Is historic preservation un-American?

Preservationists are Un-American because they oppose the conventional American idea of consuming ever more, and are reversing the “use it up and move on” mentality.

In 2000, Norman Tyler published the book Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles, and Practices. The first page of the book asked the question: Is Preservation Un-American? This question is based on an article published in 1979 by Clem Labine, publisher of the magazine Traditional Building, titled: “Preservationists Are Un-American”. Labine was concerned by Americans consumption, throw-away mentality and lack of focus on preservation of history.

In the piece, Labine said, “Preservationists are Un-American because they oppose the conventional American idea of consuming ever more, and are the new wave of pioneer struggling to reverse the ‘use it up and move on’ mentality. We are moving in and picking up the pieces. We are taking discarded individual buildings and whole neighborhoods and trying to make them live again. We are cleaning up after society’s litterbugs.”

Today, the federal government is very proactive regarding identifying our local, state and national historic resources. Congress established a comprehensive program to preserve the historical and cultural foundations of the nation as a living part of community life by enacting  Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Section 106 of the NHPA requires consideration of historic preservation in the multitude of projects with federal involvement that take place across the nation every day. Section 106 requires federal agencies to consider the effects of projects they carry out, approve, or fund on historic properties. Also, federal agencies must provide the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) an opportunity to comment on such projects prior to the agency’s decision on them. Section 106 review encourages, but does not mandate, preservation.

The City of Detroit’s Historic Designation Advisory Board and the Historic District Commission are examples of a board and commission that for decades have used a very comprehensive historic district ordinance to identify and preserve the historic resources that are part of Detroit’s rich industrial revolution, urban development and automotive history. The website for the City of Detroit Historic District Commission discusses the benefits of being designated a local historic district in Detroit.

Some of the benefits include previsions to: preserve Detroit’s neighborhoods, housing stock, history for future generations of Detroiters, regulating exterior changes ensures new construction and additions are compatible with existing historic structures and the historical character of houses and grounds are maintained. Local historic district designation can help stabilize a neighborhood. Studies have been conducted in numerous states which show property values do not decrease in value in historic districts when compared to properties outside the designated district. They sometimes remain the same, but more typically they increase in value, sometimes significantly.

Cities are looking to reduce sprawl, have smart growth and create sustainable communities. The U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Services (2011) states, “The most sustainable building may be one that already exists. Thus, good preservation practice is often synonymous with sustainability.”

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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