polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Rebuilding Community Heritage

by Anna Fogel

47th Street in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. Source: QueensNYC

Emily Goldman is a preservationist and doctoral student in historic preservation at Cornell University. After completing her undergraduate studies in history at Harvard University, Emily pursued a master's in preservation planning at Cornell, working intensively on post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans. Her thesis focused on Sunnyside Gardens, a housing community (once home to Lewis Mumford) in Queens designed by Clarence Stein during the 1920s. Emily then worked for the Landmarks Preservation Commission in New York City, where she helped with Sunnyside's transition to a local historic district. Her current research is centered on Hillside Homes, a Stein community in the Bronx. She's exploring its cultural significance for the people who live there, along with lessons this holds for urban housing and preservation in other parts of the world. We're very grateful that she made time for an interview.

A Sunnyside community garden in 1926. Source: Astoria History

What sparked your interest in historic preservation?

I've always been drawn to history through hands-on contact with the built environment. Two international experiences in high school stand out: an archaeological dig in Greece and a masonry restoration project for a medieval church in France. During college I took part in two trips to the American South with a great professor, Tim McCarthy, to help rebuild churches damaged in racially motivated arson attacks. This experience highlighted the value of buildings in community resilience.

Rebuilding the Hayneville Church of Christ after an arson attack. Source: Harvard Gazette

How do you see the preservation of cultural heritage benefiting cities?

Although once considered almost a luxury, historic preservation has gained a lot of influence over the years and is now generally recognized as integral to urban governance. Many cities have preservation commissions that regulate all local landmarks, preventing demolition, overdevelopment and significant exterior changes. While this can seem like minutia, the larger concept is vital.

A historic brownstone in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. Source: New York Times

Historic buildings give local communities and visitors a quiet sense of history and continuity. In our rapidly changing world, especially in urban areas, it can be comforting to find structures that have endured for centuries. The beauty that comes with age and craftsmanship cannot be replicated.

Can you share some examples of impressive work in historic preservation?

Source: Treehugger
Ann Arbor's Historic District Commission has approved the installation of cobalt blue solar panels covering the gabled roof of a Victorian house. This is a great indicator of preservationists becoming more flexible when it comes to the greater public and environmental good. New Orleans residents have been working hard to restore and preserve the city's heritage after Katrina. When a historic section of Mid-City was selected as the site for a new V.A. hospital, the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission along with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and other supporters were able to save most of the significant architectural elements from hundreds of houses slated for demolition; now some can be rebuilt and parts reused elsewhere. Important preservation initiatives are happening all over the world, and for so many different reasons.

A building reconstructed after an earthquake in Bhadli, India. Source: ArchNet

Are there any international initiatives that particularly stand out?

Mary Norman Woods recently collaborated with Brinda Somaya, an inspiring architect from Mumbai, in helping the village of Bhadli rebuild after an earthquake. They worked directly with the villagers to reconstruct buildings, including original decorations, and Somaya donated materials like clay, paint, lime and mirror shards. This strikes me as a good example of international partnership. I'm also impressed with He Shuzhong and the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, as it's especially challenging to preserve the built environment in China's current political and economic climate.

Preservationist He Shuzhong (left) with a resident of Menglian, China. Source: The Beijinger

What are you most excited about working on at the moment?

I'm working on a project at Hillside Homes, the third garden community designed by Clarence Stein in New York City (the other two — Sunnyside and Phipps Garden — are next to each other in Queens).

Phipps Garden Apartments in Queens. Source: A. Richard Miller

A model of Hillside Homes in the Bronx. Source: "Toward New Towns for America"

Hillside was built in 1934 as low-income housing with durable brick architecture, built-in community amenities and interior courtyards. It has been revitalized by management and residents since its days as a haven for drug dealers in the 1980s. At the same time, there is room for improvements based on the original design that could make the development more comfortable and attractive. I'll be talking with residents in detail to understand how the place is working for them today. It's currently not a designated landmark but there's a good chance that it will be some day. I'd like to help ensure that, if formal preservation occurs, it is a positive change for the people who live there.

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