Gentrification and Historic Preservation, pt 2a: This Old House vs Old House Journal

Gentrification and Historic Preservation: This Old House vs Old House Journal
If you’ve ever subscribed to the two magazines you might notice a difference in the two. They do have a similarity in that they have a certain appreciation for older homes, classic architecture but where they differ is in that This Old House (TOH) goes more for appearance, whereas Old House Journal (OHJ) goes for authenticity. Personally, I’m a TOH kinda gal, I like old houses and such but there is no need to turn my home into a cultural artifact. TOH, the magazine and the television show, is open to new materials, materials that give the classic look of older material like wood or slate or what have you but not the maintenance or installation problems of classic materials. OHJ, promotes keeping and maintaining original objects (windows and cornices, chimneys, etc) almost demanding a museum quality of maintenance down to the mortar between the bricks. Also TOH is more forgiving allowing builders, designers and homeowners to work with the original design or theme of the home, sort of like taking a jazz standard and adding a hip hop dance beat(I’m thinking an updated Dinah Washington Is you is or is you ain’t my baby) in the back. OHJ is straight jazz, original recording, no mixing, or redubbing.
Okay now what do these magazines have to do with gentrification and historic preservation? Well working on my earlier post about the demands of historic preservation I wanted to illustrate two levels of appreciation for older homes, one that favored and demanded by the restrictions placed by historic districts and the other that comes from a general level of appreciation that also balances the needs of day to day living and personal budgets. Can you see my bias in that sentence? The restrictive rules and regulations just make living in an historic district burdensome for those with a general level of appreciation and limited funds, pushing those folks out in favor of people with the funding and desire for authenticity.
The case is worse for low/fixed income residents who lack the money for the authentic restoration demanded, making historic preservation an elitist excerise. A Sohmer and Lang (see links below) point out, preservation “still reflects a middle class ethos that obsesses over authenticity,” an authenticity that is so focused on the material minuae that it runs ramshod over the social structures and diversity that may have made place so valuable in the first place. Truxton Circle was in the late 19th and early 20th century had a mix of professionals, government civil servants, shopkeepers, tradesmen, servants and laborers and the housing reflected that diversity of social and income levels, a diversity that exists in early 21st century Truxton would be destroyed by preservation regulations.
In this I wonder what kind of history is being preserved? Surely not any social history as historic preservation is clearly at odds with affordable homeownership. History is complex. Real history is not the disneyfied version that is usually prepackaged for tourist groups for a manufactured experience. It’s got oppression, injustice, bigotry, guilt, ugliness, inhumane poverty and many of the same problems of human vice that currently exists today in 2005. It ain’t all beautiful. But it’s the pretty shiny bits that get pulled out or a redeeming ending is slapped on so that it can be marketed to the general public turning history into a lie of omission, a skewed version. I’m sure in my old age I’ll see theme parks where kids can have their picture taken with a Crip, Blood, or MS-13 gang member, made toothless like our current view of pirates and 1940s gangsters. Is that the kind of history that is being preserved in historic districts, the clean up, super edited, the materially authenic but spirtually empty kind? The Monticello without the slaves?
Lack of room for economic diversity, and a narrow museum biased interpretation of history are just a few reasons why I hold some hostility towards some aspects of historic preservation in residental settings. Another reason? It just pisses off my inner Libertarian. I can tolerate some government regulations and restrictions but I’m not looking to add more top down restrictions to my life. I moved to this house because I wanted to avoid condos and co-ops because of their boards, and planned communities (well they are too far out but..) for their HOA restrictions, and any other body that squashes individuality. I did look at one house that I believed was in an historic district but it’s being in an historic district was one of serval reasons I didn’t want to buy it. The house in Truxton appealed to me because it was an affordable older home but with no restrictive historic district rules. I got a TOH kinda love for older homes, not a OHJ kind of love. I take issue with having the kind of windows, fencing, security bars, doors, tree box, light fixtures, steps, what I can put on those steps and roofing materials dictated to me on a basis other than standard building codes and being denied suitable building materials because they don’t fit museum-centric standards.
Okay this is getting long so I’ll do part 2, section b, later and go on about maintenance and question aspects of the benifits of taking on the historic district burden.

