By Jeff Johnson

As a member of Cleveland City Council, I have been challenged to respond to some difficult issues within the urban neighborhoods of the city. One of those issues is how to preserve Cleveland’s cultural heritage, including the structures and sites that are historic and important to the city, while it goes through very difficult economic and social change. Of course I know what I am facing in Cleveland are the same challenges that other leaders in Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Buffalo, and many other cities are also seeing each day.

Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood (Photo: Stu Spivack)

Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood (Photo: Stu Spivack)

It was these significant challenges that led me earlier this year to work with the Cleveland Restoration Society and Cleveland State University to plan and organize the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference in June. I was delighted and inspired by what I learned during the three days at the conference.

I was particularly energized by the workshop on the last day of the conference, as a room full of participants with diverse talents and experiences talked about the previous two days and the priority issues for historic preservation in our legacy cities. That discussion included:

  • A belief I shared that to preserve our legacy cities, we have to organize within the historic preservation community to develop effective advocacy and education strategies around the changes we need within our cities. Also, the ability of individuals and organizations to share, support, and sustain preservation efforts within legacy cities is critical to strengthening those cities.
  • Acknowledgment that the loss of population from the core of our legacy cities, along with increased poverty, has created socially and economically weaker neighborhoods with many abandoned structures, increased foreclosures, and decreased investment. We know that these social and economic shifts have raised doubt concerning the continued value and usefulness of historic preservation in the struggle to save our neighborhoods.
  • Overviews of successful projects within legacy cities that have strengthened neighborhood commercial districts and proved that economic development and historic preservation are not mutually exclusive.
  • The need to strike a more rational balance of the use of demolition, mothballing, and rehabilitation in the fight against abandonment and blight, so that they do not lose historically significant neighborhood and downtown structures.
  • The commitment to not surrender to the cynical beliefs of some key influential and powerful voices in our cities who say that historic preservation is a luxury we cannot afford during these difficult times.

    The Doan Classroom Apartments in Cleveland offer affordable senior housing in a formerly foreclosed building (Photo: Ohio Preservation Compact)

    The Doan Classroom Apartments in Cleveland offer affordable senior housing in a formerly foreclosed building (Photo: Ohio Preservation Compact)

Growing up in the historic Cleveland neighborhoods of Collinwood and Glenville, I recognized and appreciated the importance of legacy and cultural heritage. I continue to believe that fighting for our historic community links, as reflected in our historically significant physical structures and sites, is essential in the effort to solve our most difficult social and economic problems.

The Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities conference provided for me confirmation that this is the right fight. I left with the understanding that the identification, insight, and analysis of the challenges of our legacy cities undoubtedly requires historic preservation to ensure that we actually solve our problems and not lose what is uniquely ours.

Jeff Johnson is Councilman of Ward 10 in the city of Cleveland, Ohio.