Panama Papers and Preservation

April 5, 2016

I am going to jump on current events, namely the release of terabytes of data from Panama implicating an international host of politicians and businesspeople and celebrities in whacking great amounts of money laundering.  These range from the obvious beneficiaries of oligarchy like the Russian and Pakistani leadership to the unexpected (Iceland?) and I am sure the contortionist rhetoricians of our endless political winter will try to tie in some of our own candidates and their corporate backers.  I of course will focus on preservation.

$3 mill.jpg

A home last summer in my former hometown of Los Gatos.  $3 million.  That is normal in Silicon Valley.  In fact, in Palo Alto, the median home price is well over $2 million.

So what do these MASSIVE tales of money laundering have to do with heritage conservation?  Well, if you have been following my blogs here and in Traditional Building recently, you know I have been taking on the issue of historic districts and real estate prices. Both the Bay Area and Manhattan are known for their otherworldly real estate prices, and what the Panama Papers have shown is that one of the prime receptacles for laundered money is real estate.  In those markets (also Miami, which has like only a couple decades of dry real estate left).  Look at the Panama Papers article here.

LG W yellow VictorianSAnother Los Gatos Victorian.  I don’t know the price, but if you have to ask….

Okay, so all sorts of dirty dealers are stowing their ill-gotten gains in real estate – how does that affect preservation?  Well, first of all, it gives the lie to those economists and politicians who like to blame high prices on environmental regulations.  This was a key to Ed Glaeser’s analysis of Silicon Valley and Manhattan in Triumph of the City (great book, I reviewed it in this blog here.) It is also part of the false narrative behind the legislative efforts against historic districts in Michigan and Wisconsin.

office PASPalo Alto.  Michigan and Wisconsin wish they had this problem.

Four years ago when we were looking for a place in Silicon Valley, the pattern was (and is) that you would show up at a house or condo and there would be 15-20 other people and 2 or 3 of them would offer 10-20% OVER the asking price.  Cash.  No mortgage.  Nothing suspicious about that.  Did you ever see that 80s movie “The Boost” with James Woods?

LG mcmansion nasty.JPGYou’d have to be high to find good design here.  Also in Los Gatos.

This happens A LOT.  It happens in Chicago too – I remember a time before the ’08 crash when at least HALF of condos sold in downtown Chicago were speculative purchases that were NOT going to be lived in by the purchaser.  I’m sure it is true again right now because they are building a buttload of new residential towers on the Chicago River.

Chgo River 614The Riverwalk is done so you get that taxpayer subsidy.  Not that it matters, because you really live in Moscow or Shanghai or Odessa or Sao Paolo.

Secondly, this real estate reality also confounds the detractors on the left, who complain that environmental regulations (which include zoning, BTW) prevent affordable housing by driving prices up.  This is the old saw about preservation and gentrification, but as we just learned above THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF EMPTY UNITS in these expensive cities because they are housing MONEY, not PEOPLE.  This is, sadly, normal functioning of the real estate market.  Everywhere.

Guiyang twrs

Guiyang.  It has like 4 or 5 million people.  And Lamborghinis.  Lotsa places to park cash.

Supply follows demand, but you see the demand is for real estate INVESTMENT, and the supply is provided not based on the need for interior space but based on the need for investment vehicles.  Got it?  When you watch these markets at work you realize that there is a large cadre of actors who are driving the market, regulations be damned.  In fact, the whole point of Silicon Valley is to drive markets, for tech, for rides, for food, whatever.  That is what they do, period.

PA cool car.JPGWhen they aren’t buying cars.  Actually, they control that market too – the biggest international classic car show is Monterey.

It will be interesting to see the scale of laundering in the Panama Papers, because this issue is one of scale, and that is what separates actual economic analysis from policy positions based on ideology and anecdotes.

Sf Ital rowhousSSan Francisco.  Where the whole world owns real estate despite all of the regulations.






San Francisco and the heritage of cultural innovation

March 31, 2016


Mission St theatreSThe Mission, recently

Heritage conservation is about place even more than buildings, which are large and important but not exclusive constituents of place.  “If these walls could talk” is also true of streets (I did a course for over a decade called “If These Streets Could Talk”)  and sidewalks and trees and mountains and streams and streetlamps benches and on and on….  You also have certain places that have an enduring character despite the passing of decades and technologies, these places just seem to imbue activity in a similar way over time, causing us to assign that “character” to place.

Jack Keruoac sidewalkThis street talks in English and in Chinese

San Francisco is that kind of place where history and character suffuse a surfeit of sites, and despite everything (true) you have heard about its insane gentrification and “Die Techie Scum!” graffiti there is an enduring heritage quality to the place.   And that heritage is often about the cutting edge of cultural change.  Which is to say, Eros.

bow arrow bay bridgeIn San Francisco this is about LOVE.  I don’t think it would read the same way elsewhere..

I first visited the city forty years ago and there was a drought and the Governor was Jerry Brown so when I lived there again for three years there was a certain cultural and climate continuity.  This is a city whose built fabric is as old as most of the MIdwest but it is also the place where, when you tip the country, everything loose falls off and lands in SF.

Arch hill SFs

It was always a place where you could be different because it collected people from every corner of the world, from China and from all over the U.S. during the Gold Rush and it was one of the first places where it was okay to be gay or trans or sexually liberated  – or at least it was more okay here than anywhere else.

castro2The Castro, recently

The city was founded by the Spanish 240 years ago this week and has always been a place on the edge, a city of Good Herb (Yerba Buena) that had its first growth spurt during the chaos of the Gold Rush and has pretty consistently been known as a den of iniquity (One of the presenting Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Golden Gate Park yesterday was Sister Dana Van Equity).

hardly strictlyA different event in Golden Gate Park,not long ago

From Mark Twain to Herb Caen takes us from the Barbary Coast to  Beirut by the Bay and maybe the melody changed from honky tonk piano to electric guitar but I swear that bass line was there in ’06 when the city burned and sixty years later when it got all hot and not-so-bothered in the Summer of Love.  And then they tripped back down 100 miles to Monterey for the Pop and the Who and Jimi and Janis and it is hard to talk about the cultural somersault of the 1960s without saying San Francisco.

SF Love ToursbLove Tours in a Love Bus!  Very recently – less than a month ago

San Francisco has a fabulous history – I finished reading Donna Graves and Shayne Watson’s LGBTQ historic context statement for the City (see last blog) and it is clear the city had a national presence in the movement to insure equal human rights for the LGBTQ community.  It also has a national presence in the 1960s counterculture, from the Merry Pranksters and the Diggers to the Human Be-In and the Fillmore and of course the Haight.

