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Believe It or Not, It’s Time to Start Planning for the 50th!

Believe It or Not, It’s Time to Start Planning for the 50th!

May 14, 2012 | by Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
Article from the Spring 2012 Newsletter

It seems like it was only yesterday that we were celebrating the 45th Anniversary of the passage of New York City’s Landmarks Law. With the law’s Golden Anniversary not occurring until 2015, you might think that there was time for a break before beginning to plan for this truly special opportunity to focus New York’s attention on its beloved­— yet at times, taken for granted­— Landmarks Law. You would, however, be wrong.

The types of activities and projects needed to meaningfully commemorate the law’s Golden Anniversary require planning, organization, funding, and time. Now is the time for preservationists and preservation organizations to decide how they will commemorate this landmark event. The good news is you still have time— just not as much as you thought you had!

Why is this anniversary so important? Preservation is such an established part of life in New York City that the general public largely assumes that any site of historical, cultural, or architectural importance will be, or already has been, protected. However, as preservationists are too frequently reminded, preservation requires constant vigilance and an engaged public. There is no graver threat to preservation than the apathy of New Yorkers.

If New Yorkers continue to take preservation for granted, the anti-preservation forces will gain traction in their ongoing efforts to undermine New York City’s ability to manage change through our Landmarks Law. Make no mistake, there are still powerful forces who would welcome the demise of preservation. Last year alone witnessed at least one prominent book, Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, and one attention-getting exhibit, “Cronocaos” by Rem Koolhaas, that unapologetically attacked preservation. Both received extensive media attention.

The 50th Anniversary of the Landmarks Law creates an opportunity to reach out to all New York and remind them why the citizens of this city began the fight for the passage of the law over fifty years ago, and why dozens of neighborhoods are still clamoring to be added to the city’s roster of historic districts. The anniversary provides a chance to educate New Yorkers on preservation’s role as a tool to advance the livability of our city, by furthering its economic health, promoting its environmental sustainability, and securing its sense of place. The Golden Anniversary gives us a chance to broaden the ranks of preservation while also reinvigorating a now very “middle-aged” preservation movement.

Celebrating preservation’s inspiring and instructive history is one way to engage a new generation of New Yorkers in preservation. New Yorkers need to understand what has been accomplished over the last fifty years and what it will take to sustain and advance that success. Preservation’s place in New York needs to be made manifest. Every landmark in New York City should be made obvious to passersby. Is it time to bring back banners and identify every individually designated landmark in our city? Do we need Christo to wrap them? How can today’s exciting new assortment of technologies be used to help New Yorkers see and appreciate the history and architecture they experience, and often take for granted, in their daily lives?

Historic districts are increasingly coming under attack by free-market ideologues and the real estate lobby. Isn’t the 50th anniversary of the law the ideal time to showcase the city’s 105-plus historic districts and 16 district extensions? Each one represents a vibrant neighborhood full of citizens who (despite their occasional frustrations with the Landmarks Preservation Commission) are fervent supporters of historic districts. What would your neighborhood be like without its landmark designation? At least one opponent of historic districts has called for the de-designation of some existing districts. What about organizing and promoting special walking tours in every district during the 50th year celebration? How about 105-plus “historic district” block-parties to celebrate New York’s most distinctive neighborhoods? Should every building in every district get a landmark decal for its front door window?

Why doesn’t every neighborhood seeking historic district status somehow visually mark itself? In a 1980 public art piece “Nieuw Amsterdam Shoreline,” the artist Eric Arctander painted a simple blue line down the middle of the streets of lower Manhattan demarking the original shoreline of Manhattan. What 2015 art project can dramatically highlight New York City’s unprotected historic neighborhoods? And/or our existing districts?

Cultural institutions can do their part as well. What better focal point for the Golden Anniversary than an exhibition exploring the first 50 years of the Landmarks Law and its role in shaping the future of New York over the next half century? Exciting news on this front comes from the Museum of the City of New York, which is planning such an exhibition. This can be the centerpiece of a multitude of special programs and activities hosted by organizations all across the city, educating New Yorkers about the importance of preservation in their lives.

The 50th Anniversary is also the perfect time to publish biographies and monographs on some of New York’s great preservationists. On a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina I learned of the book Preserving Charleston’s Past, Shaping Its Future: The Life and Times of Susan Pringle Frost, the figure who spearheaded the historic preservation movement in that city. Hot off the presses is Remaking American Places: The Vision of Carl Feiss, Architect, Planner, Preservationist, a book on another great preservation figure. Where are the books on New York City’s great preservation figures? Why no book on Margot Gayle or Halina Rosenthal or Ruth Wittenberg? There is still enough time between now and 2015 for such works to be researched, written and published.

And what of the history of preservation organizations? The Historic Districts Council just turned 40, Preservation Alumni turned 30, and Landmark West! just celebrated its 25th. Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts turns 30 this year. The passage of time only makes it harder to write organizational histories, so what better excuse to devote the time and energy to capturing the history of your preservation organization than the law’s Golden Anniversary? Without the law would your organization even exist?

Isn’t it time that great preservation battles of the last 50 years be written up as case histories? Most of these David vs. Goliath efforts remain undocumented. One exception is the battle for the City and Suburban Homes York Avenue Estate. That battle is captured in the model publication: The Fight for City and Suburban Homes: A Model for Successful Community Action. Other preservation efforts, both successful and unsuccessful, should be documented to educate and inspire new generations of preservation activists. Use this anniversary to document your preservation battles!

The 50th Anniversary of the Landmarks Law challenges and invites all of us to preserve, document, and celebrate the history of preservation in New York City. In its modest way, the New York Preservation Archive Project seeks to do that every day. However, only if all of us embrace this effort will our city’s preservation Golden Anniversary become a transformative springboard for the movement’s future. You have just enough time to dream up your anniversary project, design it, incorporate it in your work plans, fundraise, and utilize it to advance your work and the cause of preservation in New York City.

As of this April 19th, 2012 (the 47th anniversary of the law) there were only 1,095 days until the law’s 50th Anniversary— but who’s counting?