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When Historic Preservation Depends on Gentrification

To survive, smaller cities need economic and cultural capital.

The Past and Future City: How Historic Preservation is Reviving America’s Communities, Stephanie Meeks, Island Press, 352 pages.

In the mid-1960s, San Francisco enjoyed a blue-collar existence. It remained a city where Sicilian fishermen caught salmon, painted boats, and repaired nets along the pier. Middle-class families contentedly resided in ethnic neighborhoods that could easily blend in any East Coast city. Joe DiMaggio, long retired from the New York Yankees, carried out an enigmatic existence running a restaurant along Fisherman’s Wharf.

DiMaggio’s retreat to San Francisco inspired legendary journalist Gay Talese to visit the baseball legend and his home terrain in 1966. When Esquire published Talese’s classic piece, “The Silent Season of a Hero,” San Francisco was already distinguishing itself as a tourist attraction and haven for the hippie counterculture. But the city had yet to experience the shifting socio-economic fault lines that now make his portrayal seem more like a time capsule than a timeless cinematic presentation. 

In today’s San Francisco, the idea of enjoying a reasonable financial existence is foreign to the descendants of immigrants who flocked to the Bay Area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Google’s private buses shuttle tech bros down to Silicon Valley in a city where the unrepentant pace of gentrification and technology are erasing any sense of historical identity. To live a middle-class life in San Francisco is now a form of augmented reality. The city’s transformation, and the economic maladies that inevitably arose, is one of the subjects of Stephanie Meeks’ The Past and Future City, a manual describing the role of historic preservation in America’s cities. 

Meeks explores how gentrifying neighborhoods imperil heritage businesses and displace middle-class and immigrant families—disregarding the prescriptions of diversity from Jane Jacobs’ influential 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. According to Meeks, commercial rents in San Francisco have risen 250 percent since 1999. In 2014 alone, an estimated 13,000 businesses closed, including 4,000 that had operated for over five years. While San Francisco has responded by creating a Legacy Business Preservation Fund, which provides grants to businesses and nonprofits that have a historical impact on local neighborhoods, the city has yet to resolve the problem of balancing gentrification with making the city financially habitable for all residents. 

Meeks, who co-authored the book with Kevin Murphy, oversees the National Trust for Historic Preservation. During her tenure, the organization has worked to revitalize communities and create programs like National Treasures, which identifies threatened historic places and aggressively works to save them. Meeks admirably reminds readers that preservation is an issue far more complex than just rescuing old buildings. Instead, saving places is about “defin[ing] a community so that future generations can know their past, feel a connection to those who came before, and build a foundation for the future.”

The book is frequently a lamentation of the casualties of gentrification. As major cities celebrate a renaissance of new commercial and residential development, long-time residents mourn the loss of storied bars, diners, and stores. To express grief over a closed coffee shop or record store is understandable, but it is now fashionable to grow nostalgic over the squalor that once defined today’s thriving neighborhoods. Many baby boomers, harkening back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, habitually romanticize the stomach-churning sense of apprehension one once felt walking to a row-home apartment or passing seedy bars and theaters. In hindsight, this atmosphere allegedly sparked creativity.

Publishers have embraced a literary niche of memoirs mourning how gentrification sterilized the grime and extinguished the last vestiges of baby boomer youth. Mayor Abe Beame’s New York is usually the stage for these autobiographical expressions of sorrow. Whether it’s Patti Smith’s Just Kids or James Wolcott’s Lucking Out, we’re told that art, love, and happiness thrived in a downtown Manhattan that featured crumbling tenement buildings, lurking muggers, and drug addicts, along with a municipal balance sheet full of red ink.

None of these books would exist if that metropolitan Dark Age had endured. The luxuries of safety, stability, and success allow these writers to regret whatever blight and decay wasn’t preserved. What stands out among this canon is Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage, a reminiscence of New York just before the nadir of the 1970s. Broyard, who wrote for the New York Times, movingly described Greenwich Village as it existed immediately following World War II, when returning soldiers—armed with the G.I. Bill—flocked to the neighborhood to learn, create, and debate in a bohemian ecosystem. 

“Though much of the Village was shabby, I didn’t mind,” recounted Broyard. “I thought all character was a form of shabbiness, a wearing away of surfaces. I saw this shabbiness as our version of ruins, the relic of a short history. The sadness of the buildings was literature. I was twenty-six, and sadness was a stimulant, even an aphrodisiac.”

Of course, to be young and comfortably enjoy artistic pursuits in today’s Village is a fantasy. But should we condemn the unforeseen consequences of gentrification? Concerns about its impact on city neighborhoods date back to the 1960s. Losing a small business or facing an apartment eviction are tragic outcomes, but do native, poorer residents really lament cleaner and safer streets?

Meeks cites studies from the University of Washington and Columbia University that found poorer residents less inclined to flee a neighborhood undergoing gentrification or experiencing higher rents. “The most plausible interpretation,” wrote Columbia’s Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi, “may be the simplest: As neighborhoods gentrify, they also improve in many ways that may be appreciated by their disadvantaged residents as by their more affluent ones.”

Arguably, it’s through gentrification that preservation prevails in city neighborhoods. An investor is more inclined to restore an aging corner store into a microbrewery if the neighborhood sheds its unpleasant past. In American cities lucky enough to experience gentrification, the survival of historic buildings often depends on a neighborhood’s transformation.