Haight burgersSThe Haight, recently.

There is always something a little off-kilter about San Francisco, and they tend to celebrate the off-kilter, whether in the bacchanalic Bay to Breakers race that is more costume and consumption than physical activity; where major Easter events include not only the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (founded in San Francisco 37 years ago – now that is history, or herstory) in Golden Gate Park but the world’s largest Big Wheel race, which is a mere 15 years old but how long does something have to go on to be part of culture, especially in a town where National Historic Landmarks can’t even stay still but are rolling through the streets and up and down those hills everyday?

Trolley by Union SqUnion Square, recently

I like the fact that San Francisco’s Weird History is actually really deep – it is actual heritage, part of the deep character of the place, the kind of heritage that insinuates itself into the character of those who live there. Now thanks to rapid real estate rocketing rents in the Age of the Technology Startup San Francisco is losing Legacy Businesses despite their best efforts and becoming even more unaffordable than any other patch between the Atlantic and the Pacific.  (Yes, Manhattan, that includes you!)

SF from univ clubEven their most famous skyscraper is uniquely fabulous.

But these present problems don’t make the history go away and more important they don’t make the character go away, because it is still there everyday and no city has more characters than San Francisco.

SF montage3





Integrity and Authenticity

March 16, 2016

I will presenting at the 7th National Symposium on Historic Preservation Practice this weekend at Goucher College, on the Diversity Deficit and the National Register of Historic Places.  I have written often about this subject over the last five years, but lately my recommendations are getting more specific.  One of those has to do with the concept of Integrity, which I have previously proposed needs to be replaced with Authenticity.

ellison bldg

My favorite example:  where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  Authenticity?  Integrity?

But of course, it is not quite so simple, and I encountered a more nuanced approach recently courtesy of my friend and idol Donna Graves, who recently completed an excellent historic context statement on LGBTQ history in San Francisco with Shayne Watson.  Donna parsed the seven components of integrity, which includes elements of “feeling” and “association” that we associate with Authenticity, and which ACHP Chair Wayne Donaldson has stressed in relation to sites in Indian country and others where architecture is not the key to significance.


It never looked anything like this when Jane Addams was there.  Wrong roof, new skin of 1960s brick – and more….

So the brilliant thing Donna did in her LGBTQ study was note which of the seven elements of integrity were important when dealing with social and cultural history, and which “are generally less important.”   Location,  Design, Feeling and Association are important when dealing with social and cultural history, although under Design “only the very basic features of a property are important, such as original form, and window and door configuration.”  She also notes “Integrity of style is not important.”  Preach!

Castro Fork Cafe

The Castro…

Setting, materials and workmanship are “generally less important for social or cultural histories.”  This is an excellent and important corrective to our architecturally-driven concept of integrity.  With LGBTQ history, and indeed with many sites of minority history throughout the U.S., these new approaches to authenticity and integrity can help reduce the Diversity Deficit in our National Register of Historic Places and in other local landmark practices.

canessa printing

So this is on the National Register for architecture as part of the Jackson Square district, but it arguably has thrice the significance under Criteria A and B as the site of the Black Cat Cafe, which was significant in 1.)the Early Development of LGBTQ communities in San Francisco; 2.) it’s association with gay rights pioneer Jose Sarria; and 3.) its role in Stoumen v. Reilly (1961) that essentially legalized gay bars. So there.


What Survives?

February 24, 2016

I recently saw the report of a “phylogenetic” study of fairytales that determined that some fairytales were 6,000 years old, reaching into the Bronze Age.  We have long known that certain tales – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, flood myths – are shared across hundreds of cultures and geographies.  I read the report (linked here) the same day I went to see the ancient Greek show at the Field Museum, where many tales are illustrated in the more durable forms of pottery and stone.

Greek vases Class.jpg

So fired clay survives, and of course metals, especially precious metals.  The most stunning items in the Agamemnon to Alexander show were gold diadems, wreaths worn on the head with the gold worked into intricately detailed simulacra of myrtle branches and leaves.  Unlike the rusted dagger and swords, the gold pieces looked brand new.

Greeks gold wreath and knivesIt reminded me of the incredible Scythian Gold show I saw at the Lavra (that’s a World Heritage Site and monastery in Kiev).  Yeah, gold survives.

Yet most of these artifacts are younger than “The Devil and the Smith” which is the tale researchers peg at 6,000 years ago.  Heck, it is even older that this ancient Egyptian dress.  In my professional career I have dealt with older artifacts and mostly with much younger ones, but the question kept coming back to me:  What Survives?

CP 39 terraces housesIn Ciudad Perdida in Colombia the rammed earth platforms and their myriad stone steps survive, but nothing else, because this is high jungle, ever humid.  Wood, reeds, thatch, cloth, leather, all resolves and dissolves in the dew.

CP i main iBest

You can see the blog post about it from 2013 here.

Part of the challenge is geographic – jungles tend to swallow and digest everything but stone, while deserts can even preserve someone’s 3000-year old scones.  It is not fair, but we get more knowledge from ancient societies that were in climates suitable to preservation, be they Scandinavian bogs or Iraqi deserts.

OI egyp breadSAnd I thought I kept stale bread too long.

Stone survives quite well, in both building form as well as sculptural form, although I can assure you that pretty much every Greek sculpture I have ever seen was a 2C AD Roman copy of a Greek original.  Perhaps we need a phylogeny of sculpture as well as folklore.

Greek bas reliefAnother challenge is that more permanent materials are more likely to be re-used.  The Collosseum’s marble coating was scavenged to build Renaissance Rome, and the 13th century Quwwat ul-Islam mosque in Delhi was composed of demolished Hindu and Jain temples.

quwwat islam2_1

Below is Fountains Hall, a lovely 18th century manor in Yorkshire, composed of marble stripped from the nearby Abbey, which had been “dissolved” in ecclesiastical terms and was then flayed in architectural terms for its skin.  A kind of Frankenstein building, if we can handle one more reference to the early 19th century forebears who gave us heritage conservation, museums and the modern discipline of history.

Fountains Hall

The heritage field has a bias against intangible heritage, evident in the Athens Charter of 1931.  We only really started integrating folklore, music, dance and other “intangible” cultural heritage in the last twenty years or so.    This is somewhat ironic because our very first efforts to save historic buildings and our efforts to preserve fairy tales dates from the same time, time of Frankenstein, the Brothers Grimm, the Elgin Marbles and the Louvre. The onset of the 19th century when an emergent modernity spawned a great fear of loss.

dark sat mills ltAhh, the dark Satanic mills of Coalbrookdale – no wonder the Devil and the Smith survived

In the Western tradition and especially in the United States, we favor tangible heritage like buildings over intangible heritage like folklore.  We especially like architecture.  I used to assign this to the peculiarities of American preservation practice from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the Progressive Era and  the Historic American Buildings Survey in the Great Depression, but I think it is actually broader than that.

