As I complete my PhD studies at the University of Arizona, I’ve been offered a position in a much larger Western city (not Phoenix, thank god). My wife, kids, and I are contemplating taking the job and moving but, as with every move where there’s kids involved, we’re doing what we can to make sure we move into a “good neighborhood.” There’s a lot at stake when considering what is “good.” Schools, crime, affordability, commute times, local amenities; it’s a lot to navigate from 900 miles away.
I’ve also been looking to practice what I’ve been preaching about historic preservation, urbanism, and heritage conservation. The house we now own was built in 1980 but we’re seriously considering moving into an older home; not only for the financial and aesthetic reasons but also as a moral decision. My wife and I never buy new cars. We do our best to buy second-hand clothes, books, media, and try to recycle as many possessions as we can. We don’t buy new houses either. Historical is better for the environment, local communities, and, most of the time, for families.
In addition to these reasons, we’ve been considering the social justice impact of buying in an older, potentially historical neighborhood. This is why I’ve been thinking a lot about the role gentrification is playing across our nation. I might be moving into a gentrifying neighborhood in our new city because: 1) it’s going to be the only place I can afford, 2) I hate commuting, 3) I want my kids to experience a vibrant urban lifestyle, and; 4) I appreciate preservation. Now, it’s time to practice what I preach.
For nearly five years I’ve been talking about the value of historic preservation and heritage conservation on this blog, podcasts, articles, through archaeological research, and activism. What I haven’t talked about much is the dark side of preservation; how preservation can negatively affect the same communities it is supposed to be serving.
How is gentrification related to historic preservation?
Gentrification happens. But, it isn’t always considered a good thing.
Here in Tucson, we have a robust historic preservation ethos. It is understood that the strength of Tucson as a community is rooted in its Southwest heritage. Located squarely in the Borderlands, a rich mix of Native American and Hispanic aesthetics, values, and heritage are the foundation upon which today’s residents draw their identity. Tucson has heritage and it is this heritage that makes it distinct, unique, and interesting.
Preservation in Tucson is both a public and private process. Several organizations and agencies have been created to promote historic preservation in the city:
In the City of Tucson, local residents, preservationists, and the government have taken strides to create a pastiche of historic neighborhoods that commemorate the city’s past and anchor the region’s history. This has resulted in interesting mixed-use, historical districts that are protected from condoization/townhousization or other incompatible construction. A side effect has been the gentrification of formerly ethnic neighborhoods. The process is described in this Arizona Public Media spot: “Downtown Tucson Gentrification Presents Complexities” (March 3, 2017) (https://news.azpm.org/p/news-articles/2017/3/13/107379-more-than-one-side-to-the-gentrification-of-tucsons-historic-neighborhoods/)
What is Gentrification?
Gentrification (n): The process of renovating or improving an urban area so that it appeals/adheres to middle-class values and tastes.
Gentrify (v): Renovate or improve an urban area so that it appeals/adheres to middle-class values and tastes.
(NOTE: Gentrification [the thing] and gentrify [the action] connotes both a process and an element of modern society. The process of gentrification is both a thing that interacts with human beings and a process executed by people. It is something that we do [v.] AND something we deal with [n.] This is a complicated subject. The way you interpret the term says much about your role in the process, how you view gentrified areas, and whether or not you think gentrification is a good or bad thing.)
Based on that definition, isn’t gentrification what we want? What’s wrong with remodeling a shabby neighborhood into something that appeals to the amorphic “middle-class values”?
The problem is: When a neighborhood gets gentrified, it becomes too expensive for the people (typically low-income individuals) who already live there. As a neighborhood’s amenity is improved through historic preservation, it becomes more attractive to a greater number of citizens. Increased amenity attracts citizens who are willing to pay more money to live in or near preserved districts. These more affluent folks drive up property values and change demographics. Historic preservation is known to stabilize home values and tax revenues. This is one of the many reasons municipalities like histpres.