Beyond This Old House: Historic Preservation in Comunity Development by Rebecca Sohmer and Robert E. Lang

Models for Neighborhood Revitalization in Historic Districts by, Michael Sacks,Trinity College, Hartford, CT

4 thoughts on “Gentrification and Historic Preservation, pt 2a: This Old House vs Old House Journal”

  1. I don’t really understand your point here… why exactly does living in a historical preservation area cost more money to the homeowner?

    I could be wrong here… but my understanding was that DC historical districts simply required the *outside* of the house not to be mauled by new additions, vinyl siding, etc. What you do inside is entirely up to you. A low income family has the right to simply do nothing, except keep the house painted and the yard clear… the same things that are expected anywhere.

    The real “losers” in historical neighborhoods are the developers, who loose their ability to slap a fourth story made out of cinderblocks on top of a brick Victorian. That’s not something that low-income families are doing – its something outside developers are doing.

    – JM

  2. Well some of us bought houses in need of attention due to years of neglect so there is something to be repaired every year on the inside and out as we couldn’t afford to tackle every exterior problem at once. The extra costs could come when I repair window openings, replace the door, change the storm door, etc. Also, the sight of vinyl siding on one house does not set me off. If one house in a block of 50 homes is non-conformist it’s okay by me (you are valid in your own passions about the topic but I’m talkin’ ’bout me here). Who knows, the time of vinyl (or other housing sin) the developers put on may pass and be replaced by new owners. Whatever the wrong headed developers do, can it be undone or covered over by something more suitable by later owners? A building is only lost when it is either torn down or falls down.

  3. Well, that’s a pretty good point… even the most hideous remodeling can be fixed later on. I’ve certainly seen beat up boarding houses in my neighborhood turned into pristine Victorian mansions using all new materials. The new buyers never know the difference!

    By the way… I think you have the best blog in the city… thanks!

    – JM

  4. This essay reflects my point of view exactly — at least, until recently.

    Unexpectedly, I find myself wondering if places like my town, wouldn’t benefit economically, socially, and visually, from a bulldoze and rebuild; that is, with planning — something the powers that be absolutely refuse, and citizens have no power to enact.

    In my experience, ‘gentrification’ has meant: move out the poor, turn diners into elitist, expensive bistros, and, generally, take away the soul of a neighborhood, or commercial areas – say, around ports. I hold to that definition. BUT…

    now I think, too, that the structures and open spaces of a town can hold it back on every level. Certainly, part of this new way of thinking about it, is that it has become too painful to me to witness the destruction of beautiful homes and buildings, and the development of land that should have been kept wild — not a ‘not in my backyard’ position — but from a human, and conservationist standpoint.

    Too, buildings can hold a great deal of painful memories for residents. Houses lived in, lost to foreclosure…that sort of thing. Who needs it. How many people have you heard say that a place holds too many painful memories to tolerate living there again?

    As late as 1997, I’d say, when I would travel to Florida to visit, I admit that even the malls, which I detest, held great appeal. Beautifully landscaped. Rather egalitarian in price structure. Lovely design. No longer. They all look like a Walgreens. (Why DOES Walgreens have even more hideous buildings than Rite Aid or CVS??)

    Writing this, it does come down to planning and style and design. There are definite tear-downs of ‘historic’ buildings here that would add humanity to the place. And those should be addressed in a case-by-case manor.

    I find myself drawn to back alleys, and warehouse, industrial areas. There is a beauty to them, even when the buildings are large metal sheds. Yet — there is an energy about them that is at once dynamic and peaceful. Interesting stuff, this.

    But after two years, I still don’t have a sense of what color the front door of the house should be. Why am I so dedicated to keeping a ‘look’ for this remuddled, yet still area-specific style house? It drives me nuts.

    A snobby guy who owns a house with ‘true’ historic windows, snobbily pointed out that the windows of my house are absolute NOT, and could not understand why I would care whether they were repaired with wood, or get hideous vinyl replacements.

    I suppose it is at that moment, when I think about razing everything; getting rid of the snobby guy’s pure and perfect ‘historic’ windows, as well as my own, and making the whole place as pretty, energy-efficient, and engaging, yet affordable as that Main Street at DisneyWorld.

    But what color to paint the front door…

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