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Commemorate history, don't preserve old buildings
Three cheers for signs, boos for historic strip malls
One of the grimmest land use situations here in Washington, D.C. is by the Cleveland Park Metro station. This is a very expensive part of town — a low-crime neighborhood that’s zoned for the most in-demand public schools in the city. And this particular part of the neighborhood is quite walkable, with plenty of shops and restaurants.
Yet adjacent to the station, instead of apartments or condos on top of retail we have … a low-rise strip mall.
Why do we have a low-rise strip mall? Well, you see, the powers that be have decreed that Sam’s Park & Shop isn’t just any strip mall — it’s a historic strip mall, one of the oldest in America, and thus must remain a strip mall, despite being a very inappropriate use of the land given present-day economics and the existence of the metro station.1
Now of course the real reason it’s designated for historic preservation isn’t that hard-core historians or architecture enthusiasts were agitating for this. People who live in the area didn’t want more parking on the street, so they came up with this pretext to undermine the city’s economic development, climate, and affordable housing goals.
To the best of my knowledge, it genuinely is true that this is an unusually old strip mall that doesn’t look entirely like a typical modern strip mall. I was thinking about this last week when I stayed in Chicago at a hotel across from a strip mall. And in the morning when I walked over to get a cup of coffee at Dunkin’, I saw that this strip mall actually has some historic significance: it’s the place where Barack and Michelle Obama shared their first kiss after their first date to a Baskin-Robbins that is now2 a combination Dunkin’/Baskin-Robbins.
There are two things I like about this plaque that differentiate the two strip malls:
I learned something about history from reading the plaque. It conveyed actual information that was interesting to me, even though the subject matter was not of earth-shattering significance.
The plaque itself commemorates the history. There is no rule requiring that the strip mall stand there forever.
I don’t know what the future holds for Hyde Park real estate. I hope my worries about Chicago prove to be misguided, and that the city prospers. It seems from speaking to people that there has been quite a bit of redevelopment in Hyde Park in recent years and that there is a good chance that if citywide demand picks back up again, this parcel is the kind of place that would be transformed into a mixed-use structure. If that doesn’t happen, then so be it.
But the point is there is no legal barrier to the land being put to economically and socially efficient use just because Barack and Michelle Obama went on a date there. Instead, the history is commemorated by a plaque that tells us something about the history. In D.C., the city has essentially left a loaded gun sitting on the sidewalk in the form of a historic preservation process that doesn’t involve any cost-benefit analysis or balance of considerations.
Cities should invest more in telling their stories
I live near a traffic circle called Logan Circle that contains a large equestrian statue of John Logan. Since I first moved to the neighborhood, the owner of a house right off the circle has done a very cool thing and installed a bunch of little signs in their yard that tell people about Logan and his life and significance.
He’s an interesting kind of historical figure.
I didn’t make it out to Logan Square on this most recent trip to Chicago, but I have on previous trips. And the fact that there are things named after John Logan in both Chicago and D.C. is a reminder that even though John Logan is an obscure person now, he was very prominent in the past — a Civil War General and postwar influential Republican Party political leader who became James Blaine’s running mate in a losing national campaign. Logan is also the kind of guy whose historical reputation may be due for an upswing. He was, among other things, a strong champion of voting rights for Black Americans, which racist Dunning School historiography saw as a cynical partisan play but which contemporary people just see as Logan being right on the merits.
It makes me sad, though, that lots of people who live in the neighborhood have no idea who Logan was. And lots of people don’t realize that the surrounding neighborhood of Shaw is named for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick from Glory) and that there’s a web of conceptual linkages between the Logan statue, Shaw, and the African American Civil War Memorial nearby.
Some of that is perhaps that most people are just less interested in history than I am. But some of it is that it took a private citizen to take the initiative and put some signs up about Logan. And they’re off in his yard over to the side rather than in the park right by the statue where someone looking at the giant man on horseback and wondering “who was that guy?” might see it.
