This post is based on a presentation made to the Landmarks Preservation Commission on January 19, 2021 by Chair Sarah Carroll and Executive Director Lisa Kersavage. (Click on the image below to watch)
The last year has been one of the most challenging our nation has faced, with attacks on democracy, the pandemic, with the loss of life, damage to the economy and how it exposed systemic failures, as well as the killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the despair and anger expressed subsequently. These events made it important for us to publicly reaffirm the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s (LPC) commitment to equity in all aspects of our work.
The policy goals of equity have been a touchstone of Mayor de Blasio’s administration, and addressing equity in every aspect of LPC’s work has been my priority throughout my tenure. This includes enhancing transparency and accessibility in our regulatory work, and prioritizing designations that represent New York City’s diversity and designations in areas less represented by landmarks, as is reflected in our recent designations.
This year, to accomplish my prioritization of equity and inclusion in our work, we have developed a framework for the agency to:
• Ensure diversity and inclusion in designations, to make sure that we are telling the stories of all New Yorkers
• Ensure effective outreach both for our regulatory work and in garnering support for designation, which requires the agency to acknowledge and work with the incredible diversity amongst New Yorkers in terms of language and culture.
• Ensure fairness, transparency, and efficiency in regulation, so that all property owners understand the agency’s processes and have equal access to resources so that proposed work is approved in a timely manner and property owners are supported through technical assistance and improved guidance.
Equity and Inclusion across the Agency
Equity and inclusion are driving work across the agency. Related to our regulatory work, LPC will soon be launching a major initiative to develop a robust e-filing process, which will make filing, managing and tracking applications easier for all, particularly homeowners who file their own applications. We are also focusing on increased outreach to homeowners on how to work with LPC, to ensure access, fairness and transparency.
In our Administration Department, while we don’t have a large capital budget, we have sought to increase our spending with Minority/Women Business Enterprises (MWBE), and while we are proud that we have among the highest grades in the city from the Comptroller, we want to improve our performance with African American-owned businesses. Likewise, for our grants, which is an area of capital spending, we plan to do enhanced outreach to contractors to improve our performance with African American contractors.
Our Archaeology Department will continue efforts to share the stories learned from archaeological artifacts, which reveal information about every day New Yorkers and more accurately reflect New York City’s economic and social diversity throughout history.
Equity and Inclusion Goals for LPC’s Research and Designations
Historic buildings embody the stories and experiences of people, and thoughtful exploration of historical context in designations can expand public recognition and equitable representation of New York City’s diverse history.
During my tenure, we have been studying the Commission’s designations to date and developing a set of priorities to ensure a more equitable representation of our city’s diverse history through our designations. We are particularly focusing on communities whose stories and experiences have not yet adequately been told.
As we strive for full inclusion, I would like to put into context designations we have done in the past, which show how we have been approaching designations recently, and how we will continue to.
Recognizing African American History
Since LPC’s earliest years, the agency has been designating places of cultural and historic significance, and the Commission has for five decades been recognizing places related to African American history. For example, The Houses on Hunterfly Road, also known as Weeksville, were designated in 1970 as the only surviving group of houses from an early 19th century free Black community.
In recent years we have continued to advance historic district and individual landmark designations related to New York City’s long and varied African American history. Examples include:
• Mount Morris Park Historic District Extension in Harlem, home to one of New York City’s most vibrant African American communities, which became home to many prominent African American’s in the 1920s
• Central Harlem — West 130th-132nd Streets Historic District — illustrates not only the architectural development of Harlem, but the rich social, cultural, and political life of Harlem’s African American population in the 20th century, and includes the National headquarters of the March on Washington, a property strongly associated with Bayard Rustin
• James Baldwin’s House, which is the most significant surviving building in the United States associated with the celebrated novelist, essayist, poet, and civil rights advocate.
Reflecting NYC’s Diversity
We have prioritized designations that reflect and foster our incredible diversity, which we believe is New York City’s greatest strength. And these designations themselves are diverse. Examples include:
• Stonewall Inn was the starting point of the Stonewall Rebellion, and one of the most important sites associated with LGBTQ history in New York City and the nation.
