Is amenity STILL at the heart of historic preservation?

City_Thibault Geffroy, from The Noun ProjectAmenity (n)­ (1) something that makes life easier or pleasant; (2) the attractiveness and value of real estate or of a residential structure; (3) a feature conducive to such attractiveness and value; (4) something that conduces to comfort, convenience, or enjoyment

A long time ago, back in the mid-1900s, historic preservation groups across the United States took up arms to prevent urban renewal from destroying all the old buildings in the urban centers of the country. Many of these old neighborhoods were looking a bit shabby and were full of rental properties inhabited by poor white people and other groups of “others” (i.e. Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, immigrants, ect.). At the time, it seemed like a good idea for city governments to declare these places “blighted”, tear down the buildings, and pray that companies and government funds would fill them with nice looking, new buildings or broad, well-lit freeways. Highways were in. Old neighborhoods were out.

Alarmed at the demolition of huge swaths of historical neighborhoods, historic preservation advocates rose to the occasion. They struck back using local politics, which ultimately coalesced into a nationwide movement. The high-point was the publication of a collection of essays entitled With Heritage So Rich. The campaign reached the highest office in the land when Ladybird Johnson joined the march for historic preservation, eventually garnering the support of several U.S. legislators and prompting her husband Lyndon to sign the National Historic Preservation Act (NRHP) of 1966.

As written, the NRHP is dedicated to preserving our nation’s heritage by providing a legal means for protecting historical buildings, structures, and archaeological sites. It was a legislative tool that spawned the multi-million dollar cultural resource management and historic preservation industries along with numerous national, state, and local government bureaucracies. While the law is dedicated to preserving historic material culture (and, concomitantly, our “heritage”), it’s really not about that. The NRHP and all following historic preservation laws are actually about maintaining amenity in our everyday lives. But, is the preservation of amenity what historic preservation and cultural resource management is still about?


The revolutionary idea that Americans should like living in their communities

I realized the true motivation behind the NRHP, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, and other preservation laws while reading an old article written in 1971 by Malcolm Baldwin called “Historic Preservation in the Context of Environmental Law: Mutual Interest in Amenity” (Law and Contemporary Problems 36:432–441.) ( In this article, Baldwin argues that environmental protection is society’s attempt to maintain the intangible, aesthetic attributes in the natural world that make life worth living. He suggests that strong public policies are necessary that understand amenity is a basic human need, quickly calculate the value of lost amenity, and make those entities that diminish amenity pay for their actions. Unfortunately, the author believes amenity cannot be evenly distributed across society because rich people, the middle class, and people living in poverty have differential access to political power, money, and influence. However, he feels like there are several strategies that can be used by all classes to fight against the diminishment of amenity, including proof of psychological, physical, or economic harm caused by wanton development.

Most of us think of amenities as something you get when you book a hotel room. Mini-fridges, WiFi, and free breakfast are among my favorite amenities because they make life worth living when you’re out in the field doing CRM archaeology. I actually had to look the word up on the internet to get an idea of what Baldwin was talking about, but it was easy to understand after reading a few online definitions. Amenity is the intangible feel we get from living, working, and playing in places that make us feel good. Taking your kids to a sweet city park, climbing on the glaciers of Mount Rainier, and grabbing a coffee in a quaint historic shopping district are all things that make us feel good. These activities are conducted in places that have a lot of amenities, intangibles that tend to create a joy-joy feeling in our souls. Human beings are aware of beauty. Environmental protection laws are one of the many legislative tools we use to preserve that feeling of awe and satisfaction when we interact with beautiful places.

Is historic preservation still about the protection of amenity?

The West University Historic District in Tucson is an example of how the forces that fight for local amenity can end up battling the awesome juggernaut of urban development. The West University neighborhood was built around the turn-of-the-twentieth century and was added to the National Register in 1980. Because of its close proximity to the University of Arizona, the neighborhood has a large number of rental properties—detached single-family dwellings, subdivided homes, and some apartment complexes. In the last 20 years, the City of Tucson has embarked on a major downtown improvement campaign that was partially intended to remedy the destruction caused downtown by 1970s urban renewal and to make the downtown district a destination for businesses and customers. The construction of a modern streetcar line is an integral element to this downtown revitalization project because the streetcar line will link the University and the disposable income of its student population with the trendy bars and restaurants of downtown. The streetcar line follows portions of Tucson’s original streetcar line, which went right through the West University Historic neighborhood.

