by Michael R. Allen
In her newly-posted TED talk, bespectacled and bubbly ambassador of “Buffalove” Bernice Radle talks about young energy in historic preservation. Watch the video above. The one point that stuck with me was Bernice’s discussion of the perception of historic preservationists as older folks at house museums. Certainly, that stereotype persists — but not without reason. While Bernice and her partner Jason Wilson (who works for Preservation Buffalo Niagara) are saving vacant Buffalo houses and attaining national press, the official core of the historic preservation movement looks about the same.
At the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference two weeks ago, the crowd showed age diversity mostly through the inclusion of students in historic preservation programs. I was the youngest person in many rooms, and at 32 I have more gray hair in my beard than there have been debates about whether Brutalist buildings are beautiful! Of course, the cost of conferences often keeps young professionals away. Yet if we gather to share skills and formulate an agenda for what should be a national cultural movement, we need the generation that will be around to carry out ideas long-term. (This is not to mention racial diversity, a separate but related issue in the movement.)
Yet one month before the National Trust conference, I found hope at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Philadelphia, hosted by the Center for Community Progress. While the crowd of land-bankers, planners and scholars tilted older, there were lots of peers in lots of rooms. Now, the Reclaiming Vacant Properties crowd would not call itself a “historic preservation” movement — some might run toward the contrary. Yet the conference showed the wider constituency for tackling the problems of older cities is age and discipline diverse.
Back in St. Louis, some of my favorite preservationists don’t use the label or have any official affiliation. Like Bernice, they are just doing the thing. On Cherokee Street, microdeveloper Jason Deem‘s creative constellation of rehabilitated historic buildings is testament to a preservationist commitment. Deem even gave himself the job title of “The Preservationist” on Facebook. Up north, Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) made his first ordinance upon election in 2009 placing his ward under demolition review. Then he funded projects to list most of his ward in the National Register of Historic Places through district nominations. On the Preservation Board for a year, Antonio was the most reliably anti-demolition, pro-asset-conservation vote. Both Jason and Antonio are in their thirties. Neither is involved in the leadership of any local preservation groups.
At neighborhood association meetings, there seems growing young voices who value density, oppose demolition and sometimes seem to love red brick a little too much. I never see these faces at gatherings of local or statewide preservation organizations. This split goes back decades, according to long-time rehabbers. While preservation organizations had some representation from rehab hotspots like Old North and Lafayette Square, by and large the masses of people rescuing old buildings were not part of the leadership. The age gap has always been evident. Today, there seems to be an army of preservation doers — who mostly don’t join preservation organizations or even use the label.
The intersection of historic preservation and the “vacancy vortex” challenges the historic preservation movement to figure out its relevance. We drifted from a mass movement galvanized by the emotional power of the Penn Station demolition into a special interest group that can seem more interested in enforcing regulations than in embracing popular sentiment. When preservation organizations are aloof in battles in distressed neighborhoods, encourage people to seek National Register designation when building stabilization would be more useful and price their public programs beyond the reach of young rehabbers — well, preservation is going to stay old and disconnected. Meanwhile, the “rightsizing” movement may have more to offer people like Bernice: resources, solidarity with other disciplines and a sense of popular spirit lacking from historic preservation in many cities. The new Preservation Rightsizing Network‘s executive committee — of which I am a member — has age and disciplinary diversity not found on most preservation organization boards.
The challenge is whether historic preservation will embrace a succession that might end up challenging many of its habits (and even the National Register itself), and strengthen and renew existing organizations. Young people already are not joiners. They are more likely to put their money into projects, into Kickstarter campaigns, in a box at the door at a dance party that raises money to board up an abandoned row house. Preservation organizations aren’t going to pull in much support through traditional fundraising for overhead-heavy operations that don’t give back to neighborhoods.
If young people sound so strange in preservation, they shouldn’t. They remind me of the activists who brought the American historic preservation movement to life in the first place. A new era could bring historic preservation a legion of new supporters, or it could mean a successive movement that calls itself something else. Either way, what is happening is Buffalo is not going away.