Rising above the district dogma.

Normally I have come to the defense of historic preservation as a both a discipline and an economic development tool. But, inasmuch as I support almost any effort to cultivate, recognize and then save heritage, I also know that the most sincere efforts can go up in flames when couched in the liberal use of dangerous words like “always” and “never”. I qualify my support for any initiative, and sometimes that means identifying a context where it won’t play out successfully. Because—in true deployment of weasel words—almost nothing succeeds always.

Historic districts, when they’re effective, tend to wield a double-edged sword: they achieve or maintain a consistent aesthetic that is rarely possible elsewhere, but that same aesthetic imposes such rigid compliance that external modifications become nearly impossible. At this point, strictly enforced historic districts are enough of a novelty and rarity that they tend to retain value by coasting on that distinctive appearance. But how long before a district implodes under the weight of its own micromanagement—that is, what if the bubble bursts and demand drops because of a cultural unwillingness to compromise on heritage? What if people cease to value a district’s historicity, and no one chooses to live, work in, or care for the properties in that district? While many now argue that historic preservation is a backdoor method of gentrification, these same historic districts have not always proven effective at fending off blight in the past. I may be a poor soothsayer, but sometimes the best example of economic development in an otherwise threatened older neighborhood comes not from carefully orchestrated preservation but from the exact opposite: breaking those rules and letting the built environment breathe a little.

Here’s a perfect example in an otherwise unremarkable streetscape in South Philadelphia.IMG_1191The fact that it’s unremarkable makes it much more effective. This sizable, mostly residential region within the city, bounded by South Street to the north and the city’s two principal rivers (Delaware and Schuylkill) on the other sides, contains four districts on the National Register of Historic Places—relatively few considering South Philadelphia’s size and the age of many of the buildings within it. But South Philly’s appeal has never been on the beauty of its buildings. While traditionally people have associated South Philly with its working class Italian-American neighborhoods, these days a pastiche of cultures animate the region just as powerfully: African-Americans, third generation Irish-Americans, young professionals, hipsters, immigrants from Mexico, Cambodia, Vietnam, and still quite a few Italian restaurants and storefronts. South Philadelphia did not endure the intensive population loss that one encounters in West Philadelphia or (particularly) North Philadelphia. At the same time, South Philadelphia also lacks the sort of architectural details that distinguish the housing in the large districts to the west and north; most homes in South Philly are comparatively prosaic and unadorned. The region is no stranger to historic events—enough to help justify the listing of 54 individual structures on the National Register of Historic Places (two of which are National Historic Landmarks). But nondescript, humdrum architecture usually helps weaken any argument in support of a historic district.

At the same time, the absence of any overriding protectionist culture helps to foster something like this.


The owners of this hybrid storefront/rowhome decided that they need a little more space. Hemmed in by their neighbors to the left and right, their only option was to build upward. Across most of Philadelphia, their constraints would be mild. Zoning regulations might limit height, but it would always be possible to pursue a variance. Building codes could regulate the massing and interior layout to preclude some structural compromises, and while it’s unwise to attempt slide past the statewide Uniform Construction Code, it’s also likely in this case that no facial prohibitions apply.

Meeting the standards of a historic preservation commission would be another story, though. Those are the enforcers with real teeth. Can we imagine what they’d say about this block of homes?IMG_1193Look how much our four-story home sticks out.  Nothing about this addition to the home aligns with the existing architectural vernacular, nor does it make any effort to conform to the appearance of the neighboring properties. It does the opposite. Utilitarian, but aesthetically oblivious. If this were a historic district, the preservation commission wouldn’t entertain such a proposed modification. It would get rejected.  Design review boards routinely dictate window treatments, gutter/drain spout design, historic accuracy of the paint color, glass thickness, possibly even viability of the landscaping. Granted, a prospective homebuyer in a historic district is usually well aware of these rigid standards and respects them, recognizing that enforced consistency can improve the value of the properties in aggregate.

