Preservation volunteer workday in Charles County, 2017.

When Historic Preservation Helps Cities: A Response to Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times

01/27/2020
By Nicholas A. Redding

With all due respect to New York Times’ editorial Board member Binyamin Appelbaum, who recently published a lengthy opinion against preservation, preservation is neither wholly perfect nor entirely harmful – there are shades of gray to this story which would have been worth exploring and considering on the pages of one of America’s true legacy newspapers.

We say that not simply because we are the preservationists and he is not (and that he is on the attack). Rather, we say that because we see the shades of gray in this complex and challenging situation – we accept and appreciate that preservation has been used as an impediment – and has a legacy of investing in certain stories and places at the exclusion of others. Yet, at the same time, preservation has been a powerful force for good and can be a tool for building just, equitable, and environmentally conscious communities for the complex years on the horizon.

Project partners at Phillips Packing House, August 2019.

PRESERVATION ECONOMICS

As an accomplished chronicler of economic conditions, we would have expected Appelbaum to take a more nuanced and academic approach, especially considering the powerful and well-studied economic power of preservation. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Place Economics released the latest report on the broad value of preservation to communities – statistics Appelbaum would have been wise to consider – such as these gems:

CLEAN ENERGY

And, most perplexing of all, is that Appelbaum would take up precious space in the columns of the New York Times to complain about a situation largely resolved.

Here’s an important update: hundreds, if not thousands, of historic districts now allow solar panels; it’s now simply a discussion about the placement of installed panels to minimize visibility. In fact, some states, like New York, incentivize their placement through existing historic tax incentives.

Solar panels on a historic flat roof. Photo by Maryland Historical Trust.

INTANGIBLE GOOD

These, of course, are the hard facts – but there’s something intangible to the work of preservation which we fear Appelbaum has missed entirely. When he suggests there is nothing historic about his Capitol Hill neighborhood (really?) but then goes on to explain, “Historic preservation, in practice, is not about preserving history. It is about preserving the lifestyle of an affluent urban elite” he is tragically missing the point.

When preservationists cherry-pick white, affluent neighborhoods for historic designation – we miss the broader aspects and nuances of history. We miss the rich African American story of survival and community that is so much a part of Washington, DC’s story beyond the domes and columns.

Applebaum tells us that, “There are buildings that should be preserved because of their historic, cultural or aesthetic significance,” but then goes on to remind us that “there aren’t many.” This argument would find many friends in the preservation movement of a half-century ago when the sublime and pristine was selected over the places of everyday people. This is the argument that allows African American neighborhoods to be bulldozed while affluent neighbors appreciate all the economic and environmental benefits we noted.

Baltimore neighborhood clean-up, 2019. Photo by The 6th Branch.

Preservation can always improve – we would be the first to admit that – but to suggest this critical tool is somehow an albatross or impediment to cities is disingenuous at best for an accomplished journalist like Appelbaum.

Next time you head north across the DC boundary line, let us know – we’d be glad to show you the good preservation is accomplishing across our state and many more just like it.

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Nicholas A. Redding · Executive Director

Nicholas A. Redding is Preservation Maryland’s Executive Director and between announcing major organizational updates, he often blogs about Maryland and Civil War history.

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