, sensitivity levels are being raised, and real breakthroughs are being made in public policy.

During my tenure as mayor and council member, the City of Charlotte raised historic preservation awareness to a much higher level. In Charlotte today a building that is seventy years old is considered historic. Indeed, in past times we tore down so much in Charlotte that little is remaining that is more than 150 years old. Now we are proud to have designated historic residential districts, one of which I live in, and a growing number of our buildings are listed in national and state historic registers. In recent years we have developed historic trails and invested public and private funds in a history-museum program. We are putting in place today the necessary ordinances and policies that will preserve Charlotte much better 100 years from now than we did in the previous 100 years.

In the overall scheme of things at the municipal level--in Charlotte or anywhere else--historic preservation is not high on the agenda. The reason for this has to do with the dynamic changes taking place in American cities, not the least of which are the growing diversity of inner-city populations and the tough socioeconomic conditions that accompany this diversity.

There is a great deal of despair, desperation in large parts of the urban geography. Poor services, weak educational systems, poverty, unemployment, alienation from society, crime, violence, and dysfunctional families create this despair. People are suffering; in some cities this landscape reminds one of Beirut, and the atmosphere borders on sheer nihilism. Grand old theaters, museums, and churches that used to be centers of culture are often abandoned or underutilized. Neighborhoods that may once have thrived with unique ethnic character and liveliness have been either bulldozed for highways and urban renewal or overtaken by crime and violence. So who can care about preservation amidst this life-and-death atmosphere of survival? Mayors and city-council members are hard-pressed to keep down gang warfare or to mediate the conflicts between whites and blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans. City leaders struggle to keep the police force big enough, the jail cells numerous enough, and the streets quiet enough to maintain some degree of civility. So much time is consumed trying to get the schools to teach, stabilizing the serious public-health problems of AIDS and drug abuse, and fighting a social-welfare system that increasingly perpetuates dependency from generation to generation, that preservation issues often seem frivolous.

These life-and-death problems are exacerbated by a policy of benign neglect for the problems of the cities at the national level, and the increasing flight of whites and the affluent away from cities to the suburbs. So even as cities become more multicultural it becomes increasingly difficult for local political leaders to pay attention to preservation as a high-priority issue. They say, "It`s nice, but we have to survive." Inherent in this attitude is the thinking that we will treat historic preservation as an amenity, not as an essential policy by which to address real problems. Sadly, we will miss an opportunity not only to remember our past, but we also will lose the potential benefit of using preservation as a tool to uplift the psyche of the entire community.

The questions we must pose are these: Can the fact of cultural diversity in our urban population be utilized as a positive factor to improve the lives of city dwellers while furthering the cause of the preservation movement? And can the goals of the preservation movement be made consistent with the goals and priorities of the cities as we know them today?

I do not know the answer to these questions. Cities have always been made up of multiracial groups, and perhaps the distinction that we are noting is that we are beginning to understand that in a truly culturally diverse society there must be mutual respect for each other`s differences, respect for cultural differences, respect for the contributions each group makes to building this nation, and respect that transcends the old class and racial lines that kept us divided for so long. Cultural diversity inherently means respect for our wonderful differences, and that out of this can come a unity of purpose and common values that move us forward together. I can suggest three initiatives that I believe may help us to capitalize on diversity as a positive force for preservation:

First, cities today and their survival problems must be given higher priority on national and local agendas, and preservationists must be involved in making that happen. Preservationists must be substantially involved in making this occur. People are hurting. Jobs are really needed for families that have known nothing but chronic unemployment; children need to receive a decent education in order to ensure that they will have some measure of survival for the future; health care, safety, and security must be given attention. New investments of money and brain power must be made to resolve these issues.

Overriding these basic needs is the imperative to address this issue of race, to turn what has so long been a wedge issue into a positive issue. If we want cultural diversity to flower in the preservation movement, we must afford those cultural minorities an opportunity to survive and to pursue happiness. We must appreciate the fact that when others` culture, ethnicity, and contributions are respected, we will begin to work together to preserve our heritage and our richness as a people.

Advocates for saving our cities can use preservationists in helping to build a stronger coalition. Preservationists must see themselves in a role much bigger than that of saving old structures. By joining forces to fight for the resources our cities need to survive, the interests of preservationists also survive.

