Does Historic Preservation Perpetuate Gentrification?

The historic preservation of buildings, structures, and neighborhoods is as much to preserve cultural heritage for the present and future, as it is to connect them to the past.  As the historic preservation movement continues to grow and encompass not only preservation, but economic development, tourism, and environmentally sustainable design, it is important to acknowledge the effects that it has on historically designated neighborhoods.  Are gentrification and neighborhood change precursors to historic preservation or does historic preservation act as a catalyst?

In 1858, when George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia faced destruction and redevelopment, a local organization, Mount Vernon Ladies Association, formed and raised $200,000 to purchase the land, protect it from destruction, and renovate the property into a historical home.[i]  This act of preservation inspired the formation of other local grassroots groups such as the Daughters of the Revolution and would continue to have influence in New England until the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  This event, which brought together experts in architecture, landscape art, and urban planning, as well as the formation of the National Parks Service, would propel the historic preservation movement into the twentieth century.[ii]

Throughout the beginning of the century, the historic preservation movement had mostly consisted of historic homes as modeled by the Mount Vernon Association, as well as historic neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Virginia and Charleston, Massachusetts with the main focus as education.[iii]  It was not until the Great Depression that the idea of history and preservation became popularized amongst the American Public.  Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of the 1930s not only employed architects, designers, and planners (through programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps) but also demonstrated to the American public the importance of looking to the past, due to its resemblance to Wilson’s Progressive Era policies which helped to further advance historic preservation ideals.[iv]

Perhaps the largest contributing factor to the popularization of the historic preservation movement was the automobile.  With the automobile, there was more mobility between urban centers, families had more leisure time, tourism increased, and most predominantly, suburbanization was occurring at a more rapid pace.  Not only did suburbanization trigger the destruction of historical land through new highways, gas stations, and housing outside the city,[v] it also was a contributing factor to the slum clearance and urban renewal which was occurring inside the cities and which would destroy entire blocks and neighborhoods, oftentimes historic ones, at a time.[vi]

Urban renewal was a fad in urban planning spanning from roughly 1945 throughout the 1970s and was heavily prompted by suburbanization in the post-World War II era and the legislation that promoted it.  Slum clearance was seen as a necessity for the city during this time period as a result of the dominance of the automobile and the 1956 Interstate Highway Act which were intended to alleviate traffic in cities but instead acted as arteries out of the cities and into the suburbs.[vii]  The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) also played a crucial role in post-World War II suburbanization by employing a “low-down payment, long-term, fixed-rate mortgage,”[viii] which bolstered homeownership rates but also, unfortunately, encouraged the phenomenon of white-flight, in which affluent whites would flee to the suburbs while poor and minority households were stranded in the city due to discriminatory loans and segregationist practices.

The effect of suburbanization was detrimental to many cities and neighborhoods, as lower-income households remained inside the city’s core with a shrinking population and tax base.  This caused a crumbling infrastructure and an increase in crime which only exacerbated the growing fear of the urban by those in the suburbs.  This growing fear, in addition to the Housing Act of 1949, furthered urban renewal trends.  The Housing Act of 1949 detailed that 810,000 new low-rent housing units be built in the following six years with the stipulation in Title III that one ‘slum’ dwelling unit must be demolished for every new unit that was built[ix] and “authorized $1 billion in loans to help cities acquire slums and blighted areas for public or private redevelopment.”[x]

Society Hill – Philadelphia, PA

The effects of suburbanization were felt especially hard in Philadelphia, known for having many urban renewal projects since the 1960s, most notably the neighborhood of Society Hill.  In his analysis of Society Hill in “Gentrification and Capital: Practice and Ideology in Society Hill,” Neil Smith explains that during the period of suburbanization, many middle and upper-class households moved westward to Rittenhouse Square or further out to the suburbs, leaving many homes in Society Hill vacant.  After this, a voluntary wave of middle and upper-class households moving back into the city did not seem possible, so the historic preservation and rebranding of Society Hill was used to try and attract these upper classes back.[xi]

The Society Hill project was classified as an urban renewal program with the main goals of the project being to not only to generate new revenues for the city but, most importantly, to bring the middle and upper-classes back to the area.  To make this happen, city, state, and federal assistance were necessary.  At the time, the renovation of Society Hill was viewed as a community project which resulted in the creation of the Greater Philadelphia Movement and Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, which were “private voluntary organizations.”[xii]  The plan itself was created by the City Planning Commission and headed by Edmund Bacon, a well-known urban planner and architect.

