By Michael R. Allen
Today, as historic preservationists delve into the realities of older American cities that have faced population and building loss, we find ourselves reaching—and transcending—our field’s own limits. Nowhere is this more evident than in our engagement with the methodology of “rightsizing,” which has found preservation advocates making the case for embracing some demolition. The converse of this bold new look at urban preservation means developing serious conservation strategies for vernacular building stock that might not come in the tidiest, architectural history textbook–friendly form. If we embrace demolition to save cities, we can’t neglect the preservation work needed for what remains.
That’s where our left hand smacks into our right. The National Register of Historic Places, the backbone of American preservation practice for nearly 50 years, looks more like an impediment than a helpmate for the new era of legacy city preservation. In some cases, it actually makes preservation of places important to people more difficult.
The major problem for legacy cities is that National Register listing is predicated on a building or district’s “integrity,” a status based on having a majority of seven aspects based on historic appearance. For a city like Boston or Savannah, finding districts that look as they did in an earlier time is a lot easier than finding the same in East St. Louis or Detroit. Fractured neighborhoods don’t stand a chance of becoming historic districts, no matter how hard communities push. The National Register privileges appearance over community will, public commemoration and economic value.
The result is that parts of neighborhoods can become National Register historic districts, but areas with scattered remaining buildings—people’s homes and businesses, often where deep neighborhood legacies reside—cannot. This would not be a problem if preservationists regarded the National Register and its enshrined criteria as simply a federal preservation planning tool, which is its true intention. Instead, we have written other preservation laws from local demolition review to state historic tax credit programs to enshrine National Register status and standards. There are social justice implications to all of these laws.
Preservation practice rooted in the National Register can become arbiter of people’s abilities to even have a neighborhood. In St. Louis, I have worked for years in both advocacy and practitioner capacity urging preservation of the city’s near north side, where 19th-century walking neighborhoods were torn apart by federal urban renewal programs. Today, the city has designated 1,500 acres of north St. Louis as a privatized urban renewal project called Northside Regeneration. While there are several districts in the area, and I co-authored the National register nominations for two new ones in the last four years, most of the area consists of scattered historic buildings whose groupings are not eligible for the National Register due to lost “integrity.”
The streets of the St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou neighborhoods may look depleted to the eye of the preservation official, but to residents’ eyes the streets are ripe with history. The history that these streets embody to many people is not the origination era when the rowhouses and flats were built, but the recent years when African-American residents inscribed their cultural life here. Small businesses hold stories. Remaining houses in JeffVanderLou show us the heroic effort of the Jeff-Vander-Lou Corporation, which broke the urban renewal script by renovating over 800 units of existing housing in the 1960s and 1970s while the bulldozers mowed down adjacent areas. The explanation of why the area can’t get listed in the National Register puzzles residents.
Still, Northside Regeneration’s preservation plan calls for retaining only buildings eligible for the federal and Missouri historic tax credits. The other areas are marked for wholesale clearance for new construction. The developer, the city and many preservation advocates have consigned these areas to the wrecking ball because they are ineligible for the National Register. That is discordant with the desires of many residents not simply to stay in their homes but to see the areas around them remain recognizable as their neighborhoods. Preservation seems to be too willing to denigrate community will, in favor of bureaucratic consistency.
Where is the movement that emerged to fight the federal bulldozer? Historic preservation sprouted up as a major cause in the age when entire neighborhoods were being wrecked in the 1950s and 1960s, including those in north St. Louis that are once more in the crosshairs of progress. What a shame it would be if the movement now became complicit with the postmodern equivalent of Great Society–era urban renewal clearance. Not only does the city lose buildings, but preservation itself loses the chance to embrace a constituency of urban residents who love historic neighborhoods. We can’t simply tell them that their neighborhoods aren’t good enough for us, can we?
The St. Louis Cultural Resources Office, under the direction of Betsy Bradley, points to a more inclusive politics of preservation. Last year, in the city’s JeffVanderLou neighborhood, a corner store known as Tillie’s Corner was headed to a National Register listing for Ethnic Heritage. “Miss Tillie” has operated an institution that was a gathering place from the 1940s through the 1980s as JeffvanderLou became an African-American neighborhood. Her granddaughter Carla Pearson spearheaded a grassroots preservation campaign that sadly ended when the buildings collapsed before National Register listing was complete. The Cultural Resources Office pushed to make the site, now a community garden and residence, a City Landmark despite the building loss—because the site was a tremendous cultural site from the recent past.
There are more City Landmarks all over the north side of St. Louis, with or without remaining buildings, and the Cultural Resources Office’s willingness to recognize ascribed cultural value instead of relying upon the influence of the National Register integrity standard is commendable. However, none of these City Landmarks can receive state or federal historic tax credits without National Register status. Tillie’s Corner doesn’t need incentives to preserve what is lost, but other lone buildings of neighborhood value and historic significance need financial gaps closed to ensure survival. As long as historic tax credit laws privilege National Register status, which precludes listing of many urban buildings, we’ll lose countless buildings of great cultural value.
The new South Carolina tax credit for rehabilitation of abandoned buildings is a great step for preservation of cultural sites, because it divorces preservation incentives from the National Register. State and local laws need to respond to public will to preserve—not the National Register’s standards created for federal management purposes. Preservationists in turn need to champion alternative forms of commemoration instead of pointing people to a single tool in what should be a larger toolkit. The federal 10 percent tax credit is also a useful mechanism, but it is not sufficient to bridge financial gaps in many distressed urban areas, and there are no state-level equivalents.
Reforming the National Register itself is still needed, and urgent. Last year in Indianapolis at the National Preservation Conference, both Raymond Rast and Vincent L. Michael eloquently laid out reforms that would help cultural properties currently deficient in both “integrity” and even “significance” (the National Register castigates ordinary buildings, even though they form the bulk of shared American experience). Ned Kaufman has urged preservationists to utilize the National Register definition of “traditional cultural property,” largely applied to Native American properties, to make the case for listing the urban vernacular associated with ethnic heritage. Reforming the National Register, however, won’t happen without a preservation movement that recognizes that some places need different frameworks for evaluation, commemoration and conservation. The fates of our legacy cities are too important to not develop these new tools.
Nearly 20 years ago, historian Dolores Hayden published her renowned book The Power of Place, in which she argued that preservationists were neglecting sites and buildings associated with women and minority history, social unrest and the lives of the working class. Hayden expressly called for historic preservationists to take seriously “ordinary buildings”—worker’s houses, factories, warehouses and other buildings whose significance is probably not architectural. As long as preservationists take the National Register as a veritable gospel, we are blinding ourselves to all aspects of historic places. Places that matter to people don’t always matter because of the way they look—they matter because of what they mean.
Preservation practice is going to change based on engagement with the reality of rightsizing older cities. While embracing demolition is the seemingly most radical aspect of that change, confronting—and in some cases overthrowing—the National Register may be more fundamental. Rightsizing is about more than assenting to demolition. Fundamentally, urban rightsizing demands that preservationists recognize that solutions are contextual, collaborative and multi-faceted. If the National Register isn’t helping us do our work, we need to find—or invent—the mechanism that does.
Michael R. Allen is the founder and director of the Preservation Research Office and a lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His writing on historic preservation, architectural history and public art has appeared in Next City, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Temporary Art Review, PreservationNation, nextSTL and other outlets.
Allen first published this article as a guest post for the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.