Second, we must define a development-and-renewal policy in central cities that retains ethnic neighborhoods as viable places for residents and businesses. Who would argue the point that we really have destroyed much of black America`s urban heritage in the urban renewal and removal of history in the fifties and sixties? In our zeal to remove blight, we cared little for preservation. Indeed, preservationists themselves rarely looked at these areas of their cities as valuable land to be preserved. The destruction of those neighborhoods in many ways killed the soul of the people. The old churches, the old shops and stores, and the indigenous character of the houses represented a way of life worth remembering. To be sure, there was a tremendous amount of misery in many of those old neighborhoods, and a lot of slum housing was grossly substandard. Yet some valuable structures could have been saved with a more selective kind of redevelopment.

We learned our lessons in Charlotte. Through urban renewal we destroyed three communities before we came to our senses and the law was changed. We have five residential neighborhoods where new housing has blended with existing housing and the flavor of existing street life and activity has been maintained. Beyond the preservation of housing and neighborhoods we have been successful in saving the only major historic structure left in the black communities: the black church.

I want to cite a noteworthy effort made during my first term as mayor when we saved the oldest AME Zion church in the city. The church was in a community that had already undergone urban renewal. All that remained was public housing and encroaching commercial development. A street-widening project threatened the destruction of the church. The church had already been purchased through the urban-renewal program, and the congregation had long abandoned the structure. Yet the forces for preservation joined with the black community to argue effectively for saving the old church. Instead of widening that street we did something that was unprecedented in our city: We rerouted the street around the church. Then through a joint public and private effort, we turned the church into the home for the Afro-American Cultural Center. We raised nearly $2 million, about one quarter of it coming from city funds and the balance coming from a community fundraising effort. The cultural center functions today as an integral part of the Charlotte arts community. More important, it is a source of pride for the black community because the preservation of one of its most significant buildings by the community as a whole was a signal that the community cared. Also, the old structure was being adaptively used in a way consistent with the black community`s goal of projecting its history and culture to all of Charlotte`s citizens. This project stands as a source of pride even as it approaches a decade of existence. Thus we can gain support for preservation in the larger community when we demonstrate-willingness as a community to preserve the neighborhoods, even ethnic neighborhoods with little political or economic power.

Third, given the realities of multiculturalism and the scarcity of resources available to cities, the grand old structures that we have so often preserved--museums, symphony halls, railroad stations, churches, and libraries--must be adaptively and creatively used to address current needs. They cannot be empty monuments that drain the community`s financial resources while returning little of educational, cultural, or civic benefit. What was a school may become a home for the elderly; an old department store may become a magnet school for the visual arts; an old hotel could accommodate the homeless; and an old theater could become a Buddhist temple.

Too often, however, we witness a different outcome. Structures designated as historic that are strapped for funds to restore their lost grandeur are underutilized or not used at all, while the surrounding community is in need of space for vital community civic and educational functions.

We have also seen some historic buildings that are really "unfriendly neighbors" to the surrounding neighborhood. For example, a library that fails to offer programs to interest the new residents in its jurisdiction, or a museum mounting exhibits that are strange to its neighbors, or neither the museum nor the library offers memberships to the community that are affordable.

Further, what of the issue of adaptive modification of the historic structures to reflect necessary functional changes in use? Many times strict preservationists are less flexible and creative about accommodating these changes. If a compromise can be reached jointly, then the objectives of both parties can be satisfied. I argue here for a greater degree of flexibility and creativity and less perceived rigidity and elitism that sometimes is evident from preservationists.

If historic old structures can address facility needs in providing public service by creative adaptive use, we ought to be finding ways to do it, easily and at reasonable cost. If creative private developers can use old factories, train stations, and warehouses successfully, we ought to allow flexibility in exterior modifications. Particularly if the net result is an increase in the tax base and the community is well served. If a building`s historic functions are still valid and current, but foreign to the surrounding neighborhood, then education and outreach should become a priority to encourage community appreciation and a sense of ownership.

To summarize, as cultural diversity becomes more prominent, what all three of these initiatives will require is coalition building. Preservationists must work with mayors and council members, business leaders, and neighborhood leaders. Then we must overlay this coalition-building process with the positive ingredient of mutual respect and support. This is hard work at the grass-roots level, and no one should underestimate the difficulty of the effort if we are to move preservation higher on the political agenda. Yet the outcome will be worth it. A heightened focus on historic preservation as a useful instrument to manage a city`s unique problems is worth the effort. Preservation work in cities today under siege should not be perceived as inessential. It is more than a gesture of civic goodwill by the rich or by those whose appreciation of history is narrowly limited to the past. Relevance to today`s population and its needs may be the only way that culturally diverse populations will become allies in the effort to preserve our American history and heritage.

Publication Date: January/February 1993


Author(s):Harvey Gantt