A million years ago I was an intern for a guy who worked in politics and whose previous job had been at the New York City Parks Department. He told me that he’d always wanted that department to get signage up in every park in the city explaining something about who the park is named after and why. So if you’re at the Hamilton Fish Recreation Center, something should be there telling you about who Hamilton Fish was and why people once felt like it would be good to name stuff after him. I was always enthusiastic about the idea, but my old boss reported there was limited parks enthusiasm for this. I do see, though, that NYC Parks now has information like this up on their website. My old neighborhood features a series of three small parks — Minetta Triangle, Minetta Green, and Minetta Playground. But who is Minetta?
Now I know:
This small park is a memorial to a not-quite-gone and not-quite-forgotten water feature of Lower Manhattan. When Dutch colonists settled in Manhattan in the 1620s, they learned from local Native Americans about a small brook that was full of trout. It originated near what is now Gramercy Square, burbled its way through (mostly beneath) Greenwich Village, and emptied into the Hudson at what is now West Houston Street.
Local Native Americans called the stream "Mannette," which was translated as "Devil's Water." Over the years, this name was spelled and respelled and spelled again in a variety of configurations: Minnetta, Menitti, Manetta, Minetta, Mannette, and Minetto. The Dutch called the water Mintje Kill, meaning small stream. In Dutch, "min" translates as little, "tje" is a diminuitive, and "kill" translates as stream. The water was also known as Bestavers Killitie, Bestevaas Kelletye, Bestavens Killitie, Bestavers Killatie, and Bestaver's Killetje.
By contrast, in my current neighborhood, we have a playground on the 1300 block of V Street called Harrison Park. It’s across the street from a school building that has HARRISON carved in stone over the doors and used to be Harrison Elementary School. But the school closed a long time ago and it now houses Meridian Public Charter School. Over a block away there’s a residential development — a big block of townhouses — called Harrison Square. But who’s Harrison? Benjamin Harrison? William Henry Harrison? A local D.C. figure named Harrison? I asked D.C. Parks and Rec once, and they said it was named after the school, so I asked DCPS and they said well there is no Harrison Elementary School, so it’s not named after anyone. Efforts at further inquiry hit a dead end.
That’s a shame. Obviously having someone research this and put up a small sign in the playground explaining why there’s a bunch of stuff named “Harrison” on this block — maybe with a QR code taking you to a longer explanation online — would not transform the lives of the District’s residents. But it would be nice. And crucially, the cost of doing this would be low.
Mandating old buildings is expensive
By contrast, mandating that old buildings stay up rather than be replaced as economics shift is very costly.
Anyone attuned to YIMBY/NIMBY debates will of course be aware of the cost of housing scarcity. But there are other problems as well. My house in D.C. is very old and is part of a whole block of very old rowhouses in a neighborhood that is mostly very old rowhouses. By D.C. standards, it’s a quite dense neighborhood, and while the economics would certainly support more density, that’s not the only possible gain here. All these old buildings are, well, old. They are drafty. That makes them less comfortable than they otherwise might be, and it makes them less energy efficient. And preservation rules ensure people live in drafty, inefficient homes even when it would be cheaper to have more comfortable, more sustainable ones.
It can also be pretty inconvenient not to have a level entry to your house.
I don’t think about this as much as I did during the years I was pushing a stroller around, but when my child was younger and that was our primary means of transportation, it became very clear to me how terrible it must be for people with long-term mobility impairments to live in a city that is not only full of inaccessible dwellings, but that actually prohibits people from replacing them more accessible ones.
Of course regulations have benefits as well as costs. The 1970 Clean Air Act imposed some very real costs on consumers, but researchers find that 1,300 infants survived who otherwise would have died in 1972 thanks to the reduced pollution. A separate team of researchers finds a significant effect of air pollution during the infant year on life-long human capital and earnings, suggesting billions of dollars in benefits from the 1970 Clean Air Act.
