The Atlantic’s Anti-Historic-District Argument Is Wrong and Extreme

Mount Morris Park, Historic District , Harlem, NY
Sure, tear it all down, why not? Photo: Andria Patino/Corbis

Over at The Atlantic’s urbanist magazine-in-a-magazine, CityLab, writer Kriston Capps turns a rhetorical blowtorch on the concept of the historic district, particularly in residential neighborhoods. Family homes don’t warrant protection, he argues, because, well, they’re homes, and people should be able to do what they want with them. Whole clusters of homes are even less deserving of protection, he argues, in a multipronged, bipartisan case — none of which I buy.

Capps begins with the economic argument that regulation places an unfair, targeted burden on property owners. Some Republican legislators in the Midwest are trying to dilute protections for historic districts, and Capps quotes Wisconsin Republican state senator Frank Lasee: “How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations?” He then segues to a different economic point: that historic districts selectively shore up real-estate values. “When local- and state-government bodies grant preservation status to historic districts,” he writes, “they do not always simply protect culture, architecture, and history. Sometimes they also shore up wealth, status, and power.”

Capps is far from the first to make the argument that preservation is a plaything of the rich, but he neatly braids together the conservative argument that regulations are an economic burden with liberal concerns over equity and segregation. If these two lines of reasoning can co-exist, it’s because in housing one action can yield a whole spray of contradictory effects. Once a residential historic district is enacted, some people will resent having to buy more expensive windows, and others will enjoy the ability to take out home-equity loans on the increased value of their houses. Some will be glad it gives them a tool with which to fight new, higher-density construction; others will bemoan the fact that their children cannot afford to live nearby. That’s assuming property values go up or stay high: When neighborhoods decline, historic-district restrictions can dissuade buyers, or prevent tear-downs — or both.

Capps makes a distinction between homes and other kinds of buildings, because “houses belong to owners.” But so do churches and theaters and colleges, and in times of rapid change in real-estate value, the private, nonprofit, and public entities controlling those buildings are all tempted to behave like homeowners, thinking of their buildings as investment tools. From an economic point of view, I don’t see why private residences and institutional buildings should be considered different creatures.

In the middle of an essay on historic districts, Capps brings up the issue of single-family zoning, and in fact that seems to be his hidden, principal target. He points out that historic-district designations frequently become a tool of NIMBYism, which residents use to exclude socially beneficial construction. That’s true, but his invocation of zoning makes it clear that residents have a lot of other instruments to accomplish the same thing, including fragmented local jurisdictions. A suburban town that consists almost entirely of high-value single-family houses has a whole range of options for excluding apartment buildings, glue factories, strip clubs, or any other kind of building or use they’d just as soon kick a few miles down the road. Scrapping historic districts would do little to make wealth distribution more equitable or housing more integrated — except perhaps in areas where the real-estate pressures are so intense that loosening regulations would make it possible to bulldoze entire neighborhoods for higher-density living. (San Francisco comes to mind.) Capps cites the Supreme Court’s Texas v. Inclusive Communities decision, which removes some barriers to affordable housing. He implies that the ruling also makes historic districts unconstitutional — but then he backs off, as if that’s not a leap he really wants to make.

An abundance of old, beautiful homes make people want to live near them if they can’t live in them, Capps writes, but “historic districts thwart this access in the name of preserving the character of a neighborhood.” That’s only sporadically true. New York bristles with historic districts, the effects of which are not always predictable. While the Real Estate Board of New York predictably concludes that historic-district designation stifles growth and impedes the construction of affordable housing, preservationists claim exactly the opposite. A more evenhanded study showed that … well, it depends.

A glance around the city makes it clear that the cause and effect is not straightforward: Prices can rocket in nonhistoric districts like Williamsburg, and low-income areas sometimes seek historic-district protection as a bulwark against gentrification. Affordable-housing advocates aren’t the only ones who want access to historic districts, and for institutions, too, the record is mixed. A hospital won a Landmarks Preservation Commission okay to tear down St. Vincent’s, then went out of business; now the old building has been repurposed as a different medical facility. The Whitney Museum, which was prevented from expanding in one historic district (the Upper East Side), instead built a whole new museum in another (Gansevoort Market).

What I get from all this contradictory evidence is this: Tearing down fine old buildings doesn’t always, or even often, lead to greater equity or civic virtue. But it always leads to the obliteration of memory. Sacrificing gracious old residential districts to the unfeeling predations of the market is an act of willful amnesia.

I think the nub of this question is neither economic nor constitutional but philosophical: What does history mean to us? Republican legislators in the Midwest want to rein in historic districts with a sunset clause, which would make designation last only ten years. I’m struck that nominal conservatives would be so cavalier in their attitude toward the past, since surely that’s where traditional values come from. The sunset clause shows that their shallow allegiance to continuity and community amounts to a nonsensical declaration: Sure, this is historic now, but maybe soon it won’t be.

Historic districts — like museums, libraries, archives, and any institution that nourishes collective memory — represent precisely the opposite point of view. History can’t always defend itself against momentary desires or the indifferent marketplace. That’s why we need to protect it with laws and a culture of respect. We will always have to keep debating where the proper boundaries lie between preservation and change, between cultivating the past and living in the present. But abandoning historic districts to the whims of buyers, sellers, and developers would be a form of cultural vandalism we would quickly come to regret.

The Atlantic Hates Historic Districts