West University property owners must have been pleased by the benefits of the city’s downtown revitalization campaign, which has actually made downtown Tucson a pretty cool place to hang out. They must have also been pleased with the streetcar plans that seem to increase property values and economic development everywhere they’re enacted (despite the fact that streetcar projects are rife with delays and cost overruns that all taxpayers, including those living away from the streetcar lines end, up paying off). Plus, enrollment at the University had been steadily increasing until the 2010s, which meant a steady stream of government-sponsored renters with borrowed money to burn. West University seemed to be gaining even more amenity while losing very little.

The problem with neighborhoods high levels of amenity is it makes them very desirable places to live. This desirability, especially in areas with a lot of renters, attracts savvy developers that are ready to exploit the situation. Despite the fact that West University is on the National Register, developers have found ways to build huge, swanky apartment towers, some of which are in the middle of the West University neighborhood. These towers, which resemble the shitty, flavorless condo towers that devoured huge areas of the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle, throw all architectural guidelines for the West University neighborhood to the wind. They don’t fit the district’s style because they’re about 13 stories taller than the surrounding buildings and are designed in the prevailing 2010s, “going-to-fall-apart-long-before-its-historic” architectural style. Now, when you drive through West University, you see a quaint neighborhood with cool local cafes and shops framed by some massive corporate, student predation towers in the background. Neighborhood property owners are fighting for what’s left of the neighborhood’s amenity, but the existing towers have found a way to blow open a small crack in the city of Tucson’s urban infill guidelines. Now that there’s a few towers, there’s likely to be many more.

The plight of West University is being replayed across the country as universities continually try and up the ante in order to sucker, entice, convince students to study (and spend money) there. University sprawl tends to run roughshod into nearby neighborhoods that tend to be historic or potentially historical. Despite this disturbing trend, I have to ask is the preservation of these neighborhoods an extension of our desire to maintain amenity or is it something else? (Something like a thinly-veiled attempt to maintain property values and tenants in the face of new, upscale competition?) Has historic preservation degenerated into simple property value maintenance system?

Historic preservation is more than just consultants and bureaucrats

Historic preservationists, architectural historians, and cultural resource management archaeologists are not just “guns for hire” that get paid just to write reports for government agencies. We provide a valuable service in collecting data and providing professional recommendations that can be used by agencies and the general public to advocate for the preservation of amenity in their communities. We all use environmental protection laws to accomplish that goal.

In the case of historic preservation and the built environment, I’d say the laws are not just tools that can be used to maintain property values. Preservation tends to protect buildings and structures that played an important role in local histories. West University and historic districts near universities are in a unique situation and face a threat not seen in other historic districts. The average historic district is not threatened by the expansion of the current corporate student molestation system, although they may be threatened by other infill schemes. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how historic preservation of buildings, districts, and structures in cities is an attempt to maintain the amenity of those areas.

With regard to historic preservation, the situation is less clear for cultural resource management archaeology. Does the work we do really benefit local communities? Does it lead to more amenity in the local environment? Does it add to property values, the local economy, or collective heritage—things the average citizen cares more about than archaeology? In some cases, I’d say archaeology does directly increase local amenity. Again, Tucson is an example. The Romero Ruin in Catalina State Park north of Tucson definitely adds to the aesthetic value of that part of the Tucson metro area. The Vista del Rio Cultural Resources Park is another Tucson archaeological site that adds amenity. But, does the average 19th century urban house lot add amenity? Or, another unattributable “lithic scatter” site? Do we ever explain the value of these sites to the local community? (Hint: We should if we want to keep our jobs).

I still believe that historic preservation, including CRM archaeology, adds and preserves amenity. The case is easier to argue for buildings because the average Joe can relate to the feel and aesthetic beauty of those neighborhoods. With a little communication, I believe we can also explain the ways archaeological sites enrich local aesthetics. In the end, the ethos behind historic preservation and environmental protection remains. We all want to live in beautiful places. These laws are an important way we can advocate for this protection. Some places are lost/damaged, as is the case with West University, but, on the whole, preservation continues to preserve the amenity of the places in which we live.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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