Development that's pro-density and pro-history

A Rust Belt city offers a look at historic preservation, egalitarianism and the wrecking ball.
A Rust Belt city offers a look at historic preservation, egalitarianism and the wrecking ball.

A fascinating story in the Sunday New York Times by Nicolai Ouroussoff, "Saving Buffalo's Untold Beauty" writes about historic preservation in the Rust Belt in tough economic times. It turns out that Buffalo, New York is an architectural gem:

Buffalo is home to some of the greatest American architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with major architects like Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright building marvels here. Together they shaped one of the grandest early visions of the democratic American city.

Buffalo's past hasn't survived simply via neglect (though that's been a factor), but through an active preservation movement, and increasingly historic preservation is seen as a path to urban renewal (think what saving Pioneer Square did for Seattle in the '70s). But Buffalo's heritage also faces the bulldozers in the name of renewal. The city's mayor, Byron Brown, wants to tear down 5,000 homes to "clean up" some of Buffalo's poor neighborhoods — the kind of harsh cure for "blight" that once threatened the Pike Place Market here.

Ouroussoff is encouraged by the gritty resilience and civic passion of preservationists and also developers who are looking at restoration projects and adaptive re-use to revitalize neighborhoods. In that new development ethic — one that doesn't pit developers against preservations — he sees hope:

What we see is a more egalitarian, diverse and socially tolerant vision of the city. It is both pro-density and pro-history. These residents have come to recognize through firsthand experience that social, economic and preservation issues are all deeply intertwined.

There are pitfalls. Traditionally, economic hard times are good for preservation because new development slows. However, historic properties also fall into decay. Finding the way back can be tough, but preservation can help lead the way, though it must often struggle against a wrecking ball mindset of city leaders who view everything as ripe for a complete do-over. The urban renewal projects of the '60s were devastating for many cities.

On the other hand, while preservation has been a boon for some cites, there's also risk that projects will not be integrated with the larger needs and realities of the city. A city of museum pieces is not an ideal, or sustainable, outcome.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.