Protecting Your Place

Efforts to protect a place are usually galvanized by a threat or an unexpected opportunity. Typically the tools are few, and the stakes are high. Nevertheless, place advocates have forged some useful strategies, which we discuss below, matching them to the three goals articulated above in Step 5 of Defining Your Project:

These goals are by no means mutually exclusive, but their pursuit can require different strategies.

Remember, all effective advocacy campaigns involve collaborating with stakeholders and communicating to others why your place is important. So you'll want to use the strategies outlined in the previous sections of the Toolkit. Telling the story of your place will help you attract supporters, and communicate effectively with grant-making organizations, elected officials, and government agencies whose policies may affect your place, or who may be able to provide your place with funding or other support. Because collecting and presenting information about a place takes time, it's a good idea to begin the process before your place is threatened.

Option 1: Preserving the Structure

"Human experiences are written onto the environment. We etch our existence into the landscape with our lives. Then we look back to read our lives between the brick and mortar."

Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter, Reaven and Zeitlin (2006)

The impulse to preserve places grows from the desire to preserve meaningful links between the past and present. Because the landscape is physical, and therefore tangible, elements of the built environment keep the past alive in powerful ways. Preservation is as much forward-thinking as it is backward-looking; at heart, it is about what we collectively value.

If you are committed to preserving a physical structure or built landscape feature, then you are likely to mount some type of historic preservation campaign.

  • One form of preservation is purchase and caretaking of historic properties.
  • Another is the use of landmarks laws, which can confer public authority to protect historic properties for posterity. There are three levels of landmark recognition for historic properties: local, state, and federal. While each carries specific types of prestige and benefits, landmark designation by city government often provides the greatest amount of protection for the property.

To learn more about historic preservation in general, and to investigate how landmarking works in your locale, consult local, state, and national experts, and the wealth of existing information in books, pamphlets, and on the Internet. See the Resource section below as a starting point.

Continue reading to consider landmark designation for buildings whose importance lies in embodying an event, era, or memory, rather than in representing a style of architecture.

Special Challenges in Landmarking

In New York City, more landmark designations have been made on the basis of architecture and aesthetics than on broader considerations of history and culture. This is true even though the city's landmarks law is written to embrace the full spectrum of our heritage—of architecture from high design to vernacular; of history in all its complexity; and of culture in its multitude of expressions. Does the landmarks body in your locale tend to privilege aesthetics over other values? Is the place you are trying to protect notable less for its architecture than for association with, say, an event or a social movement? If your answer to both is yes, consider how this will affect your preservation campaign and prepare by taking the following steps.

1. Tell a rich, well-researched history that sets your place within citywide, statewide or national contexts. (Consult the Toolkit section Explaining Your Place)

2. Show evidence of public recognition and broad support for your place. (Consult the Toolkit sections Defining Your Project and Presenting Your Place)

3. Be specific about the architectural dimensions of the history embodied in your place.

  • How does the shape of the building, its materials, or its architectural features convey the history that needs to be remembered?
  • What aspects of the physical structure help us see and understand the aesthetic, historical, or cultural significance of the place?

Point number three—defining the architectural dimensions of the story—is usually where the main hurdles arise. But don't overlook points one and two, because you'll need them to accomplish point three.

One often-expressed concern is how the history is represented in the physicality of the building—in, say, its size, massing, location, styling, or specific features.  This question comes into play pre- and post-designation. Before designation you must prove that the significance of the history can be "read" in the building, thus making the building worth preserving. After designation, public decision-makers must rely on this information to direct their actions in regulating future changes to the building.

It can be tricky to identify the architectural dimensions to a piece of history embodied in and by a building. But the more we try it and test our thinking in public, the better we will get at it. Consider Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, pictured earlier in the Toolkit. Specific features that could be regulated include its signage, its counters, and perhaps most of all, its open-air arcade design. In the unhappy event that Nathan's were to leave its spot at the intersection of Stillwell and Surf avenues, preserving the character of its former structure would sustain cherished memories that extend back generations. Even those who knew little or nothing about Nathan's would still experience its locally distinctive mixture of physical design, light, sea air, and street life: its special "place-ness."

Another common reason for denying landmark status to a building is that it has sustained so much physical change that it no longer looks just as it did during its "period of significance," i.e., the time period being recognized as the reason for preservation. The following two examples demonstrate that buildings can be designated as landmarks for their historical significance despite changes in appearance (also called "loss of integrity") over time.

