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