The skylines of once historic residential areas are becoming increasingly dotted with sleek condos. Cities like Portland Oregon, which are experiencing a rapid growth in population due to people moving to the city, are being hit hard by this trend. There seems to be constant construction of these modern, “affordable” apartments which are targeted at the young professionals crowd. Many people are fighting this trend with historic preservation projects. Historic preservation does however, have a long history and has created its own problems that public historians and planners are still combating today.
Historic preservation in the U.S. may find its roots with Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller Jr., but the way in which we think of historic preservation today is best traced back to 1960’s when preservation projects were popping up as a direct response to “urban renewal” of the FDR administration. In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace describes how the “growth coalitions”, with federal money, tore out what they saw as “slums and ‘blighted’ areas, replacing them with the corporate command and control centers the new multinational economy required” (Wallace, 186). Vox produced a great video about the way that these “urban renewal” projects, specifically the building the the interstate highway system, disproportionately affected black and other minority communities; because at the times, middle class white families were all too happy to move to the suburbs and commute into the city for work.
The preservationists of the 1960’s sought not to create exact replicas of the way that towns and cities used to be, like Rockefeller did with Colonial Williamsburg, but instead to bring them into modern times. Wallace quotes Ada Louise Huxtable, who says that the job of preservationists is to incorporate historic buildings into the city’s “living mainstream”, rather than into “sterile isolation” (Wallace, 189).
What preservationists call “reuse” or “adaptive-use” projects, are currently the most popular type of historic preservation projects. Thomas Cauvin, in his book Public History, describes adaptive-use projects as “preserv[ing] aspects that convey the structure’s historic, cultural, or architectural values while making compatible reuse of the property possible” (Cauvin, 57). This can be an old dealership building converted into retail space for locally owned businesses, or an out of use brewery converted into apartments.
The problem with the early preservation efforts is that they created what Wallace calls “golden ghettos” (Wallace, 192). Lower income inhabitants are pushed out of their homes either because they are bought out, or because their rent becomes so high that they can no longer afford their homes. This primarily affects minority groups, and leaves these newly restored buildings to be bought up by white, upper-middle class individuals. This has created a divide between historic preservationists and minority groups.
The problem that preservationists need to confront now is in bridging the gap that has been created by historic preservation efforts. Historic preservation should not just benefit investors and developers, but low income and disadvantaged groups. Wallace says that preservationists should be working to ally with other groups that are seeking “large-scale social change” (Wallace, 209). Projects like the St. Paul brewery turned apartments is an example of this; the 247 units have income limits so that local artists have a decent and safe place to live. The goal of historic preservation projects should be not just to maintain historical aesthetics, but to restore communities that were fractured by the “urban renewal” movement and to incite social reforms. Preservation should not force people out of their homes, but bolster community. Preservation should be for the betterment of not just the elite, but of everyone.