Local governments also like histpres because it uses private dollars to do what governments can’t: Fix crumbling neighborhoods. Newer, affluent residents like to introduce new, hip bars, stores, restaurants, and businesses where they can work and play. They hate failing schools and start forcing city governments to actually do something about schools that were formerly serving “the others.” When this doesn’t work fast enough, gentrifiers bring in charter schools to educate their children, which sucks tax dollars out of the local school district while providing more “choices” of where local kids can go to school—even those who were previously attending failing schools. Gentrifiers hate crime, especially violent crime. They force local police to get “tough on crime;” urging them to improve their efforts in gentrifying districts and introduce public safety systems like closed circuit TV cameras, street lights, and increased patrols.
All of this sounds great to everybody except for those on the receiving end of the process. Better schools and nicer restaurants sounds great, unless you can’t afford to shop there and your kids don’t have high enough test scores to get into these new schools. Tough on crime usually means tough on poor people, who are disproportionately arrested and caught up in the penal system. Most saliently: Poor people can’t afford to live in the new, more expensive and sophisticated gentrified neighborhood.
Preservation plays a role because it forces property owners to maintain their buildings, which improves the local ambiance and makes it more attractive. Historic homes also maintain their property values better than new construction and appreciate at a more predictable rate. In larger cities, preservation can attract more affluent residents who bring new money, ideas, and beliefs about what a neighborhood should be and who should live in it. Preservation can help property owners in gentrifying districts, but it hurts renters who are unlikely able to pay higher rents as the neighborhood gentrifies.
Preservationists commonly believed histpres can actually be used as a bulwark against gentrification. But, is it preservation that saves poor people’s homes…or is it something else?
The title of the article “Minimizing the Effects of Gentrification: Part I” suggests it was historic preservation that saved the homes of poor African Americans in this part of Washington, D.C. But, if you read closely, the real savior was a combination of economic schenanegans, new construction, AND preservation: (http://www.citylab.com/politics/2016/12/using-preservation-to-stop-gentrification-before-it-starts/510653/)
Laws were changed to prevent tax increases and housing vouchers from displacing existing tenants. Developers were also forced to make some of their new construction available to existing residents. New, market-rate housing was also built to keep existing residents in the community. Finally, historic preservation prevented the demolition of a large number of single-family dwellings which would have displaced residents. Preservation was in the mix but it was not the only way D.C. was able to prevent gentrification from displacing most of the existing African American community.
Another article, “Using Preservation to Stop Gentrification Before It Starts” doesn’t even pretend like preservation will stop gentrification. It only talks about how officials in Durham, North Carolina believe it will slow gentrification down: (http://www.mainstreet.org/main-street/main-street-news/story-of-the-week/2015/minimizing-the-effects-of.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/)
In Durham, adding the Golden Belt neighborhood to the National Register is something officials simply “hope” will keep property owners from demolishing historical buildings and condoizing the whole neighborhood. This article’s author incorrectly states “preservation limits growth” (It doesn’t. It simply prevents wholesale, “urban renewal-style” demolitions in favor of vanilla, cheap-looking condo towers and shoddy, prefab townhomes. [Also, why isn’t preservation recognized as a form of “growth”?]). Fortunately, the article ends by stating the City of Durham plans on launching supplemental programs to provide subsidized loans and technical assistance to help keep elderly in their homes. Overall, the article doesn’t sound too optimistic on how well preservation will stem gentrification.
What I’ve learned from articles like this is historic preservation cannot prevent gentrification. At most, it delays it. At worst, it can accelerate it.
The solution is conducting historic preservation from a Networked Heritage mindset
While I’ve been talking about the relationship between gentrification and historic preservation for a few years now, I’ve only recently become aware of the work on networked heritage promoted by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) (https://www.thersa.org/). The RSA is an organization in the United Kingdom committed to dealing with social challenges like the displacement of the poor using “practical solutions.” When thinking about this organization and looking at its leaders, the word “Royal” is very important because the RSA appears to be managed by British nobility. Founded in 1908, its leaders are pretty much princes, princesses, dukes, lords, knights, and a menagerie of other Royals. It is important to pay attention to leadership like this because it does much to explain their idea of “Heritage.” This short video does more to explain the RSA than my words:
Okay, so the RSA is something associated with elites. How could that help the everyperson? I’m not an expert on the RSA but the organization appears to be some sort of philanthropic public assistance/buy local/inclusiveness/workplace betterment group that distributes funds to projects that will help improve communities throughout the UK. Part of this work includes measuring and enhancing the vitality of heritage in the country. What does this mean?