  • New York City: PS 64/El Bohio
    In New York City, in 2006, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the former PS 64/El Bohío building on Manhattan's Lower East Side as a landmark. The two reasons cited were PS 64/El Bohío's service in the early twentieth century as an important school for immigrants, and its symbolic role as one of the most significant buildings saved by a community preservation movement. This movement took place during the 1970s and 1980s, when neighborhoods throughout New York City were being devastated by private disinvestment and public abandonment.

    When considering PS 64/El Bohío for designation, the Landmarks Preservation Commission knew that the property owner would probably strip architectural detail from the building, allowable by virtue of a prior permit. While attempting to prevent such wanton damage, the Commission decided nonetheless that the loss of this detail would not so compromise the preservation purpose as to make the designation meaningless. The designation was upheld by the New York City Council in a subsequent review.

    See Place Matters' summary of the building's history
     

  • Chicago: The Roberts Temple/Church of God in Christ Building
    In Chicago, in 2006, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks designated the Roberts Temple/Church of God in Christ building for having been the site of a pivotal moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. At Roberts Temple, in 1955, Mamie Till Bradley held an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son Emmett Till, who had been kidnapped and killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. Ms. Till wanted the world to see what her son's murderers had done to him, to witness the full horror of this racist crime. The response was overwhelming: as the research report about the site stated, "The death and funeral of Emmett Till is one of the three major catalytic events in the nationally-important civil-rights movement in 1954 and 1955; the others being the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 and Rosa Park's refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955." (Landmarks Div., Chicago Dept. of Planning & Development, 2005)

    The Commission designated Roberts Temple even though the building's interior and exterior had been extensively remodeled in the half-century since Emmett Till's funeral. The landmarks research report stated, "Despite these changes, the building retains its location, overall design, and historic association with the Emmett Till funeral." The report identified only the "exterior elevations, including rooflines, of the building" as the specific features needing protection. This approach makes the point that it is the continuing existence of the building in a recognizable form that helps us remember this important place and the history it embodies.

Resources

In the Resource section we list useful books and websites.

For additional suggestions specific to New York City, go to the database of the Neighborhood Preservation Center.

 

Option 2: Retaining Longstanding Use

Many places are cherished because they offer a home for ongoing community or cultural traditions. They are gathering points for communities that may be shaped by proximity, interests, occupations, passions, politics, shared heritage, and sexual orientation. Places provide the physical forms for communities to shape themselves around, and communities come to define places.

If you are committed to preserving a type of longstanding use, and by extension the community engaged in that use, consider whether the place is critical to the use and to maintaining the cultural or community traditions you care about. If your answer is no, and your place is threatened, explore the possibility of moving the use. If your answer is yes, then consider how to protect the place and the use at the same time.

Protecting places of longstanding use demands a place-specific combination of strategies that take best possible advantage of the assets, skills, and strengths represented by the place or the pool of advocates. Generally, one needs to rally devoted supporters and search for sources of private and public help. Persistence and a good dose of luck help. See below for a few approaches that are adaptable to many situations.

Secure the Place

The more control exerted over a property—via ownership or legal stipulation—the more likely it is that the property will remain dedicated to the existing use for as long as the user community stays intact.

Landmarking is one way to exert such control. Since uses need places to harbor them, the continuing existence of a hospitable place—achieved via landmark designation or some other intervention—may be enough to sustain a use. However, existing use alone is not generally a reason for landmark designation; in New York City, it cannot factor into designations at all. Since there are many reasons why specific places may never achieve legal protection, consider whether pursuing this strategy will be worth your time and effort.

Get Recognized

While some uses and users prefer to remain outside of the public eye, most benefit from securing public recognition and support. Visibility brings volunteers, foundation grants, larger audiences, increasing admissions, political backing, and other things that contribute to sustaining existing uses. In Presenting Your Place, among other strategies for securing recognition, we included listing to the State and National Registers of Historic Places. What follows directly below is further detail about Register listing as it relates specifically to the issue of retaining longstanding use.

National Register of Historic Places: "Traditional Cultural Property" Listing
One important route to public acknowledgment is listing to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, also discussed in Presenting Your Place. Properties listed to the Register are popularly called landmarks, but it is important to remember that Register listing does not bring with it a high degree of legal protection. Still, if you want to draw attention to your place and build support for a longstanding use, Register listing may be helpful. It brings local and national stature, the possibility of tax benefits, and the promise of government review (even, perhaps, some form of protection) when a Register-listed property will be affected by publicly supported development.