Unfortunately, a healthy city doesn’t always translate into municipal leaders protecting historic buildings and neighborhoods. Instead, the mutually dependent forces of globalization and technology threaten our traditional concept of cultural or architectural heritage. In San Francisco or New York, the explosion of private global wealth since the 1990s created a demand for premium housing. For Manhattan, this radical development resulted in the construction of narrow high rises that puncture the island’s elegant skyline. But this dramatic change also expanded the boundaries of New York’s prosperity. Without gentrification, the blocks of structurally unique housing in Harlem, Park Slope, or Fort Greene would have fallen into disrepair.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, a generous tax abatement program—combined with flawed preservation policies—changed the landscape of Center City and its surrounding neighborhoods. During the past decade, the city experienced a demolition bonanza. In neighborhoods of historic housing like Powelton Village, developers “have discovered they can make a tidy sum simply by replacing one of these old houses with a stucco-clad apartment building and then cramming it with students,” observed the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron.

Preservationists have protested how Philadelphia’s demolition permits are approved. In the past year, two historic structures were razed for projects that never materialized. Currently, the preservation fight is focused on Center City’s Jeweler’s Row, a charming set of commercial properties on a block laid out in 1799. The historic storefronts, slated for demolition, would be replaced by a massive condo tower. Ill-advised demolition projects continue throughout Philadelphia, its future depending on an influx, however temporary, of millennials and students.


Cities like Philadelphia risk losing what shaped their identities, but their economic perseverance and favorable location at least provide prospects for preservation-minded investment projects. In The Past and Future City, Meeks’ greatest shortcoming is her failure to address how preservation can succeed in smaller Rust Belt cities confronting economic decline, urban blight, and rapid demographic and cultural change. After all, any of these post-industrial hubs would welcome the fruits of gentrification.

In recent months, field producers for cable news networks have flocked to these cities, attempting to document how Donald Trump triumphed in this so-called “flyover country.” Arriving like colonial administrators, they snap photos of dilapidated buildings and shuttered factories before heading to the nearest bar or fast-food restaurant to interview natives about how they endure in places overcome by urban decline.

Revitalization and reinvestment shouldn’t be confined to coastal cities. At a time when New York and Philadelphia regret what gentrification wrought, smaller urban pockets aggressively search for ways to make such blessings occur. Unfortunately, these communities do not enjoy the socio-economic advantages that allowed larger cities to overcome urban decay.

In countless smaller cities, multi-generational families reside in neighborhoods overwhelmed by blight and dysfunction. In 1984, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson famously attributed urban decay to modern mobility patterns and the retreat of police authority through vagrancy laws. They noted that before World War II, “City dwellers—because of money costs, transportation difficulties, familial and church connections—could rarely move away from neighborhood problems.” This forced residents to reclaim normalcy on their city streets.

We have returned to that pre-World War II trend, but without the institutions that once held these communities together. Stagnant wages leave many no alternative but to live in neighborhoods overwhelmed by drugs, gangs, and blight. Rapid demographic and economic change—accompanied by a fragmenting civic culture—make it difficult to apply the lessons of historic preservation in these cities. Magnificent old churches are shuttered or demolished. Stunning commercial or industrial buildings—the legacy of architects trained in New York or Paris—fall into disrepair. The fading vitality of a city’s physical surroundings becomes emotionally paralyzing. As Pete Hamill reminds us: “Nostalgia is genuine—you mourn things that actually happened.”

If applied properly, practical attempts at preservation could protect architectural treasures, build community morale, and improve overall neighborhood-level sociability. But gentrification may never arrive in these communities. While Meeks discusses the challenges of gentrification in major cities, she does not explain how post-industrial regions can embrace preservation without economic development as part of the cycle of urban revitalization.

For Meeks, a critical preservation tool is flexible or mixed-use zoning, which permits historic structures to be readily converted through adaptive reuse. But this could easily backfire in smaller cities. As Nicole Stelle Garnett wrote in her brilliant work on land use policy, Ordering the City, mixed-use zoning “might lead some low-income entrepreneurs to establish the types of businesses equated with urban decay.” In other words, a city may develop a comprehensive plan that encourages mixed-use zoning, but the resulting pawn shops, used-car lots, and check-cashing stores would destroy the character of whichever neighborhood was targeted for preservation.

Smaller cities and towns boast architectural, cultural, or industrial legacies that could unite communities, encourage preservation, and, if properly marketed, spur revitalization. But preservation transcends saving an old office building, factory, or church. It’s no longer decay that risks deconstructing our urban landscapes. Empty pews, folded newspapers, and defunct social clubs remind us that the foundation of America’s civic culture is collapsing.

As we retreat to a parallel existence through pixelated screens, our society becomes disengaged from the pillars of heritage that created communities, sustained neighborhoods, and brought families together. A steeple, marquee, or bank entrance tells a story. How we preserve that story remains to be seen. At the very least, repairing our civic culture could save many struggling cities and towns that still nurse an acute sense of culture and history. But gentrification is an unavoidable step in embracing the neighborhoods of our forefathers. It’s only then that we can come to love these cities as William Faulkner loved his native Mississippi—in spite of, not because.

Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania. This article was made possible with support from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.



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