For Richer or Poorer

One of the truisms in the heritage conservation field is that buildings are preserved in two economic conditions: wealth and poverty. With wealth you can reinvest in and maintain property in its original state; in poverty you lack the finances to demolish or alter historic property. In the middle, the whims of temporal fashion and a modicum of money lead to constant alterations that destroy a property’s integrity, while the spasms of economic opportunism foster removal and replacement.

I realized this a quarter-century ago when I was living in East Ukrainian Village/West Town/Wicker Park while working on the history of Bridgeport. West Town had not seen new investment in over 30 years and had a rich stock of historic buildings with a lot of historic integrity. It was poor. Bridgeport was technically the oldest neighborhood in the city, dating to 1836, but as seat of Chicago’s political dynasty for a half-century it always had a enough money to modernize and thus had very little in terms of intact historic resources.

East Village, 2006

Now, if you have read my 2005 Future Anterior article “Race Against Renewal” you know that historic districts have in fact been used by inner-city communities as a way to improve their neighborhoods and satisfy middle-class aspirations. How can this be if the middle-class are the ones messing up historic buildings?

The answer lies in the tipping point: when a district tips from being an under-resourced working class neighborhood into the middle-class. At that tipping point, the sweat equity efforts of hundreds of rehabbing historic homeowners are trumped by developers scrambling to redevelop property and build new buildings.

The urban pioneers – those with middle-class aspirations – create the market by improving their properties and living there, improving the neighborhood’s perceived safety and prosperity. Then the market steps in like Bigfoot and tips the apple cart, scrambling to cash in. In some cases, there is active displacement of the pioneers; in most cases, there is an influx of new homeowners sans history, with little understanding of the neighborhood’s evolution.

East Village is emblematic: the historic districts enacted a few years ago are discontinuous, interrupted by stretches of mini-highrises and other demolition redevelopments. These developments in the late 1990s and early 2000s were cashing in on the efforts my friends and I made in the 1980s. The historic district is itself a picture of that tipping point: a neighborhood that was intact and then disrupted by new development out of character or scale with the original.

Many other historic districts have a similar issue: Eleanor Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, can tell you that much of their permit review over the last two decades has been for Wicker Park and Calumet-Giles-Prairie districts, two neighborhoods designated at the end of the 1980s when they still had a lot of vacant land from postwar disinvestment.

In my historic districts seminar, we look at these phases of development and their contradictions: we want to preserve the original architecture of an area, in order to relate its history visually, but that history may include periods of redevelopment. Also, historic district designation often comes, as shown above, at or about the tipping point when new development starts to take over and push the neighborhood into a newer, and sometimes less felicitous, incarnation. Indeed, historic district designation is usually an expression of that tipping point: a way for those that MADE the neighborhood what it is to hang on to their investment, their sweat equity. Those that complain about the districts are usually the johnny-come-lately developers, swooping in like vultures to lay claim to the killing someone else made.

So, in a sense, the truism follows: as inner-city districts are rehabilitated, they become those middle-class communities like Bridgeport subject to the ephemeralities of architectural fashion and the temptations of redevelopment. The current lawsuit against the city’s landmarks ordinance includes an East Village plaintiff seeking exactly that sort of economic opportunism.

Critics say that historic districts are an attempt to freeze time, which of course they are not. But they are an attempt to freeze the frenzy of redevelopment that seeks to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Historic districts are an a nuanced planning tool that can secure past investments for rehabbers. insure the prosperity of a community, guarantee aesthetic integrity and limit the depredations of the spasmodic redevelopments that caused Chicago sociologists in the 1920s to adopt the fatalistic view that all neighborhoods must grow and then die and be rebuilt from scratch. That idea is generations behind us and it is not a sustainable urbanism.

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