What the Preservation Movement Needs Now

prez brokaw

The Brokaw Mansion at East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Built in 1890, it was demolished in 1965, just before the Landmarks Law was signed. It was one of those signal events in the struggle for the Law, almost on par with the destruction of Pennsylvania Station.

If you’ve been involved in a movement for going on 40 years, you probably have a few things to say about it. And if you’re as observant and educated about the movement as Anthony C. Wood is about preservation in New York City, those things are probably worth considering.  Make that definitely, in Wood’s case.

As part of the year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the city’s Landmarks Law, Wood — author of Preserving New York and founder of the Preservation Archive Project, among many other things — talked with us recently about the past, present, and future of preservation in NYC. We encourage you to enjoy the entire video of that conversation. But, since we realize our readers may be too busy as activists to savor a 75-minute video, we want to share a few provocative and inspiring highlights from Wood.

How does “preservation” intersect with the current desire to save small businesses?
Question begins at 30:58

“I think preservationists have been very careful over the years not to introduce, into the legal conversation about preservation, issues that don’t fit within the criteria of the law for designation. I think preservationists have been very sensitive about not wanting to be seen as using the Landmarks Law to achieve other goals, which indeed [they’re] criticized for doing.

So I think there’s kind of the narrow, ‘this is what the law does,’ and that’s one conversation, but clearly, if you’re concerned about preserving a neighborhood, there has to be a wider range of tools available to do that. Because in a sense the law was written not to deal with use. And use is so key in preserving the larger context of a neighborhood.

So there are other tools that have to be used and I think preservationists have to link arms with the organizations focused on those other areas and work with them to get the new tools to supplement and augment the wonderful tool we have, which is the Landmarks Law, but it was designed for a specific set of purposes, and we need to augment it, not stretch it beyond what it can really accommodate.

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Wood talks with me at the Baha’i Center on April 30.

I think we haven’t in any way pushed the envelope on other tools or mechanisms. …When we got the Landmarks Law, that really focused the whole conversation around preservation on the playing field of the Law itself. And so as a result, the advocacy and the expertise we developed was around the designation process, the regulation process. Other cities that didn’t have a strong regulatory system to rely on, had to be creative in inventing other tools to try and save buildings, creating nonprofits that could directly intervene in the real estate market, and buy property, and rehab it, and sell it. In a sense there’s a range of tools that other cities have played the leadership role in, that we never have pursued as aggressively or have been seen at the cutting edge of. So I think also, preservationists need to look at other preservation tools, that other cities have developed, in addition to tools dealing with issues of use and the like.”

Wanted: Citywide preservation leadership
Question begins at 34:30

“I think the preservation community in the last 10, 15 years has given itself a luxury it can’t afford. And that luxury has been not to like other preservationists, and not to work with other preservationists. And what I mean is, if we’re battling Donald Trump, and Donald Trump doesn’t do what you want him to do, we’re not surprised. When you’re in a preservation battle, and you reach out to a fellow preservation organization and ask them to be part of it, and they say no, for whatever reason, that is a huge barrier.

And so over time – and of course this is my perspective, over the past 10, 20 years – preservation groups have become disappointed with each other at times. And so, there’s not a cohesive preservation community. Now part of it is also, there are a lot more preservation groups in 2015 than there were in 1980. When I started to be involved in preservation in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was pretty clear that the Municipal Art Society, working with the Landmarks Conservancy and probably in cahoots with the Landmarks chair, were kind of in charge of what was going on. And the ground troops were happy to take their orders because someone else was thinking about it strategically.

That has totally changed. So now, the good news is that we have a number of very robust preservation groups – GVSHP, Landmark West, Friends of the Upper East Side – so we’ve got a lot more groups, but there’s not really a real sense of leadership. Back in the day, MAS would provide that leadership and had the moral authority within preservation to do it. That doesn’t exist at the moment, certainly the way it used to, and I think we’re suffering from a real lack of leadership within the preservation community.”

Seeking the next big ideas
Question begins at  48:18

“I think we’re missing at the moment the big ideas. I think we’ve been in such a defensive posture trying to madly hold on to what we have, that I don’t think people have had the comfort level or courage or ability to imagine how we could improve our lot. I think the big ideas we need [include] viewshed protection – protecting parts of the skyline – which I think you could clearly do under the authorizing legislation, under the Bard Act. In a sense, pushing the aesthetic envelope. What you talked about earlier, “uses,” mom-and-pop stores. So I think there are a lot of things we haven’t solved.

But where is the idea today that may take 30 years to come into reality? I don’t see that many of them out there. It doesn’t mean they’re not out there. They may not have been lifted up, or brought into the space I’m in. But that’s I think what we need. I don’t see that much of it. The Landmarks Law – [Albert] Bard had this image in 1913 of regulating for aesthetics – but it was in 1951 when the Municipal Art Society president actually said there ought to be a law. That was 1951, it took til 1965 [until the law was passed]. Again, we think of things in such short time periods that it’s a problem. Because some of these ideas just take time. You have to articulate them, you have to build a constituency for them, you have to find out what the legal vehicle is to implement them, and then you have to create the political will for that vehicle to become part of law or part of the way business is done. That takes time. And that’s again the value of the history to remind us: this doesn’t happen overnight, we have to lay the groundwork, we have to be out there doing the education.”

We invite you to hear more of Wood’s insights here.

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Karen Loew

Karen Loew is the Director of East Village and Special Projects at GVSHP.