11 Historic Sites That Must Be Saved

Katz's Delicatessen

Katz's Delicatessen, an icon and meaty anchor of the 11-block portion of Manhattan's Lower East Side up for landmark status. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Why are historic places threatened, why do preservationists think they are worth saving and how can we do it? A look at the 11 most endangered historic sites in America, including Manhattan's Lower East Side.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

The story of America is a story of people who innovate, who expand, but who also ignore. Perfectly good, in some cases, perfectly beautiful homes, neighborhoods and structures are left to rot. That's where the National Trust for Historic Preservation steps in. Each year, the trust names the 11 most endangered historic places. One caught our eyes, because it's a few subway stops south of the Bryant Park Project, New York's Lower East Side. We've talked about it before. Novelist Richard Price sets his latest book, "Lush Life," in today's Lower East Side. He read for us.

Mr. RICHARD PRICE (Author, "Lush Life"): (Reading) Despite the limbo hour, the block was alive with an intersection of two parties, the last of the young kids still on their way home from the lounges and music bars, just like the homicide and his friends, and the pre-land-rush old-timers, the Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Bangladeshi, just starting their day.

PESCA: Pre-land-rush. Roberta Lane is with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which put the Lower East Side on its list of 11 most endangered places. She's also a fan of Richard Price's book, by the way. Hello, Roberta.

Ms. ROBERTA LANE (Program Officer and Regional Attorney, National Trust for Historic Preservation): Hi, Mike.

PESCA: So people normally think of historic places as a house or a building, but here you have a whole neighborhood, the Lower East Side. How did that get on your list?

Ms. LANE: Sure. It is. It's a whole neighborhood, and we're focusing, actually, on an 11-block area in particular that we really feel needs to have local landmark protection, which is the highest level of protection, and it would protect it from demolition. And the reason that we care about this place is that it really is a crucible for some of the most important aspects of American history.

And you can't capture that kind of great depth and richness in a place this size really anywhere else in the country. It's just dense with this great immigrant history, and it's all still there, in the buildings, in some of the institutions that are still there, synagogues and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It's really a dynamic and alive place that still holds its history.

PESCA: Doesn't New York City have the best or at least the most fervent historic and landmark committees around?

Ms. LANE: It has a really active community of preservationists, but it also has really intense development pressure and other forces at work. And so, you know, both are at work constantly, and we work very closely with the local preservation groups. But you know, they're up against it, certainly.

PESCA: Do you really think you can save 11 blocks of prime New York City real estate? I mean, is that just a sort of a gambit, in a perfect world, that's how much you would save, but if you get a couple buildings landmarked, then you'd be happy?

Ms. LANE: I wouldn't say so, actually. The Landmarks Preservation Committee in New York City has designated some individual landmarks in the Lower East Side, and it's just not enough. And the reason is that, in the Lower East Side, and some other neighborhoods in New York City, certainly, it's the entirety of the streetscapes that's at stake. It's the new hotels and condo towers that are just totally out of scale, breaking right through, you know, what is a pretty consistent height level.

And so, really, it needs to be the entire neighborhood that's protected, at least the district that's been proposed, and I don't think it's unrealistic. It's happened across the city. New York City, obviously, has a concentration of highly important neighborhoods, and LPC has a big job on their hands. But they do consistently, you know, work to save neighborhoods in New York City. So we think this should happen here.

PESCA: Of course, there's this tension, right? There are plenty of places where immigrants lived of have good history behind them, and they're just ignored. And people wish some economic development would occur. But then, when too much economic development occurs, it's called gentrification. So the question is, how does an organization like yours know how to take the temperature and say, all right, this is no longer neighborhood rejuvenation, this is threatening a neighborhood?

Ms. LANE: Certainly. Well, it's really kind of a sanctioned Lower East Side. Certainly, it's more difficult in some places than others. But in this particular neighborhood, these forces have been at work for awhile, just eating away and eroding and eroding. And there's just no question for people who know what it was 10 years ago, you know, and certainly, we're talking about managing change. And there should be change, but it's been unmanaged change with no question over the last 10 or 15 years.

PESCA: I went back, and I looked at your list since its inception, or at least since 1992. Was that the first year?

Ms. LANE: Yes.

PESCA: OK, so since its inception, and there are some great successes, like Virginia City, Montana, was on the list. You can go there now, and it's a pretty well-preserved ghost town. There's also - also, the state of Vermont was on the list. That's still there. Congrats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LANE: That's right. That's right. Twice.

PESCA: Yes, but there's also Tiger Stadium, which is closed, neglected, being sold for scrap. And I guess, if I could try - you know, this may be overly broad, but what struck me was that the successes were things that - where there wasn't so much money to be made by changing it into something else, or where it was, for instance, a single home. But when it was something broad, like 100 houses in a neighborhood in Buffalo, that seems much less workable. Am I reading that right?

Ms. LANE: You'd be amazed. Certainly, in Vermont, a lot of what we were looking at was the threat of Wal-Marts. And Wal-Mart really didn't get to fulfill its expansion plans in Vermont the way that they had hoped, at the time that we listed it. And so, I think these listings do make an impact, and certainly, in the Lower East Side, for example, we have a pretty clear call to action, and that is this landmark district.

Local landmark protection, it does protect against demolition. It goes protect against the kind of inappropriate incursion that we're worried about. And so, you know, we really - we do think that's the right tool for that area. And yes, I think you're right, in the sense that, you know, neighborhoods and whole towns and states are complex places with complex market forces at work, and we recognize that. And yes, in some cases, what we're doing is trying to raise awareness so that, you know, there's sort of more nuanced kind of controls or, you know, approaches taken.

PESCA: I wanted to ask you about Charity Hospital in New Orleans, because there's a situation where it's a beautiful facade, but most everyone - perhaps I'm over-characterizing, but let's just say this. There is a debate going on about what the new hospital should look like, and keeping Charity Hospital alive as that hospital is really not even part of the debate.

LSU and Tulane want a big teaching hospital. The other side of that debate is a voucher system. Even people who sued to keep Charity Hospital say things like, well, the actual, physical, literal hospital, that's not really part of our suit. So, weigh - you know, you wade it into the morass that is New Orleans. You're biting off a pretty big chunk, aren't you?

Ms. LANE: Yes. Yeah, it's a morass, but it's also, you know, obviously, one of the most important historic communities in America. And it is in such peril and it continues to be, and we actually opened a field office in New Orleans after Katrina that's still open just to try to deal with some of these real complexities. Yes, absolutely.

PESCA: I mean, would you like that hospital to stand and serve as a hospital? Or would there be a way to, say, preserve the facade that would satisfy you?

Ms. LANE: We'd like it to be part of the debate first. Just as you say, it's not even part of the debate now, and you know, it really is sort of typically that we operate in a situation like this, and I know people are working on this there to evaluate whether it can be reused and how. And that should have happened, you know, before the state that we're at right now, in planning for new hospitals.

There's vacant land that's, you know, obviously available in New Orleans and close to this site, and also, in that listing, we're talking about Charity Hospital but we're also talking about 200 homes in the mid-city neighborhood right adjacent that would go for these new hospital complexes. So we really think there's been some hasty, hasty planning, and clearly New Orleans is in a crisis, and we can understand why people want to see, you know, new institutions serve the community. It's - there should be a balance.

PESCA: Roberta Lane is with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Thank you very much, Roberta.

Ms. LANE: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Hey, stay with us. Coming up next on the show, it's New Music Tuesday! Lizzie Goodman from Blender Magazine will be here to talk about new releases. All kind of folks have got stuff out, Usher, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper. Stay tuned. That's coming up next on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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