By Cara Bertron
There is a small and dedicated group of preservation pragmatists emerging in the U.S. They swap notes during lunch at the National Preservation Conference and dig into preservation issues after attending conferences focused on managing vacant property. They cut deals with planners, help shape land banks, and talk shop with code enforcement officials. They are familiar with mothballing and signs of long vacancy. In some cases, they embrace demolitions.
These are legacy city preservationists, with realism in one pocket and determined optimism in the other. They appreciate wood-sash windows as much as anyone, but they care more about keeping buildings occupied and standing in communities where the longstanding disinvestment and decades of population loss stack a high deck against them. They champion preservation where current community stories are told alongside long-dead history, where equity is a central issue, and where deals in which one vacant building is razed and six are left standing are deals worth doing. It’s a long way from the early preservation movement predicated on preserving intact neighborhoods and maintaining building integrity.
Most recently, legacy city preservationists and allies gathered in Cleveland in early June for the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities convening organized by the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University and the Cleveland Restoration Society. Participants showed up from all over—nearly 270 people, blowing through the organizers’ success threshold of 100 attendees.
The content was focused and the excitement palpable. Sessions covered a remarkably diverse range of topics honed to the specific legacy city context: industrial heritage, historic tax credits, innovative survey methodologies, economic development; even discussions about whether buildings really matter. Between sessions, participants launched into brass-tacks discussions without needing to lay groundwork about lagging real estate markets or whether demolition was really necessary. Everyone there knew: there is no time.
That urgency carried through to the closing workshop, which gathered 50 participants for an afternoon to hammer out an action-oriented agenda for legacy city preservation moving forward. Small groups tackled questions about needed data and research, pressing policy changes, potential partners and unexpected allies, and ways that the preservation movement needs to adapt to be successful. A summary of the workshop proceedings is publicly available; the final report—the outcome of an intensive, forward-looking, priority-setting exercise at the end of the workshop—will be released this fall.
The following is a collection of participant reflections from the convening and closing workshop. Written by a city council member, preservation advocate, legacy city organizer, and HUD staffer, these posts argue with preservation misconceptions, look at the overlap between preservation and the larger legacy city movement, tie existing policies to pressing needs, and issue a call for the preservation field to connect and organize. They present an unflinching picture of what is happening in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, and many other cities with the burdens and promise of similar legacies. They provoke thought, discussion, and action: just what we need, and not a moment too soon.
A Call for Hope and Action, by Councilman Jeff Johnson, Cleveland
Preservation as Change of Mind, by Margo Warminski, Cincinnati Preservation Association
Legacy Cities: A Community of Advocates, by Nick Hamilton, The American Assembly
Flexibility and Neighborhood Preservation in Legacy Cities, by Nancy E. Boone, HUD
Cara Bertron co-organized and facilitated the closing workshop of the Cleveland conference. She is the convener of the Preservation Rightsizing Network and the director of the Rightsizing Cities Initiative at PlaceEconomics.