- Place, Race, and Story: Essays on the Past and Future of Historic Preservation
Place, Race, and Story is an anthology of material written by Ned Kaufman between 1989 and 2004, including keynote addresses, policy papers, and scholarly essays. Although they range widely in subject and tone, the chapters are bound together by the author’s interest in identifying ways for historic preservationists to work on behalf of social justice. [End Page 110] A prologue and a series of shorter essays framing each of four thematic sections provide necessary context, explaining why each piece was initially written and how it fits within the framework of the book. Several of the essays draw upon the author’s experience working in New York City, particularly in his role as director of preservation for the Municipal Art Society during the effort to save the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan.
At times, the book reads like a dispatch from a foreign war zone: being a preservationist in New York is clearly no picnic. In Kaufman’s telling, aesthetes still rule the roost when it comes to landmark designation, while architectural historians are only concerned with architecture as art and thus ignore the significance of place and community. Seemingly as a consequence, this is a book whose arguments are aimed at a very specific audience—those architects, critics, and historians who see architecture as a privileged practice that transcends the social world and whose significance is fixed and determined at the moment of creation. With Place, Race, and Story, Kaufman joins his voice to the quiet chorus singing a different tune: that buildings and landscapes are invested with meaning over time, not endowed with it by their creators.
This question is not only a matter for scholarly debate. It is in preservationists’ interest to nurture a widespread understanding of buildings as artifacts of culture. Clinging to outdated, reactionary notions of architectural value weakens arguments against demolition by severely limiting the pool of buildings that ought to be preserved. Design landmarks are rare and their identification contentious. But every building has a story.
Kaufman is primarily interested in how preservationists can be more effective at checking development when it threatens to damage communities. He advocates enlisting the help of community members, folklorists, and members of populations that were poorly served by preservationists in the past, especially racial minorities and immigrants. If such notions seemed radical in the New York of the 1990s, they increasingly represent the mainstream among preservationists, as Kaufman acknowledges. Nonetheless, these essays are distinguished by their emphasis on the needs of present communities in making determinations of architectural significance and in choosing which sites to preserve. The author insists, for example, on collecting information from living informants through oral histories and giving such material equal weight to documentary evidence gathered in libraries and archives.
This book is therefore unapologetically presentist. This perspective may be galling to the historian or preservationist who believes that the lessons of the past are worth learning on their own terms. But it is an important one that emphasizes the degree to which preservation, even when it makes its case by drawing upon the historical record, is always motivated by contemporary concerns. Preservationists must choose how and when to fight, and their choices are overwhelmingly driven by economic development.
The means by which Kaufman seeks to forge a more inclusive practice of preservation are many. They include making better use of existing local preservation ordinances, which emphasize sites’ historical and cultural as well as architectural significance; using the National Register’s recognition of “Traditional Cultural Properties,” which allows for latitude in how sites are identified and how significance is determined; and applying the National Environmental Policy Act, which protects both natural and man-made environments and acknowledges traditional human uses of a landscape as worthy of protection.
These issues, and some recommendations for policy solutions, are well summarized in the three chapters that focus on New York. Chapter 6 reprints a...