The RSA believes heritage is the narrative that helps explain the past to the present. As such, it is always contested because narratives are both received by listeners and conveyed by somebody else. The message has a multivalence in both the telling, receiving, and retelling; thus; heritage is always in flux. While it cannot be absolute, when it comes to landscapes, heritage is what gives a place its unique flavor. It is an echo of the past that travels to the future so each of us can hear and understand in our own unique ways.
The RSA’s understanding of heritage is complicated. They fund a wide variety of projects because their understanding of heritage conservation is so broad. Watch this insightful short film if you want to see a very holistic understanding of heritage and how the RSA funds projects:
Even though they say heritage is not judged based on a list of specific things, the RSA does have 5 Principles of Networked Heritage:
- Start with people—Ask communities what they care about see what they say. This is nearly absent from historic preservation, heritage conservation, and cultural resource management in the United States, but it would do much to further the cause of preservation and save places that actually matter for communities rather than those that give tax breaks to property owners.
- Heritage is what you choose to it—Heritage is an active, vibrant, constantly shape-shifting attribute that is interpreted differently by all those who interact with it. The key is to acknowledge how heritage contributes to the sense of place that locals, visitors, business interests, and politicians all appreciate. Heritage means different things to different people but it has meaning to all.
- Go beyond yesterday’s battles—Conserving buildings and archaeological sites is fine and dandy, but that conservation process needs to add to the world in which we currently live. Right now, sustainability, income inequality, social instability, capitalism, and (especially in the United States) racism are all important topics. Networked heritage hopes to use the past to build a unique identity that can be used to orient people in the present so they can draw upon the strength of their ancestors to address the problems of today.
- Open up and lead the change—Opening up the heritage conservation process by including local communities in project design and execution fosters a sense of ownership that can make conservation sustainable. People take care of their own things. Let communities help with the process and encourage them to do their own projects.
- Help make heritage your unique selling point—Heritage is what makes each community unique. Each place has a past that has led to its manifestation in the present. Connecting local communities to their own identity helps them navigate complicated political, social, cultural, and economic networks. Networked heritage also strives to incorporate the voices and concerns of the disenfranchised and, oftentimes, unheard publics in order to build communities that help a greater number of people.
Networked heritage treats heritage—the multivalent, multi-vocal narratives of the past—like a common resource that can be used by publics members to improve their communities in a sustainable, inclusive manner. Sounds like a fantasy, right? Well, guess what? This is at the heart of historic preservation in the United States. Improving amenity at the local level was what histpres was all about. It only morphed into box-checking—style contract archaeology after the 1960s.
For CRMers, embracing networked heritage is pretty much like us coming back to our roots…..er, at least the roots we were supposed to have.
Working from a networked heritage framework will also enable preservation to be part of a win-win-win situation where underserved communities can learn the skills necessary to increase, stabilize, or diversify their income which can help them stay in their homes. The goal is to help as many individuals as possible. This includes existing residents as well as new would-be gentrifiers like myself. Networked heritage seeks to be inclusive and respects the value of those who already live in the neighborhood where affluent people want to live. Rather than being an obstacle to be replaced, this considers current population an asset that gives the neighborhood its invaluable character.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the retention of heritage as an amenity. Even if gentrification happens, echoes of the heritage of what existed before will be preserved. Far too often cities and municipalities embark upon a “new==good; lots of new==better” development strategy. Suburbs are considered good. New condo towers are considered better. Refurbishing existing, older neighborhoods is seen as less good/a waste. In an era where our local government can’t even afford to fix the potholes in the thousands of miles of roadways under their administration without raising taxes, it is paramount that we make the best use of the neighborhoods we already have. This means historic preservation, rehabilitation, and renewal, which all fuel gentrification. Those aforementioned articles show how historic preservation alone is not enough to stymie gentrification. These decisions need to be made in the best interest of those who currently live in older neighborhoods.
What do you think? Write a comment below or send me an email.
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