Subject: Landmark designation policy
MEMO from Christabel Gough (who monitors the Landmarks Commission for
the Society for the Architecture of the City):
RE: Interesting policy discussion.
Yesterday (June 20, 2006) the Landmarks Commission designated PS 64
CHARAS/El Bohio. Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz explained her
vote in these words:
The designation of PS 64 will be one of the most significant
decisions of the Landmarks Preservation Commission in recent
years. For the first time, the commission will be recognizing a
building not only of enormous architectural merit but one of unique
cultural significance that for the first time acknowledges and
celebrates the contribution to the robust regeneration of our city
made by community-based efforts.
First as a newspaper reporter and then as a book author, I personally
observed and wrote about the birth of the community revitalization
movement in this city and the country that took place in the late
1960s and early 1970s. While landlords neglected, abandoned or
burned-for-profit their properties in poor neighborhoods, groups of
local residents took over deteriorating buildings, cleaned them out,
made them habitable and repopulated neighborhoods that the experts
said should be torn down and land-banked. City officials turned
their back on these neighborhoods as hopeless.
Local residents knew better.
Some of the earliest and most significant efforts of this grass
roots, self-help movement took place on the Lower East Side and PS 64
was central to this activity. After the city closed this
architecturally-eyecatching French Renaissance Revival brick
building, it served as a unique incubator for the community-based
programs that saved the neighborhoods and, in turn, the larger
city. Adopt-A-Building, CHARAS/El Bohio and a multitude of smaller
efforts anchored the local population, engaged their energy in "sweat
equity," gave them hope and in so doing created the revitalization
momentum that professional planners and politicians had no clue how
to do. Eventually, the city responded positively with a multitude of
reinvestment policies that aided and built upon local successes.
PS 64 was the physical and symbolic center of the local activity that
reclaimed and restored both ordinary tenements and historic
buildings. It was sheer folly of the last Administration to auction
off this building, cutting short its productive life as a focal point
of community innovation, energy and growth.
These grass roots efforts to rehabilitate, re-inhabit and revitalize
city neighborhoods from the Lower East Side to the South Bronx spread
across the country. The empowerment of local residents of blighted
neighborhoods to improve their own buildings and communities evolved
into the urban homesteading movement credited with saving more
communities than the experts dreamed possible. Thus, PS 64 is not
only a New York City landmark in the broadest and most unique sense
of the term, it is a national landmark in the post-World War II
struggle to save American cities.
The draft designation report does a thorough and fascinating job
detailing the many levels of historic and architectural significance
of PS 64: the inclusion of community-engaging features, such as the
auditorium; the importance of the H-Plan; the classically-inspired
ornament such as keystones, rustication, bracketed sills and
pediments over the dormers that emphasize its dominant focus in the
neighborhood; and the crucial role this school played in helping
generations of immigrants make the transition into American
society. But it should be noted that no amount of stripping away of
the architectural detailing, such as the white terra cotta trim, can
diminish its importance. From the red brick walls to the mortar in
its joints, the importance is secure.
The historic preservation movement has come a long way from its
beginnings when only the most precious buildings were thought worthy
of designation. Since the city's very limited landmarks law was
passed in 1965, first residential and then industrial neighborhoods
were recognized as worthy of preservation. Not till the 1970s did
interiors and landscapes join the designatable list. And through
most of the 1980s, it was difficult to save many extraordinary Art
Deco buildings. The Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center
were not designated until the 1980s. More recently, the cultural
significance of historic buildings has gained recognition as being of
equal value to their architectural merit. And currently, attention
is increasingly focused on the landmark value of Post-War modern
With the designation of PS 64, recognition of the importance of the
grass roots community and historic preservation movements comes front
and center. It is long overdue.
Designating PS 64 won't by any stretch of the imagination stop
development on the Lower East Side; it will, however, stop
inappropriate development and make the appropriate and beneficial
possible. And, as I said following the public hearing, the
outpouring of that community was the strongest and most amazing
expression of local concern for the preservation of a landmark in an
ethnically and economically-mixed community that I have witnessed.
No professional, outside expert can define better than the local
resident what is significant in a local community.
Ironically, property owners and developers across the city are today
reaping great profits from the early preservation efforts of the very
residents and local businesses now threatened with
displacement. Officially, the city has been slow to recognize and
honor this history. Designation of PS 64 would be a step in this
long-overdue direction. This is a shining moment for the Landmarks
Commission and I'm pleased to be part of it and to vote aye.
Hell's Kitchen Online(tm) -- NYC's West Side Wonderland
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