Since many of the properties in Society Hill remained vacant, they were quickly transformed into neglected and slum properties.  In 1959, the Redevelopment Authority, a program of the city government, began to employ the use of eminent domain, which is the right of the government to obtain private lands for public use, to acquire these slummed properties and structures in Society Hill.  The remaining residents, typically of lower class status, were given only a two-month notice that they had to leave their homes and relocate.[xiii]

Joseph Jefferson House on Sixth and Spruce Streets Before (1969) and After Renovation (2014), from The Encyclopedia of Greater PhiladelphiaIn the post-World War II era, much of Philadelphia’s center city was deemed as blighted, so a historic preservation form of urban renewal was employed in an effort to save entire neighborhoods and rebrand the city.  Unfortunately, this rebranding caused the displacement of many African-Americans and lower-income households due to redevelopment and rising rent costs.

While the city had a part in developing the plan and gaining access to the land rights, the funding for the project was largely supplied by state and federal governments.  Overall, paying for about 30% of the costs of the project,[xiv] the state of Pennsylvania was allowed to fund up to 20 million dollars for each urban redevelopment program.  The Society Hill project surpassed these costs so much, that the project was divided into three different units or projects so that the 20 million dollars could be received three times over.[xv]  The federal government funded nearly the rest of the project, around 67%, due to the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1956 which encouraged these types of development.[xvi]

Although many buildings and structures in Society Hill were saved, branding it as the “most historic square mile in the nation,”[xvii] there were also many drawbacks which called into question the merit of the project.  The project which was successful for the new residents and planners was not considered so for the 6,000 families and households that were displaced.  As for its main goals of generating revenue for the city and attracting back the households which had left; they were a flop, as less than 20% of the residents that had left, returned, and as the project generated an annual income that was well below $1 million.[xviii]  Though Society Hill was rebranded and redeveloped, it failed its chief aims of bringing back those who had left and unfortunately, its benefit to the city of Philadelphia was outmatched by its immense costs.

society hill towers.png

Society Hill Towers from The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  In addition to the renovation of historic homes in Society Hill, the Society Hill Towers were completed in 1964 and opened space for hundreds of new tenants.  These 31-story apartment buildings and their surrounding greenspace (to the vision of Edmund Bacon) displaced many existing residents and furthured the notion of gentrification in Society Hill.

Brooklyn Heights – New York City, NY

However, there were other instances where historic preservation was used to prevent slum clearance and new development, not used as its vehicle.  In an effort to combat renewal, the National Trust for Historic Preservation was founded in 1949 and the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was passed, both of which aided in the growth of the movement by connecting the grassroots groups that had dominated until that point.  One popular grassroots movement of the 1960s was the Brooklyn Heights Association, which was formed to combat Robert Moses’, the “master builder” of the time, Brooklyn-Queens Expressway which would, following suit with his other slum clearance developments, destroy neighborhoods and uproot households.  The Brooklyn Heights Association would put a halt to these plans as they were recognized by the Department of the Interior as a national landmark in 1965 due to the large amounts of pre-Civil War brownstones.  This led to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, also in 1965, which aided in safeguarding the area from slum clearance.[xix]

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 1.41.01 PM

Renters displaced from previous residence, by sub-borough area, 1999–2002, from “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City,” by Kathe Newman and Elvin K. Wyly.  Undergoing what is deemed as ‘super-gentrification,’ which is the transition of a neighborhood from middle to upper-class by Lees, Brooklyn Heights continues to displace residents.  Between 1999 and 2002 it had a displacement rate of 20 to 25 percent which not only affects the affordability and accessibility of housing stock but the commercial and retail as well, which becomes less local and is geared towards higher incomes.


As Loretta Lees explains in her 2003 study of Brooklyn Heights, “Super-gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City,” the neighborhood, which had been abandoned by the elites at the beginning of the 20th century due to the Inter-Borough Rapid Transit, was rediscovered after World War II in the 1950s by upwardly mobile artists and authors such as W. H. Auden who desired neither the suburbs nor the chaos of Manhattan.[xx]  This gentrification would persist into the 1960s, which saw an increase in owner-occupied housing units as well as an increase in home values of $20 to $30,000 in the late 1950s to anywhere from $65 to $120,000 in the 1960s.[xxi]  Currently, the area continues to see increases in income levels that are much higher than that of the rest of New York City.  Many of the residents of Brooklyn Heights that participated in Lees survey felt that it is due to the neighborhood’s close proximity to Lower Manhattan, it attracts the “Wall Street type”[xxii] which in turn, brings higher-end commercial and retail options which some fear is changing the demographics of the neighborhood.[xxiii]

