Randall Mason

 

On his book The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City

Cover Interview of July 20, 2009

In a nutshell

The Once and Future New York is a history of historic preservation’s appearance as a kind of urban reform, design and planning in early 20th-century New York.  The book connects the specific ideas, practices, and individuals behind historic preservation to larger questions about design, planning, and urbanism.  In other words, OFNY is about the nature of the modern city as a cultural construction as well as a built environment.  Using New York City as a case, the book takes on the question of where the historic preservation movement came from, and suggests why preservation continues to make a difference in the quality of American cities.

Writing this history also afforded me the chance to explode a couple myths about preservation and New York.  First, that New York is a city defined by tearing down and constantly rebuilding.  The city certainly does this, but there is also a long-standing tradition of carefully preserving parts of its historic built environment.  The two processes are not necessarily in opposition, but rather complementary.  Second, that historic preservation in New York was invented in the 1960s as a reaction to the depredations of urban renewal and Modernism.  Preservation flourished in the 1960s as an important reaction against the destructive forces of urban renewal—notably in the loss of Penn Station in 1963 and later the defense of Grand Central station.  But, paradoxically, preservation first emerged generations earlier (at least as far back as the 1890s) and was a movement driven by the leading city builders!

The idea that powerful elected officials, reformers and other leading citizens first promoted preservation on New York’s urban stage indicates that preservation was part of their vision for a modern New York.  Preservation was part of the same vision that included skyscrapers, extensive subways, a large government, and a newly regulated society, not a reaction against it.  This calls forth some very interesting and important characters in New York’s history, otherwise lost to our memory: George McAneny, Andrew Haswell Green, Madison Grant, among others.

There are some fairly instrumental lessons in this history, relevant to contemporary practitioners of preservation in New York as well as other cities.  The book argues that historic preservation is a fundamental part of every modern city.  Preservation doesn’t give the city its overriding shape and tenor; it’s not a driving force.  But the few places stewarded and created by preservationists work as an alloy for modern cities: adding a minor ingredient, they make cities stronger and more robust.

Strategically and tactically, preservationists should embrace these roots of their field, and advance preservation as part of the creative discussion about making the modern cities—rather than as a separate, segregated concern of a few experts, which too often is the case.  And those outside the preservation community—designers, developers, public officials, citizens—should take notice of the presence of the material past in all our lives.