It sounds obvious, but it must be stated: historical preservation is about buildings not people.
This self-evident point jumped to GM’s mind last week when he read this thoughtful piece on preservation and the neighborhood of Kingman Park. The article, by Lindsey Jones-Renaud with Karen Smith, argues in favor of the historic designation of the neighborhood (which is northeast of Capitol Hill) and moreover argues that the city ought to consider the opinions of those who no longer live in the neighborhood when deciding this question.
For those unfamiliar with the neighborhood, the authors provide a helpful and informative description:
Of the 34 neighborhood historic districts in Washington, most have a social history that reflects the achievements of white Americans and a few present multiracial histories. But in Kingman Park, the founding homeowners were exclusively African American. Despite forced segregation until the mid-twentieth century and redlining in later decades, black families like Karen’s grandparents built Kingman Park into a prosperous community. It is this history that the applicants of the historic district sought to preserve. It is the first neighborhood in Washington DC that has received historic designation because of its African American history.
(This last point is wrong. Several historic districts have a period of significance during which the neighborhood was majority African-American, such as Shaw, Blagden Alley, and the Old West End).
Jones-Renaud and Smith focus their argument on the question of whose opinion should matter when deciding whether to designate a neighborhood as an historic district. They make a persuasive case that those who have left a neighborhood, but who contributed greatly to the neighborhood’s history, should be considered at least (if not more) than those who currently live there.
That’s a fair point. But where GM thinks their argument has gone astray is when they argue that historic designation is crucial to preserving both the literal African Americans who still live in the neighborhood and the history and stories of those who have left:
In speaking with Karen about the future of Kingman Park, she wondered, “What would this neighborhood become if it wasn’t designated historic? If an influx of more affluent residents were allowed to make massive home improvements and the area became real estate investments rather than a community neighborhood? Would that not induce a mass exodus of the African American population that now exists here?”
And then at the end the mistake becomes clear:
African Americans in Kingman Park deserve to have their neighborhood history preserved just as much as white Americans do in Georgetown and Capitol Hill.
GM doesn’t need to describe the relationship between historic preservation and African American displacement in Georgetown. The displaced have already done so, and it isn’t pretty:
It is not a coincidence that Jones-Renaud and Smith think that preservation in Georgetown is about celebrating white history. It’s easy to think so because the neighborhood is almost entirely white. It wasn’t always that way, of course. But when historic preservation came to Georgetown, it did nothing to preserve in place either the African Americans then living there nor their stories.
It’s because historic preservation regulations are about buildings, not people. And as shown in Georgetown and other neighborhoods, the historic designation at the very least accompanies, if not accelerates, the displacement of the people who helped build the neighborhood into what it was.
In practice, historic preservation laws in DC have almost nothing to do with preserving social history. And the preservation of architecture is largely just a by-product of the primary use of the regulations: limiting the construction of new or expanded housing.
In a place like Kingman Park, this limitation on the construction of new or expanded housing is only going to accelerate the story we’ve seen play out in neighborhoods all across DC, including Georgetown: African Americans will be displaced.
If keeping housing affordable and recording the social history are the goals of Kingman Park, there are ways of doing that. Encasing the architecture in amber is a great way to save buildings, but it does nothing for those other goals.