UVA lawn west.jpg Architecture becomes a “real” profession in the 1890s.  So when something becomes official and important you want experts. Architectural history is of course even younger.

entrance bldgsThe fabulous stone architecture of the Ossola Valley, Italy.

We needed a proper social science to guide our conservation work, and architecture fit the bill.  Even where there is a professional practice based on archaeology (France, Western U.S.) that is more interested in the broad material culture than in architecture, there is still a bias against the intangible – witness all the conflicts between archaeologists and indigenous peoples.


It has become increasingly clear to me that we need to redouble our efforts to save intangible heritage, and this phylogenetic study is a great example – because some stories do survive as well as stone and at the end of the day culture in any form is transmitted by people.  As my late colleague Dr. Clem Price noted, there are stories and oral traditions that are essential to the conservation of African-American cultural heritage.  Intangible heritage.

afric ceme 2 sign

I just noticed this morning that the house where Medgar Evers lived – and was assassinated – is being considered for National Historic Landmark status.  I applaud the preservationists I have worked with over three decades who have sought to save Rosenwald Schools and Civil Rights sites and landscapes sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  This is a good step but we will not reach historic truth and contemporary reconciliation through tangible heritage alone.

caden rosenwaldRosenwald school, Kentucky

We have to redouble our efforts because the many of the most important missing landmarks of American history were erased – by conquest and racism.  In my years of working on the Diversity Deficit in heritage, I regularly encountered What Does Not Survive Because We Buried It.


Recently installed, thanks to Equal Justice Initiative

Slowly, people are working to uncover this once-tangible heritage.  We must remember that many sites were forcibly, deliberately removed.  These were acts of cultural oppression and until we make their truth known widely, we cannot move forward the process of reconciliation.  This is one of many reasons that intangible heritage remains important today as it was two centuries ago.







Lathrop Homes, 3 years after

February 20, 2016

Full disclosure:  Four years ago, I was the Historic Preservation consultant for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes in Chicago, a very important 1937 federal housing project.  This past Thursday the Chicago Plan Commission approved the current plan for the project, which I ceased to work on when I left Chicago in July 2012. I took the opportunity to compare the plan to my April 2011 Preliminary Report and to the project at the time I left.

B-9 townhsThe homes were designed by pretty much all of the famous architects in Chicago at the time, since it was the Depression and very little building was happening.  Robert DeGolyer led, with Hubert Burnham, Hugh Garden, Tallmadge and Watson and many others.  The floor plans were adapted from federal housing unit typologies and basically consisted of rowhouses, flats and apartments.  The two, three, and four-story buildings were concrete with brick facing and adopted a Georgian mode with quoined corners and decorative touches like medallions, urns, and trabeated entrances.

lathrop K6 5-11The structures were arranged into T- C- and U- shaped units grouped around a large open space north of Diversey Parkway along the North Branch of the Chicago River.  Similar units occupied a narrower chunk of land south of Diversey between the river and the embankment along Damen Avenue.  The landscape design team featured Jens Jensen, adding to the architectural significance.

central court from rfmain open court north of Diversey

central courtyardBuildings in northern section, organized around a Great Lawn.

The Lathrop Homes were one of six federally-built public housing projects in 1930s Chicago, before there was a local housing authority.  These are found across the U.S. and often functioned pretty well for decades thanks to their human scale and generous site planning.

lathrop 40sLathrop Homes kids, 1940s.

Most of the others from this period have been demolished, including the Ida B. Wells project on the south side and the Jane Addams Homes on the West Side.  Since Lathrop was on the fast-gentrifying North Side, the Chicago Housing Authority was predisposed to razing it and selling the land, but a combination of neighborhood activists, political leaders, preservation advocates and public housing advocates pushed for an approach that favored rehabilitation.

G-7 H-7 archSo the Chicago Housing Authority put together a dream team of contemporary Chicago designers, including Jeanne Gang and Doug Farr and Tom Kerwin and Pat Natke, to develop a plan that would 1.  Keep a large number of public housing units on site, 2. Preserve the historic significance of Lathrop Homes, 3. Provide an economically sustainable development to finance it all through market-rate housing.  I was on that team for two years as the historic preservation consultant.

D-8 hedges

The plan approved Thursday garnered lots of criticism. primarily from housing activists.  There were 900 public housing units there originally, although less than 200 are occupied.  The new plan will create 400 on site and the CHA is on the hook for the rest.

There is also criticism coming from preservationists, since 12 buildings will be demolished, and from neighbors and others concerned with issues like density and financing. I haven’t seen environmental objections, perhaps because there is a lot of neat stuff in terms of landscape restoration, 11 acres of new parkland and a riverwalk.

s hoyne w fr abvI’m going to focus on the preservation issue and take advantage of the fact that I was in California for more than three years so I can compare where we were THEN to where we are NOW in preserving Lathrop.  Briefly, the plan preserves more than I thought it would.

lathrop aerialBin 2009 Landmarks Illinois did a very rough concept conserving 29 of the original 31 buildings, but they, along with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and  Preservation Chicago, had come to the conclusion by 2011 that the prime goal was to preserve the larger, more significant north side of the complex.  The southern plan was constrained by a narrow site, a high road embankment, and the intrusion of a high-rise in the 1960s.  Landmarks Illinois and the IHPA argued to save the side of the buildings facing Diversey on the south side to maintain the feel of the project while adding density there.  Preservation Chicago pushed for even higher density in order to save more south side buildings.  Along with the rest of the preservationist community, I focused on the more capaciously realized north side.

K-6 cornirBuilding K-6 in southern section with 1960s highrise in rear.

As I sat in design meetings in 2010 and 2011 it was declared that a new entrance on the north side off of Clybourn Avenue would require demolition of at least one building there.  Two others in the northwest corner were written off, along with the little Administration Building at Diversey, never built to its original design.

lathrop cornerIt created a very underwhelming corner entrance to the project.