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Mean specified value of owner-occupied property, 1970–2000, from “Super-gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City,” by Loretta Lees.  Not had the price of owner-occupied properties in Brooklyn Heights more than tripled, it is much higher than the average of the rest of New York City’s.  During this same time period, the percentage of owner-occupied housing has also risen, from 12.1% in 1970, which was below the city’s average of  33.1, to 39.0% in 2000, well above the city’s average of 28.5%.  An increase in owner-occupied properties signals that there has been a decrease in available renting options, which are typically more affordable housing.  This reflects the sentiments of the residents of Brooklyn Heights that Lees interviewed in 2003 that felt that the “Wall Street types” were increasing property values and beginning to shut residents out. 


In the case of Society Hill, preservation was used for the purpose of redevelopment and gentrification, but in Brooklyn Heights, gentrification and demographic change occurred, seemingly as a result of historic preservation.  Does one act as a catalyst or do they both perpetuate the cycle?  In a case study, “Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change,” Brian J. McCabe and Ingrid Gould Ellen investigated the effect that a historically designated zone has on the socioeconomic status of the area and its surroundings using census data.  They found that there is a spillover effect, in which the blocks surrounding the historically designated area sell for a price that is more similar to that of the designated area than to a property that is located elsewhere.[xxiv]  They also found that on average, neighborhoods which are historically designated experience increases in socioeconomic status, defined as household income, poverty rate, and proportions of residents with a college education, relative to other types of neighborhoods.[xxv]

Knowing that historic preservation and neighborhood change are intrinsically connected we need to determine the best was to affect those changes without harming the current residents or damaging the neighborhood.  City governments face the struggle of preserving city amenities that often attract college-educated adults and other groups that place importance on living in a historically designated area while also catering to the needs of existing low-income residents.  Perhaps preservation developers should work with city officials and current residents and business owners to ensure that affordable housing options remain in the zone after it is designated to have historic importance.



[i] Diana Lea, introduction to Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 22.

[ii] Ibid., 24.

[iii] Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., “Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949,” Association for Preservation Technology International 12, no. 3 (1980): 20.

[iv] Ibid., 23.

[v] Ibid., 21.

[vi] Diana Lea, introduction to Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28.

[vii] Robert Fishman, “The American metropolis at century’s end: Past and future influences,” Housing Policy Debate 11, 1 (2000): 201-202.

[viii] Ibid., 202.

[ix] Alexander von Hoffman, “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949,” Housing Policy Debate 11, issue 2 (2000): 310.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Neil Smith, “Gentrification and Capital: Practice and Ideology in Society Hill,” Antipode 17, 2-3 (September 1985): 27.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., 28.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid., 20.

[xvi] Ibid., 28.

[xvii] Ibid., 27.

[xviii] Ibid., 32.

[xix] Loretta Lees, “Super-gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City,” Urban Studies 40, 12 (November 2003): 2494.

[xx] Ibid., 2493.

[xxi] Ibid., 2494.

[xxii] Ibid., 2503.

[xxiii] Ibid., 2504.

[xxiv] Brian J. McCabe and Ingrid G. Ellen, “Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change? Examining the Impact of Historic Preservation in New York City,” Journal of the American Planning Association 82, 2 (Spring 2016): 136.

[xxv] Ibid., 134.



Fishman, Robert. “The American metropolis at century’s end: Past and future        influences.” Housing Policy Debate 11, 1 (2000): 199-213.

Hosmer, Charles B., Jr. “Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949.” Association for Preservation Technology International 12, no. 3 (1980): 20-27.

Lea, Diana. Introduction to Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century, by Robert E. Stipe, 21-37. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Lees, Loretta. “Super-gentrification: The Case of Brooklyn Heights, New York City.” Urban Studies 40, 12 (November 2003): 2487-2509.

McCabe, Brian J., and Ellen, Ingrid G. “Does Preservation Accelerate Neighborhood Change? Examining the Impact of Historic Preservation in New York City.” Journal of the American Planning Association 82, 2 (Spring 2016): 134-146.

Smith, Neil. “Gentrification and Capital: Practice and Ideology in Society Hill.” Antipode 17, 2-3 (September 1985): 24-35.

Von Hoffman, Alexander. “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949.” Housing Policy Debate 11, issue 2 (2000): 299-326.


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