Typically, saying that your place sustains an important longstanding use will not help you get it listed to the National Register. There is an important exception, however.

  • If you can demonstrate that your place is a "traditional cultural property," its history of continuous use may strengthen your case. Quoting from the government guidelines, a traditional cultural property is a place that is "eligible for inclusion in the National Register because of its association with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that (a) are rooted in that community's history, and (b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community."
     
  • Even better, if you can adequately make this claim, the history of continuous use of your place won't work against it. Places vital to historical memory and cultural tradition often run afoul of State and National Register approvals because the place has sustained physical changes over time so its appearance no longer seems to represent the history, and because a single use of a property has been so continuous that the authorities don't view it as historical. Meeting the "traditional cultural property" guidelines nullifies both of these objections.

Consider whether your place fits the definition of "traditional cultural property." If so, it may help you prove the signficance of your place and overcome agency concerns about changes to the structure and identification of the historical period being commemorated.

Get Involved

Does your city have some form of community-based governance? Many do. New York City, for example, has 59 community districts, each with a local community board made up of local volunteers appointed by city officials. Participating in community planning gives you access to much more information about threats and opportunities that could affect the future of your place, ranging from substantial public policy decisions about zoning to small decisions about, say, who gets approved for certain commercial licenses. It's also a way to cultivate friends and supporters among influential neighbors and elected representatives.

Reach out to local institutions and groups. There may be new ways for your place to contribute to local life, such as collaborations with local schools, libraries, houses of worship, senior centers, historical societies, and other community-service organizations. Or perhaps your place can offer performance, meeting, study, or other kinds of space to local artists, performers, and social groups. Finding new uses for your place knits it even more intricately into the community, broadening the base of supporters if it becomes threatened. New uses can also bring about opportunities, such as connections to people with useful expertise or influence, as well as potential new revenue in the form of user fees, ticketed events, and more.

Resources

For more information about pursuing recognition from the State and National Register, see www.nps.gov/history/nr/listing.htm. Also, consult with your State Historic Preservation Organization (SHPO).

A well-written bulletin from the National Park Service explains whether your place can be considered a "traditional cultural property." Download "Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties" from www.cr.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb38/.

Case Study: Bohemian Hall

Neighborhood Preservation Center database

Option 3: Interpreting the Story

Earlier sections of the Toolkit discussed the steps involved in learning the story of a place. But informing yourself is only part of any protection campaign. To draw attention to your place, you need to tell others. An educational (sometimes called interpretive) project creates a bridge between the actual place and broader concerns that might otherwise remain hidden or abstract. This bridge enhances the connection between the place and its story.

Committing yourself to interpreting the story of your place is extraordinarily useful to your advocacy efforts, helping you build a case for why a place matters and convincingly present that case to others. Interpreting the story will strengthen campaigns to protect a structure or a longstanding use. In addition, when the place you care about no longer exists, interpreting its story can be a primary aim, a principal recourse for preserving its history and significance.

Educational projects can be oral, written, visual, or experiential. When you offer a guided tour, write down or record a history, make a video, put up plaques, or reproduce photographs for public display, you are engaging in educational work. See Presenting Your Place for suggestions about writing a place profile and making public presentations. These two interpretive strategies are low cost and adaptable to many situations. There are, of course, many other methods. Choosing the right one(s) for your campaign will depend on factors such as the audience you want to reach, what you want to say, the size of your budget and/or resources, and the interests and skills of your fellow stakeholders in the place.

Many of the steps involved in creating educational projects will be done more easily and with more bang for the buck if you can find skilled practitioners among colleagues and supporters of your advocacy campaign. This is another important reason to reach out widely to stakeholders early in your efforts.

Here are two examples to help you think about how to approach educational projects:

From Mambo to Hip Hop in the South Bronx

Place Matters collaborated with The Point Community Development Corporation in the South Bronx to undertake a variety of educational efforts that would tell history of the development of a New York Latin music sound and hip hop in a few neighborhoods in the Bronx. The From Mambo to Hip Hop Case Study is in the Toolkit appendix.

Your Guide to the Lower East Side

Place Matters collaborated with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and Lower East Side Preservation Coalition to develop location markers—signs—that would highlight special places in the Lower East Side from the perspectives of community residents. Download the pdf here.

Call the Neighborhood Preservation Center to get references for practitioners of educational projects: (212) 228-2781

Email Place Matters for advice: placematters@citylore.org