The south side plan was to save only the first portion of the buildings facing Diversey, and the power plant, which with its echoes of Battersea was everyone’s favorite building.

lathrop 2700 leavittSo this would have been sliced in half, although thankfully not in the current plan.

powerhouseeverything about this Power Plant say make me into a microbrewery

Now my report had identified the significance of the Lathrop Homes as the site  planning, layout, landscaping and exterior of the buildings, especially the largest portion north of Diversey around the courtyard.  Almost all of the building windows and most doors had been replaced and while I noted some interior stairs, the consensus among the preservation community was that the interiors were not significant.

lathrop D8 5-11

The plan approved Thursday actually preserves MORE buildings than when I left the project almost four years ago.  Instead of losing four buildings on the north side of Diversey Avenue, the project is saving all but the Administration Building.  In addition, they are saving the brick arcades that connect many of the buildings on Clybourn Avenue and add so much to the overall design of the project.  These were to have been largely removed.

leavitt townhousesOne of the buildings we wrote off in 2011 on the north side, now being saved.

B-9 corner archBrick arcade on north side of Lathrop Homes site

2016.01.15__From Bridge_reducedView of the new plan from Diversey Parkway bridge over the Chicago River, which has always been the best view.

On the south side, three full buildings in their depth are being saved, which is a testament I think to the fact that unlike many landmarks, these are four-sided buildings, and while one could create sympathetic additions, authenticity is best served by having buildings in the round.  This also preserves the vista as you cross the bridge over the river.

M-11So these get to remain in their entirety

Preservation Chicago is in favor of the plan, but just because they are saving 61% of the original buildings (19 of 31), the entirety of the north side site plan and landscape, and more of the southern half than was planned a few years back, doesn’t mean there isn’t controversy.   Take a look at the new, denser buildings being planned for the Diversey entrance to the site from the east.


You can argue all day about the design of the new structures (the intent is to capture the brick veneer of the original complex to the same height) but the important question for me is what are we losing? I already noted I will not miss the wee Administration Building, so let’s look at the building at Damen on the south side of Diversey, shown here.

A-9 main This is a fine building, but if this density saves the whole north half of the site and more of the southern half than even I hoped, it is an worthy tradeoff in my view.

Bottom line?

2012 we had 14 of 18 buildings on the north side and no arcades.

Now we have 17 of 18 and the arcades.

2012 we had 1 building and 3 facades on the south side.

Now we have 3 whole buildings.

I hate to say it, but this plan got better after I left town!

2016.02.01_S100_Historic Buildings_reduced

Main Street and Community Preservation

February 13, 2016

state st lkpt

This coming week I will be lecturing about Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation initiative that began in the 1970s as a way to help preserve historic downtowns throughout America in communities of every size.  This was in the era when suburban shopping malls had become the centerpiece of American life, drawing attention and dollars away from the smaller shops and services of the old downtowns.

strip mall aerialSnot quite a 30,000 foot view but you get the idea

The invention of Main Street by my dear friend Mary Means marks for me a major shift in historic preservation, the shift toward a pragmatic approach to economics.  The first shift took place in the 1960s when a half-century of community efforts to save historic residential neighborhoods became a vital part not only of municipal preservation ordinances, notably  New York City in 1965, but also the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

georg twnhssGeorgetown, arguably the first historic district not designed for tourism

Historic districts have a history that goes back to the early 20th century, and the first to be legislated – Charleston and New Orleans – did it to help control a tourist economy that was threatening to kill the golden goose.  A wave of other historic districts followed in the 1940s and 1950s but it wasn’t until Georgetown in 1950 and Beacon Hill in 1955 that historic districts actually became community planning tools dealing not with tourism but the basic economics of residential neighborhoods.

Royal and Toulouse CornerNew Orleans

Now, the immediate impulses that led to historic districts were the massive government programs of urban renewal and highway construction that were decimating cities and towns, but these threats were only countered in communities that had already organized around their built environment.  For me it marks an important departure from the curatorial model that previously held sway.

wgv parkGreenwich Village.  A really long long story.

Main Street took an even more radical step by reducing the traditional preservationist focus on architectural design to a mere 25% of the program, focusing equally on Organization, Events, and Economic Restructuring. Not only that, but the design piece was even less curatorial because the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties had not yet been codified.  The goal was to save buildings but Mary and the others knew that would only happen if they made economic sense.IMG_7640and that was before sidewalk cafes, so you had to be creative

Also in the 1970s, the first historic preservation tax credits appeared, helping to address an imbalance (mostly in finance) between old and new buildings in terms of commercial real estate development.  This trend toward economic pragmatism and community organization took a further step in the 1980s as large government subsidies for real estate development became extinct.  The early 1980s were the era of the public-private partnership.

gaylord708sthis is where I enter the story – 25 years before this picture

I began my career 33 years ago Monday working on the very first heritage area in the United States.  Like Main Street, traditional historic preservation was only 25% of the goal, along with Natural Area Conservation, Recreation, and Economic Development.  Now historic preservation was taking on the massive de-industrialization affecting the economy.  It was the brainchild of my first boss, Jerry Adelmann and it was bold.  We held a conference in Joliet in 1984 when the city had 23% unemployment.  We saw the future – accurately as it turns out – and saw the value of our historic built environment to that future.

squander Vm quoteI’m so old I have literally been a museum piece – albeit one that “isn’t about museums”

The heritage area thing took off big time – there were over 40 across the country in 20 years time.  The public-private partnership aspect worked very well in an era of diminishing government resources and of course still does.  Like historic districts and Main Streets, it also prioritized the community’s role in self-organization for its own improvement, on its own terms.  Then my mentor, Jerry Adelmann, took his heritage area idea to China, and I followed.

Weishan north gate 2014this is the Weishan North Gate (1390) that burned a year ago.  It is now rebuilt.  Yunnan.

See, it turns out that the pragmatic approach to the development of our built environment developed by “historic preservationists” over a half century was eminently transferable .  Why?  Not complicated.  You identify the resources and assets of a place, determine how they function in an evolving economy, create vibrant sustainable models, and then scale them.  The last part is the hardest, but time has proven the sustainability of our model.

view fr twr along highwaySchoose your poison

I’m not saying that there aren’t big massive developments that ignore these principles.  They are everywhere.  They are generally less sustainable, but the real difference is community.  See all that stuff above about historic districts and Main Streets and heritage areas has a component of community control.  Even more importantly, heritage development insures that MORE MONEY stays in the local community.  It doesn’t go flying off to some faraway corporate HQ.

downtown NR distSmaybe you can ‘splain this to the MI and WI legislators who either A) don’t understand economics, or B) are being paid to send your money out of your local economy.

I’m very fortunate I was able to participate in, contribute to, and chronicle much of this fascinating half-century and I look forward to sharing it in Indiana next week!





