Preservation and (Re)Development

Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia is likely on borrowed time. The historic district is perhaps the victim of being just one of many historic portions of the city and the ever-present appetite for condo towers. If these buildings, constructed a century ago, are knocked down next summer, they will join many casualties of urban development and redevelopment, alongside New York City’s fallen Penn Station and large swathes of urban America.

It was the demolition of that iconic station and countless neighborhoods over fifty years ago that first sparked the historic preservation movement into action. Fifty years ago this year, the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law, beginning a boom in historic-conscious redevelopment and preservation, but a half-century on, questions–such as those raised in the debate between Herbert J. Gans and Ada Louise Huxtable in the pages of the New York Times in 1975–remain about how best to use historic preservation or how to fight for sites such as Jewelers’ Row.

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, Andrew Hurley provides a concise history of “urban renewal” and historic preservation before presenting case studies of projects that used methods of preservation and public history to serve the needs of urban communities. Pairing preservation of buildings and beautification of neighborhoods with oral history and archaeology, Hurley sets out the aims, pitfalls, and, ultimately, rewards of combining urban development and public history.

Hurley concerns himself less with Gans and Huxtable’s question (“What should be preserved?”) or even the issue of representation (“Who should be preserving?”) than with methods for effective projects and shared authority (“How should things be preserved?”).

Many of Hurley’s grounding ethics–authority should be shared outside of academia, gentrification is tricky, racial tension shouldn’t be sugar-coated–are largely self-evident (I hope) to anyone who has sought out a degree in Public History, yet it is his very practical concerns that make his book a must-read. Reflecting on the collaboration with the Old North St. Louis Restoration group, Hurley summed up some of the project’s shortcomings thus: “Appeals to more abstract community-building and social reconciliation objectives, while not entirely falling on deaf ears, lacked an immediate and tangible payoff and thus failed to animate the involvement of those on the margins, struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis” (94). A straightforward, if hard to swallow truth. Yet Hurley and his collaborators learned from the lesson, including the goal of “build[ing] greater capacity among local residents and expand[ing] participation” into the heart of their next project.

 I have a hunch that this blend of pragmatism and optimism is a necessary disposition in public history operatives.


Some of this week’s readings:

Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities

Max Page and Marla R. Miller, Bending the Future: Fifty Ideas for the Next Fifty Years of Historic Preservation in the United States 

Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

 Jon Hurdle, “In Jewelers Row in Philadelphia, Condo Plan Worries Preservationists” in the New York Times:

 “Preservation50: Commemorating 50 years of the National Historic Preservation Act”:

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