• The Staten Island home of the critically acclaimed African American novelist, poet, essayist, and feminist Audre Lorde.
• Coney Island’s boardwalk has given people of all economic and social backgrounds free access to the beach and seaside since 1923 and is the embodiment of Coney Island’s democratic spirit.
Geographic Diversity of Designations
In the last few years LPC has also focused on ensuring geographic diversity, and the agency has designated many “firsts” in their respective neighborhoods. Examples include four historic districts in Sunset Park, a historic district in Inwood, the Manida Street historic district in Hunts Point, Bronx and recently, the East 25th Street historic district in East Flatbush. What we learned from these designations is that in many places historic architecture drew people together, and their community spirit grew stronger through their collective efforts to preserve it.
Difficult and Contested Histories
In recent designation reports, LPC has been clear in documenting that throughout American history there have been policies and actions at every level of government that have furthered inequities and have been racist. In recent designations, such as Manida Street in the South Bronx, and Public School 48 in South Jamaica, Queens, the designation reports described the history of redlining and disinvestment in the neighborhoods as part of the narrative.
And in the designation of the row of five buildings that best represent Tin Pan Alley, we recognized the significant contributions and achievements of African Americans in music publishing, and also acknowledged the Jim Crow laws and other unjust, discriminatory practices and entrenched systemic racism that led to the racist caricatures and stereotypes of African Americans in the sheet music produced at Tin Pan Alley.
We will continue to address these issues.
LPC’s Research Department is committed to the highest standards of historical scholarship and archival research, and to bringing complex issues to light. Their work has been aided by access to new research sources and increasing scholarship related to social justice.
Many recent initiatives, such as the LGBT initiative, are the result of research department studies and years of survey and research. In addition, in districts such as Central Harlem, it took deliberate and intensive research to uncover the previously untold story of how Harlem residents adapted many of the residential buildings to accommodate a variety of cultural, religious, civic, and political uses, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance and through the 1960s, and how these institutions sustained the community and fostered social justice over decades there. Finally, doing research through an equity lens can require new tools, such as oral histories. The research department has incorporated community interviews and oral histories into recent work at Tin Pan Alley, Manida Street and East 25th Street and plans to do similarly with upcoming designations.
Telling the Stories of All New Yorkers
While our designation reports are first and foremost regulatory documents, outlining significance and guidance for regulation, they also expand our understanding of history. They have incorporated deeper investigations into historical context over the years. However, because they are regulatory documents, they aren’t always very accessible to the public and they don’t necessarily connect stories between designations, across boroughs or decades when they were designated.
To better make these connections, LPC has produced a number of story maps that are highly visual and condensed stories around various themes. For example, New York City and the Path to Freedom, documents designated buildings associated with the multiple ways people and institutions engaged with the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War.
Doing additional research on the interconnectedness NYC’s historic landmarks allows a fuller story and makes our city’s diverse history more accessible, and we will continue to explore these connections.
This year, the Commission will be considering a number of designations across the city that reflect the diverse history and influence of all communities. On January 19, 2021, the Commission voted to calendar three properties:
• Conference House Park Archaeological Site, which addresses a gap in designations, would be the city’s first landmark recognizing the many generations of Native Americans who lived in the area. In addition, research staff has already started to work with the city’s Federally and State-recognized Tribes to ensure inclusive research.
• Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz also fills a gap in representation of New York City’s Latino community.
• Finally, 70 Fifth Avenue, known as the Educational Building, is significant as the former home of the national office of the NAACP in the early-20th century, as well as many progressive organizations that advanced social justice and equality.
On February 2, 2021, we plan to bring forward the proposed Dorrance Brooks Historic District in Harlem to be considered for calendaring. The proposed district has highly intact streetscapes of late-19th-century and early 20th-century architecture and rich associations with the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights movements. As we are approaching the 100-year anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, it is a particularly important and appropriate time to recognize and celebrate the significant cultural and social history of this neighborhood.