Everything You Know Is Wrong, Part II

February 6, 2016

Eight years ago I wrote a blog with this title, to remind us that we often think our way past reality.   Despite our ongoing technological revolution the human mind still has a series of fallback postures that fail to perceive reality but instead distort it – simplify it, really – to make it fit into categories more satisfying to our adolescent brains.

VM UC 1981Who doesn’t adore their own adolescent brain?

 As I have often said, categories are the problem. They are the boxes everyone wants to think outside of. They are the crutches that allow brains to grow from adolescence but if you are still using them later, maturity is forestalled.

This week I watched this video of a honking great 1950s American automobile – when they were still made out of metal – crashing into a moderately sized contemporary car in a controlled test. Take a look:  Of course, as my mother and every older adult I ever met explained, they needed a big car because it was safer. And your brain says: “Of course!”

wee vinceI never knew how much danger I was in.

 Except the big old car crumbles to bits and the modern plastic car with snoozefest design survives reasonably well, forcing your brain to process the fact that a big sturdy steel car is NOT better in a crash than its modern polymer descendant because EVIDENCE.

In my last blog I riffed on the folly of thinkers left and right trying to blame historic districts for various “ills” of real estate economics.  What was the evidence?  Historic districts will make the prices go higher.  Except when they don’t.  Historic districts will help maintain value, which will make affordable housing more difficult.  Except when it doesn’t.  Part of the problem is politics, a bottom-feeding critter with a reptilian brain that never got beyond categories.

148 conv sw2And yes, CityLab, they come in more flavors than single-family.

While their folly had several sources, one of the most important was the tendency to think of economics as a zero-sum game.

Remember Benchley’s hilarious column from mid-1930s where he explained economics? I do. Well, I can’t quote it verbatim, but it basically suggested that after you groped around in your pockets and under the couch cushions there was only about $10.87 in the world, along with several rubber bands and mint wrappers (probably Sen-sen – it was the 1930s after all) but then you get a piece of paper from another country saying we owe you ten billion dollars and you run home to mom and say “Lookee I got ten billion dollars!”

Bank AmericaImma so rich!  Get Victor Gruen to design my bank!!!

Which helps our adolescent brain begin to conceive of debt and finance.

But still we have that tween brain that worries about national debt because – why? Someone is going to come knocking on the door and ask for it? Are these the same imaginary people coming to get your guns? Don’t you realize that we borrowed millions (billions in present dollars) to gain our independence from Britain 230 years ago and NEVER PAID THE DEBT? That’s how it works.

Solomon morris washgS

Just ask Chaym Solomon – he’s the guy on the right – the one we never paid back.

Which brings us to the drop-dead-dumbest category dichotomy of all: government and the private sector. This is popular conceptual shorthand that might help us understand things, but given the political environment of the last 35 years[1], actively obscures how things work.

This is especially true when you look at the development of the United States, starting with canals, which were financed by the sale of government-granted land.

vw to lock 8s

 Illinois and Michigan Canal, Aux Sable, Illinois

This was followed by railroads (financed by government land grants) and colleges (financed by government land grants).  There is of course the original government role in economic development – which is security.  You wanna trade?  You need a safe place from bandits.  That is the starting point of all economic development and the rationale for the single government expenditure that is larger than all the others put together.

tuystan axesS These were used for those who refused to pay the tolls and the taxes.  Also, they were paid for by the tolls and taxes.  Neat, huh?  (Tustan, Ukraine, c. 1500)

Now in the 20th century we shifted to a consumer economy so the government rebuilt Europe and covered the U.S. with the most important subsidy the private “sector” has ever seen, a subsidy so massive it shifted how we shop, how we live, and how we move through space.  I’m talking highways.

view fr twr along highwayS

drvg into sf2Draw a grid on this photo and then count up the squares for “private sector” and “public sector”. 

These so-called “sectors” are especially vexing when you deal with the built environment because so much of the built environment is ostensibly “public” in the form of roads and canals and highways and railroad tracks and schools.  I know we have spent the last three decades privatizing things – like every parking place in the city of Chicago – but there are still parks and roads and even if we are paying private lawyers (like Richard M. Daley!) to use them, they are functioning as public space.

Our landscape is BOTH AND, not EITHER OR.  We call the University of Michigan a STATE school even though the state provides less than 3% of its budget, and we call real estate a PRIVATE enterprise even though ALL of its value comes from public roads, sewers, water, police and fire protection.  Not to mention land reclamation, drainage and harbor improvements.

bay aerial mid penDid you know that real estate provides twice as much of the U.S. GDP as Information?[2] In the Information Age! (Also three times as much as either Transportation or Construction.)

Oh, and zoning. I have written many times before about how zoning – a government regulation – gives property value.  That’s why we have teardowns.  And really wealthy zoning lawyers.

wabash to trump13

Indeed, most of the second generation big city zoning ordinance in the late 50s and early 60s were designed to impel development.  Chicago’s 1957 zoning ordinance basically doubled the land value in the city in the hope that people would build more.  New York’s (1961) planned for 16 million residents by the 21st century and similarly upzoned much of the city.

DSCF6451Except where the residents were organized to save their historic architecture.  And their investment.

Greenwich Village (pictured above) had been organized so early that they insured lower zoning in the original 1916 zoning ordinance, thus reducing the possibility of a new subsidy that would lead to teardowns.  They did it again in 1961, having just conserved a building that not only the city but even the architectural historians hated.

gv jeff mkt cthsSJefferson Market Courthouse.  Unloved by all except THOSE WHO LIVED THERE.

Now, you might criticize this as NIMBYism, but that is yet another misleading category, like gentrification.  Some places can become “owners’ clubs” and some other places can become development firestorms, but there tends not to be a pattern that reinforces the category but a highly specific playing out of forces in each unique place.

lemoyne spiteIn spite of everything.

I would always tell my students that there are two constant truths, which remain equally true despite their seeming contradiction:

  1. No one wants to be told what to do with their property.
  2. Everyone wants to tell their neighbor what to do with their property.

So, any attempt by a community to influence the disposition of the built environment will require actions that cross the artificial borders between public and private.

Madison_indiana_main_street_08_2007-1Madison, Indiana – one of the original Main Streets.

