Monday, March 30, 2009

My Property

"The fact is, Chicago could not exist without its landmark ordinance,"” said Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit group. "It's the line that holds us back from the Neanderthals."

Monica Davey, "Challenge to Landmark Law Worries Preservationists," New York Times, March 23,2009.

I support historic preservation and buy the argument that without preservation ordinances our urban landscape would be further scarred by redevelopment. Unfortunately, preservationists sometimes go over the top with their rhetoric, like "Chicago could not exist without its landmark ordinance." To be kind, perhaps Jonathan Fine is saying that something essential about Chicago would be lost if there wasn't a legal mechanism to protect our architectural treasures. That sounds better, less metaphysical.

But there's no easy way to explain, "It's the line that holds us back from the Neanderthals." Read closely, this sentence is a bit confusing. Might we all become Neanderthals without some historic preservation constraint? Or, is historic preservation our central defense against the marauding hordes of Neanderthals who can't wait to ravage our city? Maybe he should have said historic preservation was one of the top 10 things that holds back the Neanderthals, whoever they might be.

Preservationists have been accused over the years of promoting gentrification in low-income urban neighborhoods. I've seen preservation law advance the interests of real estate developers. This contemporary legal challenge to Chicago preservation law adds some new twists.

"Ms. Mrowka and Mr. Hanna said their neighborhoods were proposed as landmarks merely to manipulate their makeup. Ms. Mrowka said some of her neighbors wanted to avoid allowing the neighborhood to gentrify further. And Mr. Hanna, who has worked for years in commercial mortgage banking and moved to Lincoln Park well before it transformed into an upscale section, said the landmark designation was being used to racially cleanse a high income area."

So, historic preservation is being used to prevent gentrification and to "racially cleanse a high income area." I'm puzzled by how to reconcile these two ideas. My gut sense is that these anti-preservationists just want to be able to sell their properties for bigger bucks.

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