And when it comes to historic preservation, people naturally want to know about limits: should Rome demolish the Colosseum? Is it time to bulldoze central Paris?
I’ll admit I don’t have a simple formula that totally resolves all questions here. But I think we should consider these as limiting cases that help structure our thinking. One point is that preserving any one particular parcel, even a really large one like the Colosseum, has limited costs. If development is allowed in general, then the occasional “but not here” exception doesn’t have a huge impact. But this calls for something like a preservation budget, where adding a new parcel to the list involves de-listing something else that is now deemed less significant. And if necessary, there should be an affirmative decision to expand the preservation budget, complete with an effort to quantify the cost of doing so.
In terms of Paris, I guess I would mainly say that I’m not 100 percent sure how old European cities with significant tourist economies should think about this. What I am very sure of is that the architectural qualities of D.C. rowhouse neighborhoods are not a major economic engine for the city. People come here to work, or they come here to see the monuments and the Smithsonian museums, or they come here to visit family and friends. While they are here, we hope they also enjoy some of the dining and recreational amenities we have to offer. And the best way to get more people to come is to have more elasticity in our supply of hotel rooms and in our housing stock so it’s easier to come and get a hotel or an Airbnb.
Old buildings just aren’t a driver of our economy. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our history — but let’s celebrate it in ways that are informative and don’t contradict other goals.
Build on what works
Something I enjoy about my neighborhood is that the city has created a series of “neighborhood heritage trail” walking tours that bring you to various informational signs about the history of the neighborhood.
I’m a member of the Anthony Bowen YMCA up on W Street, which is named after the founder of the first African American Y in America. It’s a brand new building, but the original location of the chapter was an older building that’s closer to my house and whose story I know thanks to this heritage trail sign. It turns out to be pretty interesting! These things can also serve as windows into wider historical points — Theodore Roosevelt laying the cornerstone for the building is a reminder that the racial realignment of American politics hadn’t happened yet in 1908, and even without much of an active agenda on civil rights in national politics, this was still the kind of civic work that GOP politicians associated themselves with.
This sign about the former Whitelaw Hotel is a nice window into the practical, day-to-day operation of the economy and society under Jim Crow: a Black banker working with a Black architect and a Black contractor to create a Black hotel that hosted prominent entertainers and society events at a time when they were excluded from the white-owned institutions downtown.
It happens to be the case that these two buildings are still standing.
But I think that’s pretty trivial. You can’t go inside and tour them. And the buildings themselves, while perfectly nice, are not incredible architectural landmarks. They were built in their era to be practical facilities. And while it’s great to have subsidized housing in the neighborhood, wouldn’t it be even better to redevelop it as a taller, more modern structure that could have 25 percent more subsidized units with the revenue provided by incorporating a bunch of market-rate units?
I’ve learned a lot about the neighborhood from the signs, but it’s the signs themselves that are mostly doing the work. If I had my way, we’d invest in way more signage of this type and possibly ditch the walking tour gimmick. This is an old city and there’s something interesting about the story of every block. We should be telling the story of every park and school in every neighborhood of the city — what used to be there, who it’s named after, and why. And we should have all kinds of signs about which businesses used to be where, explaining where the streetcar routes used to be and how they shaped the city, and all kinds of other things. Let history be history. But then let the built environment of the city itself change and evolve.
The story of Sam’s Park & Shop, up to and including its status as an example of the abusive nature of pretextual historic preservation, is actually pretty interesting. And long after it’s demolished and replaced by an energy efficient ADA-compliant mid-rise apartment building with ground floor retail, people who walk by should be able to read something that tells the tale.
Metro, unlike most major mass transit systems in the United States, is relatively new, built in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and not itself part of the historic legacy of any of the neighborhoods it serves.
Barack and Michelle’s kiss would have been in 1989. Allied Lyons, the company that owned Baskin-Robbins at the time, bought Dunkin’ Donuts in 1990, so the earliest possible date at which it could have been a joint enterprise was after the kiss.