Main Street was a National Trust for Historic Preservation program that started in the 1970s to conserve historic commercial buildings.  The Four Points of Main Street, still used today, could be characterized as largely “private” sector initiatives involving Design, Organization, Events and Economic Restructuring.  In fact, these four points each cross the public/private category over and over.  Design might be seen as regulatory, and if Main Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there were (and are) tax incentives for sensitive rehabilitation.  But there was also a recognition that the original design had a value, and that if everyone on the block could harness that externality, every property would add value.  Organization meant working together, in a way that the big shopping malls did because they were under one owner, so that falls toward the private sector (if we ignore the public roads and automobile subsidies that made the malls possible).  Events helped promote the area, so you could call it advertising, although depending on the event it might be more like a gathering of the public commons.  Economic Restructuring recognized that the market had changed (largely due to subsidized private transportation) and pushed formerly individuated businesspersons to work together to create a healthy mix of businesses.

state st lkpt

Now, contrast this 40-year success story with the knuckle-dragging antics of the Michigan and Wisconsin state legislatures who are trying to ban historic districts because they are government overreach.  They are so focused on the “public” side of the equation that they will fail, because EVERY economic equation has both public and private in it.  Time for the mature minds to step in.



[1] Since 1981 incomes in the United States remain statistically flat while GDP grew 77%.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product by Industry, 2014.


Historic Districts, Economics and Misconceptions

January 30, 2016

One of the interesting facts about the heritage conservation field is that it does not track neatly with political persuasions.  My first day of work in 1983 saw the legislation creating the first national heritage area co-sponsored by every single member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, bar none.  Imagine.
lock 8 houseSeverybody loves them some locktender’s houses

So, I was a little confused that Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan were trying to get rid of historic districts in the name of “property rights.”  This is odd, because when I wrote my dissertation on historic districts, one of the reasons I looked at districts and not individual landmarks was that they tended to have broad political support because they treated everybody – or every property – the same.  A true libertarian can’t stand individual landmarks because they require an owner to save a property while letting all his neighbors do whatever they want.

cleve ot panOld Town, Chicago.  One of the case studies in my dissertation

Given the ideological fumbling of said state legislatures, we can write these actions off as the attempts of a political junior varsity to go after some low-hanging regulatory fruit.  Historic districts are government actions after all, right?

pv-water-bottle-storeSo is water, but that issue is a tad sensitive in Michigan right now, so best to look elsewhere…

The quotes are typical of our facts-be-damned era.  Feature this:

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” said Wisconsin Republican State Senator Frank Lasee in a statement. “Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy.”

Senator you are KILLING it!  40 whole pages!  That’s like almost as big as a newspaper!  “A government committee” that it turns out is made up only of your neighbors?

Paint color regulation in Wisconsin????  Are you (something) kidding me??

main drag.jpgactual Wisconsin historic district.  Paint superfluous.

And windows….oh lord help me.  Dude, if you are replacing your windows, have at it, because you have already lost.

To even things out, one of the writers at Citylab – which is generally one of my favorite feeds – decided to attack districts from the other side of the aisle.  He said that historic districts prevent affordable housing by keeping values high and excluding people.  He said we should only designate individual public landmarks and then ranted about how Charleston (SC) is ruined now that its historic district is 85 years old.  See the article here.

100 wesley eastSmy historic district, protecting my property values.  we have awesome parties too.

How cool is this!  Historic districts are hurting people’s property rights!  Historic districts are raising values and thwarting affordable housing!  Historic districts are government overreach.  Historic districts are walls keeping out the poor!  (Got whiplash yet?)

carlos thropp torSexcept when they are community planning tools in underserved areas.  BURN!

No, historic districts do not restrict density (or use) and they do not prima facie restrict affordable housing, assuming there is local legislative requirement.  I live in a district full of houses that have been turned into 5-10 units without running afoul of the landmarks commission.

215 grov 406eS

Now, in fairness to the dude, this stuff is not known by most people.  So let’s break down the common misconceptions about historic districts, zoning, and real estate economics.

Real Estate Value

Real estate is the only asset whose value is entirely externalized.  This is obvious, but our nagging and inaccurate common sense always wants to pretend there is a zero-sum game out there.  But there isn’t.  A house can be gorgeous, important, even nicely fitted out, and if its neighborhood sucks mightily, it will have NO VALUE.  Ain’t nothing you can do to reclaim the value of that asset unless you fix the whole damn neighborhood.  Here’s proof:

waller 98 2844s

This is one of the Waller Apartments, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1894.  I bought this property 25 years ago for $1.  I paid $40,000 too much for it.  You got that, cowboy?  It had a NEGATIVE value because of its neighborhood, Frank Lloyd Wright be damned.

emeryville raised vicsEmeryville.  Too late, you missed it.

Yes, historic districts are like zoning, and yes, they preserve value.  People invest in their properties and want to preserve or enhance their investment.  That is why zoning was upheld by a really conservative Supreme Court in 1926.  Interestingly, because historic districts are more precise and individualized than zoning, they are a more useful tool for community activists.

Home economics

Here is the most economically illiterate sentence in the whole article:

“Houses, on the other hand, are often poor candidates for historic preservation.”

Whoa.  No.  Commercial and institutional properties are poor candidates for preservation because they have to make the rent.  They have to put a third down and convince a bank that they can offer a beige product that someone will buy NOW.

roper interior

People will spend money on their houses in a completely irrational manner because it’s their house.  There would be no pools, no doggie doors, no projection TVs, rec rooms, home theaters, basement bars or carpets if houses had to follow the same rational economic rules that other buildings do.

Urban Economics

The argument that both liberals and conservatives like to lob at historic districts is that they affect the real estate economics of the city.  This is what dude says about Charleston, which is apparently just ruined by entitled historic district owners and too expensive.

View east from KingEwww.

Ed Glaeser made the same argument about Manhattan, so it is good to see the liberals and conservatives united in opposition to preservation.  Except that this argument betrays a failure to understand economics at scale.

aeri ny8 v-z

Charleston and Manhattan are actually your best bets for making this argument, because if you take most cities and suburbs and look at all the properties and find out how much is encumbered by historic districts, you are lucky to hit 3% of the land.  You can hit maybe 15 or 20% if you look only at Manhattan or Charleston’s downtown peninsula, but once you include the rest of the city you are sitting back down in the single digits.

Which is why historic districts preserve value for the communities that seek them out (which is basically how it happens).  They are a technique to defend against larger, impersonal real estate issues rolling across the other 97% of the land.

curbcut class burlingSWhich means you can build loads and loads of these.  Blair Kamin calls them Curbcut Classicism.  I call them Lollapalazzos.

There are real estate forces at work that are much bigger and more powerful than historic preservation.  That is why all sorts of non-landmarked parts of Brooklyn have rocketed in value.  Indeed, in the late 1980s I saw Wicker Park in Chicago get landmarked and the adjacent non-landmarked neighborhood of Bucktown tripled in value in one year.  It took landmarked Wicker Park a decade to catch up.

bucktown newbersBucktown!

dodger hdonDemolished in Bucktown, 2006.

