Urban Preservation

Revolutionary Conversations - Urban Preservation

As visitors return to walk the Freedom Trail, we wanted to consider: Is it possible to preserve a historic space within a city? Can you preserve a city in time or does the fluid nature of an urban environment make it impossible to hold in one place?

Deirdre Kutt, Visitor Experience Staff

Boston is both an example of the consequence of not preserving the historic landscape and the outstanding conversations of preserving the historical footprint of the city. We see this with the destruction of John Hancock’s Mansion on Beacon Hill in 1863, thus encouraging many within the city to reconsider preserving historical elements alongside the dynamic landscape transformations. The conversations around preservation and how and who in our society informs these decisions are ever evolving. We see this today on a national scale, as statues of Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee, that once were common forms of historical remembrance, are being torn down. Opening the conversation to the never ending debate on how history should be told and remembered. Locally in Boston, conversations of how the community chooses to remember are being grappled with as well. From mid-nineteenth century commemorations outside of Faneuil Hall honoring Crispus Attucks’s role in the American Revolution to present day protests at the same site by local activists who challenge the name of Faneuil Hall because of the role the building’s namesake had during the slave trade. What is constant however, is that as society grows and changes, ideas behind historic preservation and remembrance, and how we tell the stories are always in transformation. Which historical stories are important to us decades or even a century ago, may not be the case today.

Lou Rocco, Assistant Director of Visitor Experience

Cities are studies in contradiction. On the one hand, the cosmopolitan nature of cities makes it difficult, if not impossible, to hold them in stasis forever. Waves of migrants—both domestic and international—have changed American cities throughout our history, which is something those who live in cities and urban areas tend to welcome and value. At the same time, the history of cities as places of residency for various waves of immigrants have led to the establishment of ethnic enclaves. Some of these enclaves have been replaced by others over time, but some have become entrenched and resist economic development, newer waves of immigration, and other attempted changes to the status quo. So while the overall culture and history of cities involves constant change, pockets of conservation persist.

An important factor in the nature of the location and focus of this change is real estate economics. Depending on who holds sway in the right city offices, a city government may be more or less inclined to court real estate developers in order to create valuable jobs, tax revenue, and fees. The more a city wants developers to build within their borders, the more a city’s neighborhoods, skyline, rent prices, and character will change. This will, in turn, change the demographics of a city’s populace, with poorer residents often being priced-out of their neighborhoods in exchange for wealthier, newer residents (or largely empty condominium and office buildings).

I once heard a theory about why Boston has so many older buildings than New York City. Unfortunately for Boston, this theory is a bit of a back-handed compliment. The person espousing this theory suggested that, as the 19th century wore on, Boston simply became a less desirable place to do business. It became a “loser town” and was quickly supplanted by New York City and others. While this led to a loss in status and wealth, it also relaxed the desire to develop and replace our 18th century structures with newer ones designed for modern business ventures and activities. Boston has replaced a considerable amount of its 18th century architecture, but who knows how much more of it would have been lost if we had more successfully competed with New York City for business investment and development?

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