May is National Historic Preservation Month. We’ve never made much of a fuss about this. We figure every month in New York is about preservation. But preservation has taken it on the chin over the past year, so it’s good to remind ourselves of the reasons Congress passed The National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 and the City Council passed the City’s landmark law in 1965.
“The preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest,” Congress said, “so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”
New York City’s statute sought to “stabilize and improve property values; foster civic pride; enhance tourism, strengthen the economy and provide for the education, pleasure, and welfare of the people of the City.” And preservation has delivered.
Our elected leaders didn’t come to these conclusions on their own. They reacted to citizen demand. People convinced legislators at all levels of the need to “ensure future generations a genuine opportunity to appreciate and enjoy the rich heritage of our Nation.”
As America has become more inclusive in defining our heritage, so has preservation. Certainly, you can’t be involved in preservation in the City without embracing the diverse neighborhoods and groups that contribute so much to New York’s rich heritage.
Opponents have always claimed that preservation stops needed development. Last year it was pitted against promises of “affordable” housing in the City’s desire to upzone SoHo/NoHo—neighborhoods mostly covered by historic districts. We can only hope that out-of-scale development doesn’t wreck the unique sense of place that drew business and visitors from around the world.
After 57 years of the City’s landmarks law, only about 5% of City land is landmarked. The City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission routinely approves new buildings in historic districts. And our existing building stock contains many rent-regulated and subsidized units.
New York is fortunate to have so many layers of history reflected in its buildings. Older buildings hold our stories and give us a sense of place and identity. Many also have been adapted to meet changing needs.
I bet most New Yorkers have felt the loss of at least one building that mattered to them. And it would be hard to imagine the City without a whole list of buildings you could name.
So Happy National Historic Preservation Month. We are grateful to all the people five decades ago who pushed for the legislation that saves our heritage, contributes to our economy, and enhances our daily lives. Preservation was worth fighting for then. It still is today.