So how do you define success?  Low real estate values?   High real estate values?

This is one of those tricky issues – like gentrification – where you want to have a neat and clean reaction but you can’t.  Because it is messy.  I would like to have everyone who lives here stay here.  I would like to protect my property’s value.  I don’t want to be told what to do, but I REALLY want to tell my neighbor what to do.  Also, a pony would be nice.

sewickley hunt dogs2Sorry, we can’t afford a pony.

You want affordable housing?  Legislate it.  Here is some in Palo Alto, where the average house is about $2million.

801 alma PA w

The left and the right should both stop using historic districts as a whipping post.  These are tools that communities use to help determine their destiny in a more precise and individual way than is possible for most communities.  Also they save precious resources from filling landfills.  And grant a bit of beauty, grace and depth to our lives.

UPDATE: 24 Days later – Source of Michigan legislative illness revealed!

Turns out the Michigan law came about because the wealthy of East Grand Rapids defeated a local historic district last year and decided no one else should have one either!   Check out this article.

Sore losers I can understand.  But sore winners?  That’s just mean.

Maybe it’s just typical 1% thinking:  “Look Mom, I did something clever!  Now let’s scale!”

I saw the EXACT same thing happen in Winnetka, Illinois, 25 years ago.  Made a stink for awhile – even used the same analogies.  It died down as soon as the lobbying funding did.  Which is predictable because there are two truths this law fails to recognize:

  1. How real estate economics works (see above).
  2. How these districts got created in the first place, which was BY and FOR homeowners trying to protect their investment. That’s pretty much the ONLY WAY it happens.

Indeed, that is what happened in East Grand Rapids, except the community split over the idea of an historic district and kiboshed it.  So why would you spoil it for everyone else unless you were, say,  a developer who wanted to make your job easier.

Did I just answer my own question?

They also hired marketing gurus who came up with this whopper lie about how historic regulations work:

“Modern technology allows builders to make historic-looking home exterior parts out of aluminum or plastic, argues Afendoulis, but district commissions rarely, if ever, allow their use regardless of how closely they mimic wood.”

You know, if you are spending this much money you might do a little homework.


Codes and Coding

January 18, 2016

I was reading an article from the excellent CityLab feed titled: 14 Incredible Objections to a Single Boulder Housing Development and I reposted in on Twitter with the intro: Every reason but the real one.  The list had included typical arguments about density, traffic and parking and esoteric ones like “pet density”and “firefly habitat” but of course the real reason is that it is affordable housing and homeowners nearby don’t want to live near poor people.  Or black people.

Jane addams mural justice

I have studied the history of zoning codes and it struck me this morning how the coded language of the Boulder affordable-housing development opponents and the literal building and zoning codes that circumscribe our real estate are both essentially inflected by the racism at the heart of American history.

n shore chann aerial

The racist dynamic has of course inflected our social and political history – Civil War, KKK, Civil Rights, Black Lives Matter, etc., but it has also been inscribed on our streetscapes.  Zoning codes segregate and exclude – that is what they do, that is why they exist.

MLK monmt

For the entirety of my professional life I have given bus tours where we “read” the landscape we are driving through, whether urban, suburban, rural or wilderness preserve.  Reading the landscape is reading a timescape and in some places you can see the legacy of segregation in very obvious ways.  The wrong side of the tracks.

clarksvil old 2 drB

In the 19th century our systems of transportation made segregation of both people and uses pretty easy.  Industry had to be near the railroad tracks or docks.  Nice houses were surrounded by other nice houses and tracks provided definitional barriers.

highway from airBut when trucks and automobiles arrive in the 20th century they introduce uncertainty into the equation – which is the wrong side of the tracks?  Industry can go anywhere.  It is no coincidence that zoning arises in the early 20th century as a response to the radical uncertainty posed by the truck and the automobile.[1]

Zoning’s first manifestations in the U.S. were in California, and they were almost explicitly racist.  Use zoning emerged in Europe as a way to insulate residential areas from noxious industry, so 19th century Californians decided to zone against Chinese laundries to keep non-whites out of their neighborhood.

Then, exactly 100 years ago, skyscrapers added density zoning to the mix, but the massive spread of zoning between 1916 and 1926 (when it was declared constitutionally legal) was driven by residential suburbs.  In that decade, 591 communities adopted zoning, only 76 of which were cities where density zoning was an issue.

chgo skyline SW vwZoning is interesting because it has survived more than a hundred years, while the less coded forms of segregation – Jim Crow laws, restrictive covenants, insurance redlining – have fallen out of legal favor.  Part of that is because zoning is at least potentially color blind – it tends to exclude the poor and create enclaves of wealth, rather than race.[1]

I am reminded of Mike Nichols’ and Elaine May’s famous comment on urban renewal on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s and 1960s:  “Black and white united against the poor.”  Urban renewal was zoning with its own engine.

dan ryan-black belt64

Zoning is a code by which buildings (and attendant uses like parking and roads) are developed in space.  As one can see from the example in Boulder, the zoning code allows for language that is indicatively neutral while actually coded for race and class.  Look at these fun examples from the Boulder NIMBYs:

“Although the number of unrelated people living in a unit is restricted by local law, it is well known that there almost no City/Housing Authority enforcement. It is highly likely that, especially in rental units, four or five or six unrelated residents could reside in many of these rental units.” [1]

“Highly likely?”  Does that mean you would do that?  Or just “those people”?  You know, the kind who “rent”? Check this one out:

“Our neighborhoods are already teeming with dogs and this proposed plan of 44 units will surely increase the community dog population including the need for more Animal Control enforcement for off leash violations. In addition, Northfield Commons homeowners already pay dues for dog waste pick up on it’s property. The addition of another extremely dense community will add more pets who will use our community and particularly our park, Jasmine Park, for recreation and elimination. We have purchased dog waste stations positioned in Jasmine Park, and we supply bags and waste pick up services already and this comes out of our HOA dues!”

Wowwowow.  “Those” people appear to have dogs, and they are apparently unlikely to clean up after them.  And they should be paying dues, but apparently they aren’t likely to.  The code is not very hard to crack in this instance.


Zoning can not escape its racist and classist legacy any more than American history can.  The first step is acknowledging that legacy.  Zoning was explicitly exclusionary of uses, and implicitly exclusionary of “others.”  The second wave of zoning codes in the 1950s and 60s was driven more by highways and urban renewal, but it maintained segregation of uses and reinforced racist geographies.


