|The cover of the new Historic Preservation Plan|
features Grant Neighborhood
But there is still a partial NIMBY sentiment, something a little coded, and with the Historic Preservation Plan at Council on Monday, which features a cover with the Grant Neighborhood, our whole framework of what we deem worth preserving, and how we think about it, in both formally designated historic districts and in other neighborhoods needs a more searching analysis. The way we talk about protecting historic resources is a little screwed up. By focusing too much on incumbency privilege, too often we subordinate preservation as a means to exclusionary ends.
"Economic, social, and demographic characteristics have not meaningfully changed"
In the letter from the Grant Neighborhood Association objecting to the German Baptist Church proposal was something that we have seen elsewhere and we will see in the future again.** It is a common appeal and style of defense. The ease with which we resort to this should probably make us a little uncomfortable.
|We have not grappled with the exclusionary intent: |
"properties whose economic, social, and demographic
characteristics have not meaningfully changed"
- and should not change, by implication
What is the character that needs protection? One ingredient is clearly exclusionary: "Properties whose economic, social, and demographic characteristics have not meaningfully changed [and do not warrant change]." And should not change, is clearly implied.
Even without malignant intent, as an ostensibly neutral observation about unchanged "economic, social, and demographic characteristics" it should set off alarm bells. This is not about personal attitudes of individuals; people would say they welcome diversity. It is instead a more subtle structural bias against change that happens to have as a welcome feature an exclusionary impact. It is about protecting the interests of incumbents and creating barriers to entry. Appeals to unchanged "economic, social, and demographic characteristics" should be subject to heightened scrutiny. Too often this kind of appeal hampers our efforts for more housing, hampers our anti-racisim, and hampers our climate action.
We Celebrate only a Partial Reading of History
The history itself here is also ambiguous. There is a history of exclusion, in fact. The "rich history" Grant celebrates is also a little rich in an ironic sense.
You might remember the history and housing types pamphlet, "The Houses of Grant Neighborhood" (2015).
|The H-alleys of Oaks Addition|
|Ads for "building restrictions"|
Main ad: April 13th, 1912
Inset detail: May 11th, 1912
In the pamphlet they didn't talk about this part.
The German Baptist Church is just a block away from the Oaks Addition, and this is what is being protected against "inferior dwellings" or other "chipping away."
|Oaks Addition and the Church site on corner of Cottage and D|
(December 16th, 1911)
Moreover, there's a circularity here. If the Neighborhood Association always mobilizes against change, then the fact that change hasn't happened in the past isn't a good argument against this new proposed change.
The observation about the neighborhood not having changed is descriptive only, and should not be regarded as prescriptive. It is merely a sign the Neighborhood Association consistently opposes change.
Problems with the Plan
Returning to the Historic Preservation Plan, we should note ancillary values and goals that are not in fact related to preserving and telling better history, but in some ways represent the real subtext and reason for "historic preservation."
|Explicit benefits: Increasing property values, reducing sprawl,|
also on reducing carbon
There's also a little bit of greenwash. One of the benefits is also "reduction in carbon dioxide," and now there is a formal Goal 5 to "Encourage sustainable practices."
|New Goal 5 on sustainability|
|Primarily around rehab and redevelopment|
There are times when demolishing an old house and replacing it with a multi-plex is in fact greener. It is also sometimes fairer, giving more people and a greater mix of people, the opportunity to enjoy urban amenities and to travel shorter distances. And when there is no demolition involved, the green benefits can be even greater.
In our Historic Preservation framework, we do not account for the way its benefits often accrue disproportionately to incumbents and are not distributed more widely.
The objections of the Grant Neighborhood to a redevelopment project are not at all unique. They are pervasive, broader even than any context of Historic Preservation, and even without being attached to a particular project, we see them in resistance to change as we consider amendments to zoning and to the Comprehensive Plan in the Our Salem process.
But if we are serious about more housing and more affordable housing, if we are serious about anti-racism, and if we are serious about climate, we have to look very closely at objections, especially when they arrive in the form of unchanging (or little changed) "economic, social, and demographic characteristics." It is in the nature of neighborhoods to evolve and change, and trying to preserve a mythic Neighborhood Character too often serves exclusionary ends.
* At the last Council meeting, Council knee-capped a proposal for affordable housing and adaptive reuse of the 1928 German Baptist Church. Even with a couple of analyses, the whole thing is still a little hard to understand.
- "'Progressive' Council Snuffs Affordable Hsg Project" at CANDO
- "Why Salem City Council nixed an affordable housing development over an office space" at Salem Reporter
- And here previously at an earlier stage, "Grant Neighborhood to Discuss Conversion of 1928 German Baptist Church"
** See here previously: