Q&A: Aaron Passell on Preserving Neighborhoods

Preserving Neighborhoods: How Urban Policy and Community Strategy Shape Baltimore and Brooklyn offers a close examination of the different ways that community activists and local governments in Baltimore and Brooklyn use historic preservation as a way of controlling neighborhood change. To delve deeper into this topic, Cassandra Cordie interviewed Aaron Passell about his book and the ways historic preservation can mitigate gentrification and the rate of change in communities.

Q: You argue that historic preservation is one of the few remaining urban policy interventions that enable communities to exercise some control over the changing built environments of their neighborhoods. What actions undertaken by the residents of Baltimore and Brooklyn to re-enfranchise their communities compelled you to put the efforts of the two cities in conversation with each other?

Aaron Passell: The contrast was more between neighborhood activists in Brooklyn, who turned to landmarking as a way to intervene in a process of revalorizing their neighborhoods—gentrification—and preservation leaders, both in and outside government, in Baltimore, who saw that historic designation could be a way to direct reinvestment into neighborhoods that had seen population loss and systematic disinvestment. I think of the approach as a “most different” case comparison, and it can be unwieldy. But it’s particularly apt in a situation where previous scholars and the popular imagination treat historic preservation as if it were a unitary phenomenon with uniform effects on diverse neighborhoods.

Q: In thinking about historic preservation and urban revitalization, there is a lot of conversation around equity in access to resources and spaces. You introduce the idea of “demolition by neglect” and how it speaks to neighborhood change. How can something as passive as vacancy begin to be productive?

AP: If property owners see a gap between the current value of their property and its potential value, they are likely to undertake whatever strategies are available to profit by closing that gap. If a property owner feels constrained by historic preservation regulation, they might simply allow their property to decay to the point that it is beyond preserving, creating an opportunity to close the gap by building something new. They can only do this, of course, if preservation advocates don’t have the resources to enforce preservation regulation, which is clearly true in Baltimore. As importantly, though, vacancy can only be productive—of profits, at least—where there is interest in and pressure for redevelopment. One of the paradoxes of Baltimore is that most urban planning and development relies on an assumption of urban population growth and there’s little evidence of that in Baltimore and extensive evidence to the contrary. The entire paradigm is a mismatch.

Q: Your book complicates the supposedly causal relationship between historical designation and gentrification. To that end, you argue that these revitalization efforts may counter displacement by allocating control to neighborhood residents. How can lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color take advantage of historic preservation?

AP: In a hot real estate market, like that in many central Brooklyn neighborhoods in the period of my research, local residents are limited in what they can do to mediate rapidly increasing property values. They cannot, for example, prevent their neighbors from selling high and moving away. They can, though, require that historic properties be maintained in their historic state, not torn down and replaced with luxury condos that maximize the return to the buyer. This limits, somewhat, how quickly property values rise and how quickly lower-income, longer-term residents are displaced. To be clear though, it’s not a solution, just a mitigation, but one of the few available to local actors.

Q: In Preserving Neighborhoods, you approach historic preservation as an intervention into the larger social landscape of a neighborhood. To what extent do you find communities to be related to place, and how might historic preservation be mobilized to reflect the efforts of marginalized and underrepresented communities?

AP: All of my research, reading, and teaching in and around urban sociology suggests to me that community and place are radically interconnected, even mutually constituting. Moreover, when residents come together to work toward historic designation, that connection is recognized and reinforced. Accordingly, anywhere that this recognition can be fostered, deepened, can empower otherwise disenfranchised groups to influence the trajectory of their neighborhood. I saw this particularly in Crown Heights North, where longtime Black homeowners understood that landmark district designation was just one strand of a broader effort at community preservation that involved attention to local commerce and residential stability.

Q: You discuss the role of neighborhood residents as catalysts for historic preservation alongside bureaucratic urban planners. How do the preservation efforts you analyze in Preserving Neighborhoods interact with the political and cultural landscapes of the cities and the field of urban studies at large?

AP: That’s a huge question that I can only begin to answer here. I’ll say two things, though, that both refer to answers I’ve given already: first, preservation advocacy can be a community-building mechanism that shifts neighborhoods from loosely affiliated by place to mobilized for making political claims. That’s a shift we generally need a better understanding of, so unpacking another example is powerful. Second, preservation efforts highlight the significance of the built environment of neighborhoods to the social processes ongoing within them. We must, in urban studies, continue to center this relationship among the spatial, the physical, and the social because that is what makes our field distinctive and impactful.

Q: You explore historical preservation as a dynamic initiative that can be mobilized by neighborhoods of radically different means with a variety of goals in mind. Has your research led you to conclude that preservation is most productive as an antagonist against destabilizing changes or as a creative and transformative tool? 

AP: Great question. My answer—if I have to choose—is “the latter.” Obviously, a successful preservation effort can save a building or block that is central to a neighborhood’s sense of itself, avoiding destabilizing change. But the trajectory of urban planning and its conjunction with local politics over the last half century or so in the United States has removed the control of the neighborhood built environment from residents. Returning some of that control to communities, through preservation regulation, returns the possibility of some degree of self-determination, with powerfully creative potential.

Aaron Passell is associate director of the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of Preserving Neighborhoods: How Urban Policy and Community Strategy Shape Baltimore and Brooklyn. You can save 20 percent on his new book and any of our featured UAA titles when you use coupon code UAA at checkout form our website now through June 1, 2021.

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