Now we are in the 21st century and the noxious industrial uses that threatened fancy neighborhoods a century ago are no longer a problem.  In the last quarter century zoning codes have come to reflect the idea  that mixed uses – residential and commercial especially – are more vibrant socially and economically. The Industrial Age is over, and so is the zoning that kept smokestacks out of grade schools.


And just as we have come to incorporate a diversity of uses in our streetscapes, we need to encourage a diversity of population if communities are to sustain themselves.  That means using zoning to address injustice rather than perpetuating it.


[1] Lens, Michael C. and Monkkonen, Paavo, “Do Strict Land Use Regulations Make Metropolitan Areas More Segregated by Income?” Journal of the American Planning Association, quoted in Florida, Richard, “How Zoning Regulations Make Segregation Worse”, City Lab/The Atlantic January 4, 2016,

[1] Capps, Kriston, City Lab/The Atlantic, January 6, 2016.

[1] Hall, Peter G., Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual history of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1988, 1996 updated edition. See also Fischel, William A. The Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance and Land-Use Policies, Cambridge Mass, London, UK, Harvard University Press, 2001.





Diversity and American History

December 18, 2015

For several years I have been working on a problem: the “Diversity Deficit” in the National Register of Historic Places.  95% or more of our historic sites have as their primary significance the story of a male of European descent.  You can see some of this year’s blogs on the topic here and here.

sewickley hunt dogs2

I took this picture in the United States.

In some ways, this is an obvious issue – the National Register began 50 years ago when many of our historic sites were defined and interpreted by a history that did not recognize the contributions of women and minorities. More importantly, it did not recognize locales of oppression, exclusion and marginalization of those people. Even though our modern preservation movement arose at the dawn of “the new social history,” practice lagged.

woodlawn bestS Woodlawn, a National Trust property in Virginia,  the first after the founding of the Trust in 1949.

Add to that the fact that most landmarks are nominated for architectural significance – this is the easiest and most straightforward category. It is the one we can SEE. Unfortunately, the architectural profession is, and always has been, dominated by males of European descent.

St. Pat's Racine copy

I even wrote a book about this one.  Photograph copyright Felicity Rich.

Not to say there have not been attempts to correct the problem. In the early 1970s a host of National Historic Landmarks honoring African-Americans were created. My own (accurate, as it turns out) prediction about historic preservation in the 1990s stressed an increasingly diverse focus in the types of stories, cultures and resources being preserved.[1] So, part of the answer is to focus on historical and cultural significance, and include all American cultures.

ida wells hs91

Ida B. Wells House, Chicago, named a National Historic Landmark in early 1970s commemorating the civil rights pioneer.  My photo is from 1991.

Diversity was a leitmotif of my first National Preservation Conference in 1992 and I first gave a presentation on the issue at the conference in 1993. Last month we had a panel on the issue at the 2015 conference, focused specifically on HOW we can make the system work to express the true diversity of American history.


Our panel in DC:  Me, Julianne Polanco, Brad White, Joe McGill, Allyson Brooks

The panel included Allyson Brooks and Julianne Polanco, who serve as the State Historic Preservation Officers for Washington and California respectively. Their experience, especially with Indian tribes, has highlighted the limitations of the current system when it comes to minority history and sites. These SHPOs have been innovative in creating space for a more complete story by tweaking the processes for listing landmarks and reviewing projects that affect cultural resources beyond buildings by architects.


Mount Taylor, at 12,000 feet taller than any building anyway.  A National Treasure in New Mexico, sacred to Navajo people.

Another panelist was Joe McGill, who has been reenacting forgotten, overlooked and deliberately erased history for the last two years with his Slave Dwelling Project. He sleeps in former slave dwellings throughout the country, drawing attention to a lost quotidian reality. Many large plantation houses have expanded their interpretation to encompass the lives of enslaved peoples who made those houses possible.


Simply expanding the types of assets and the types of cultures we “celebrate” is not enough. We need to deal with the dynamics of our history and culture that were embedded in a racist system which systematically dispossessed and disenfranchised peoples of color.  This means that traditional ideas of integrity, for example, are obstacles to conserving heritage.  Joe McGill finds that all the time. Joseph-McGill-Presents-to-Students-at-Burton-Place

Joseph McGill presenting to students at Burton Place.

The time is now. We are at the end of a year that has witnessed a renewed discussion about the American race system. The many stories of unarmed citizens killed by police is the long tail end of a history that began with the earliest police forces, designed to prevent slave revolts. The shockingly transparent racism in the political realm is a legacy of the white privilege system that overlay the founding of the United States.

introduction of the watch

From exhibit in Chicago Cultural Center as part of Architecture Biennial, prelude to Jeanne Gang’s Chicago police station design.

Current events have sparked a more complete understanding of the history of “white privilege.”  More than understanding, there needs to be acknowledgement and reckoning to avoid what Eula Biss decries as “the constant erasure of the past and present”  brought about by denial of this ongoing historical reality.

mission espada gate

Mission Espada south of San Antonio, a World Heritage Site.

Heritage conservation, like the practice of history itself, has the obligation to wrestle with these realities.  Our current approach to preserving historical resources employs concepts like “period of significance” that deny continuity with the present and “integrity” that deny cultural erasures that are still open wounds.

mission concep interp2

Interpretive panels in Mission Concepcion, Texas.

As with all difficult encounters, there is a massive positive opportunity here.  For too long “historic preservation” has seemed a tool of the elite, those who understand and can name the intricacies of architecture and the Byzantine pathways of regulatory compliance.  Even the democratizing influence of the historic district (which I wrote about in my dissertation) ends up on that path, it seems.

clarksvill 2 doorBs Oh what a web we weave…

I am advocating for interpretation as a key piece of the next 50 years of the National Register of Historic Places, and this is arguably an area where great progress has been made.  But the real opportunity is genuine community involvement not simply in recognizing their neighborhood, but recognizing the complex, contested, ugly, beautiful and messy history that is the United States.

20th st murals

Does this building have MORE or LESS heritage with the mural?

The way to do this in heritage conservation is to incorporate not only cultural historians, but members of every cultural community PRIOR TO the identification and evaluation of landmarks. This can drastically expand support for heritage conservation and make it a tool of the people.

carlos thropp torS

Conserving heritage is a fundamental human activity, a part of growing up, of growing in general, of retaining the legacy of higher thought and creative production that separates us from other species.

Culture is what we build that outlives us.  It is also what precedes us, what makes us human.  It cannot be shared widely enough or understood deeply enough.


[1] Michael, Vincent, “Preservation in the 90’s”, Metropolitan Review, Fall, 1991


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