But the residents of South Philly could never tolerate such impingement upon property rights, not only because it’s difficult to conceive of a context in which the rowhomes in the photos above would constitute invaluable architecture, but because the locals actually depend on flexibility to market their homes. In a neighborhood like this, if the people can’t modify, they cannot sell. Attached housing in America generally struggles when up against its detached counterpart; cities like Philadelphia, where rowhomes predominate, lost scores of units during the mid 20th century de-industrialization, partly due to job loss, and also because they could build detached housing in the suburbs, generally perceived as much more modern and desirable. In the more fashionable old parts of Philadelphia, even the modest trinity-style rowhome has enjoyed a new lease on life, but largely because the gentrifying purchasers alter the bejesus out of it, modernizing the window treatments, punching out skylights, adding decks on the back, maybe even installing a chimney (if building codes permit)—all things that would be verboten if this were a historic district. It may even be one of the new yuppie arrivals to South Philly that perched that fourth floor onto the rowhome below.

Ultimately this speaks heavily on the compromises necessary to perpetuate economic activity in vulnerable urban areas. As I blogged a few months ago, Jersey City had to enlarge hundreds of window apertures to bring a long-vacant century-old industrial building to viable reuse as luxury apartments, and, in doing so, abnegated the factory’s viability as a historic structure. It wouldn’t surprise me that activists in some areas of Philadelphia resisted historic district designations that they perceived as inhibitory to the sort of investment-by-modification that they were most likely to attract. That, and they might have just wanted to give their distinguished Victorian a mid-century vinyl baseball cap.

2 thoughts on “Rising above the district dogma.

  1. Anonymous

    I live in a neignorhood listed on the National register, that’s to say, a neighborhood whith no “historic” code enforcements. The part of Fletcher Place to the North of Virginia Ave. is also on the local register, and as such has a variety of restrictions and boards which “protect” it. While I agree that one knows the rules and limits when buying, and that preserving our history is important, I find the idea that every neighborhood in the old part of a city (well, at least MY city) should be part of an ever-enlarging “historic” district quite wrong. As you state, there are important economic reasons people make odd architectural additions to their properties.

    I am less than heartened as I hear about the changes to the Cottage Home neighborhood (where I once briefly owned a house) – this is the only historic district in Indy with a clause in its charter saying it will not displace the poor already living there. Recent construction and the resulting influx of upper-middle class buyers is threatening this attitude.

    One big problem in American cities, IMHO, is that enlarging use of “gated” community thinking, either by real gates, or gating-by-code. Thie does not bode well for our future.

  2. AmericanDirt Post author

    Thanks for your comment. You touch upon such a good variety of considerations that it’s hard to know where to begin. Historic districts often act as an inhibitor to development, and, in many regards, that is precisely the intent of their advocates. It’s always a double-edged sword: a historic review commission could have prevented some of the vinyl-village/suburbia style housing that went up in areas like Herron-Morton during the 1990s, which, from an aesthetic standard, is a travesty. But viewing everything through an aesthetic lens smacks of elitism, since plenty of households in the older parts of central Indianapolis have far greater concerns with how they use their money than improving the aesthetics of their houses. And those suburban-style homes built in Herron-Morton still represented valuable infill for a neighborhood that, at least twenty years, had an uncertain future. Herron-Morton is in much better shape these days. so I can hope the preservation commission seeks infill that looks good but isn’t necessarily forcing only houses above a certain minimum size. Some of the smaller lots could benefit from more modest infill that would support a variety of incomes.

    I’ve never heard of a charter like the one you mentioned for the Cottage Home neighborhood–very interesting. I’m not sure I know what to think about it. I guess I’d have to read the clause itself. Forcible removal of moderate-income people for “economic development” purposes–i.e, to use eminent domain or tax increment financing to help clear low-income housing in order to build a hip new apartment building–obviously that should be highly controversial and I hope the clause protects against it. (Alas, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of more or less that precise decision in the highly controversial Kelo v. New London decision several years ago–a ruling that angered both the right and the left.) But I hope to clause doesn’t discourage the voluntary sale of property between a working class homeowner and an ambitious yuppie buyer: after all, the working class seller in this case stands to gain mightily in a neighborhood like Cottage Home. And the fact remains that Cottage Home–and Indy as a whole–stands to gain tremendously from investment in a long-neglected neighborhood that has become cool again. The best type of investment–incremental infill on the vacant lots–is already happening, and it would be a shame if either the elitism of historic preservation commissions or the inverse-elitism of an anti-gentrification coterie ever sought to stymie conventional home sales that benefit both parties.

    It behooves me to reference an excellent old article from The Urbanophile’s website, titled something along the lines of “Why I Hate Historic Districts”.


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