Historic Preservation Powers Urban Vibrancy
National "Legacy City" Groups Convene at Rutgers-Newark
By Alice van Straalen
Last Tuesday [Dec. 8, 2015], more than 200 people from 40 cities gathered in Newark to attend “Legacy City Preservation: A National Conversation” at Rutgers University-Newark’s 15 Washington Street building -- now fully restored with a gleaming marble-walled lobby and a great hall of majestic proportions. The convening heralded the release of a new Action Agenda for Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities, with reports from a group of young urban leaders who have advanced community-based urban revitalization in their own cities.
Legacy City: a once-prosperous industrial city that has suffered substantial population and job loss and is burdened by many abandoned buildings susceptible to decay and demolition. It nonetheless possesses distinctive historic buildings, land, and a cultural heritage that suggests unique possibilities for the future. Detroit, Cleveland, Newark, and Buffalo are examples of legacy cities.
There could hardly have been a more appropriate setting for a conference full of urban experts and members of the public devoted to urban revitalization that embraces not just the care of historic buildings and the construction of new ones, but the well-being of an entire community. Built in the 1920s as the headquarters of the American Insurance Company, 15 Washington Street recently re-opened as housing for over three-hundred Rutgers undergraduate and graduate students.
Nicholas Hamilton, Director of Policy for Columbia University’s urban institute The American Assembly and leader of the Legacy Cities Partnership, welcomed attendees. Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor addressed the crowd by invoking the history of Newark in its 350th anniversary year, and the legacy of the late Professor Clement Price, “guiding spirit, friend, and colleague,” and historian of the city of Newark.
Chancellor Cantor described the university’s much-anticipated plans for the historic Hahne & Company Building that Rutgers, together with community partners, is now renovating. Named for the landmark department store it housed until the 1980s, the building will include a supermarket and Express Newark, a Rutgers-community “collaboratory” that will comprise an arts incubator, media center, portrait studio, graphic design consortium, 2D and 3D printing studio, a Newark-based newspaper, and the Newest Americans project, as well as new exhibition and performance spaces for artists. Hahne's, Cantor declared, “will be on the move again” as a rebuilt public space.
Kathleen Crowther, President of the Cleveland Preservation Society also acknowledged Clement Price as a scholar-educator who came to the Legacy Cities movement late in life, but was an inspiring presence who saw preservation as “humanizing the sticks and stones.” In recognition of his contribution, she said, a “tribute work of art” will be presented to the University’s Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, of which Price was the Founding Director.
Cara Bertron, Chair of the Preservation Rightsizing Network, introduced the new Action Agenda for Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities. The agenda calls for recognizing the unique challenges of Legacy Cities, engaging and listening to local communities, and using data to support and improve good practices. Voicing a theme that was sounded in various ways throughout the evening, she emphasized the importance of building local coalitions and working in concert “with the broader community of legacy city thinkers.”
Subsequent speakers rapidly described projects that exemplified actions encouraged by the new agenda. Among them, Ken Chu, Co-Founder of the “Vacant Home Tour” described a Carnegie Mellon University graduate school class project to address blight in Wilkinsburg, a borough outside Pittsburgh. In talking with local residents, Chu’s team noticed that as soon as a Wilkinsburg resident began a story with “I remember,” pride about what had happened in the community shone through. With some collaborative storytelling and research, Wilkinsburg hosted a “vacant home tour” day that attracted 600 people. “Houses may be vacant” said Chu, “but they are far from empty.”
In Detroit, Emilie Evans found plenty of people interested in buying and renovating homes, but they didn’t know how to proceed. So Evans co-founded Brick + Beam, which arranges events such as the Fixer Upper Supper and Twice as Long, Twice as Much, where advice, resources, experiences, and encouragement can be shared for preserving neighborhoods as well as individual houses.
Matt Hampel a Co-Founder of Local Data, shared some precepts for analyzing data about urban infrastructure, including “Keep it simple;” and “What do you really need to get to the next step?” “Use Data as an engagement tool,” he said, and “share information so that lots of people can own it.” Buffalo native Bernice Radle, detailed the process of buying a cottage slated for demolition for $1 and renovating it for rental. As Co-Founder of Buffalove Development, Radle buys and renovates vacant or underused historical properties. “Come to Buffalo and become a developer!” she said.
Now brimming with replicable ideas for revitalizing Legacy Cities, the crowd repaired to noshing and networking (treats by Marisa Blackwell of Cravings Catering), and were graciously ferried in groups to the impressive Hahne's Building for tours of the renovation in process. In a year’s time some 160 apartments will fill the cavernous space, some of them with 20-foot ceilings and outdoor terraces. Workmen have recovered some of the building’s beautifully made original fixtures, which will grace the public arcade.
Alice van Straalen is a CivicStory editor.