It's no secret: New York is changing and changing quickly.
Classic neighborhoods are constantly endangered by rapid overdevelopment; historic structures routinely fall victim to the wrecking ball.
A certain measure of this is inevitable in such a dynamic place. But, in an effort to prevent the indiscriminate razing of beloved Big Apple institutions, the city passed the 1965 New York City Landmarks Law. The legislation's success has helped define and maintain the authentic and charming character of some of New York's most cherished locales.
And a handful of New Yorkers have made it their mission to protect historic buildings, streets and other structures from developers and decay. We found preservationists throughout the five boroughs and spoke to them about their community's biggest successes and the sites in their neighborhoods that need to be saved.
MANHATTAN: ANDREW BERMAN
Executive director of the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation
Big wins: Landmark designation for phases I and II of the South Village Historic District; landmark designation for Westbeth Artists’ Housing
Most endangered site: Phase III of the South Village Historic District
Andrew Berman is arguably the face of the historical preservation movement around Greenwich Village, which he believes to be one of the greatest neighborhoods in the world. In 10 years, his group has lead the effort to landmark 1,100 buildings in the Village, the East Village and NoHo. They also lead the effort to landmark the Westbeth artists complex at 55 Bethune St.
They’ve now proposed turning one last swatch, Phase III, of the South Village into a historic district. Phase III comprises the area south of Houston Street and north of Watts, in between Sixth Avenue and Thompson Street.
Berman, 45, said there is a need to protect the places, sites and neighborhoods that draw people to the city and keep them here.
“New York is always going to be a more expensive, crowded and inconvenient place to live than anywhere else,” he said. “We’ve got to have something special and different to justify putting up with it being expensive, crowded and inconvenient. Otherwise it’s not a very appealing place.”(Credit: Linda Rosier)
STATEN ISLAND: BARNETT SHEPHERD
Executive director of the Preservation League of Staten Island
Borough: Staten Island
Big wins: St. Paul’s Avenue-Stapleton Heights Historic District
Most endangered site: Mount Manresa (pictured here)
Barnett Shepherd moved to New York City in 1972 in part to learn about some of the great art and historical institutions in the world. After settling on Staten Island, he realized there was a wealth of history right in his backyard and dedicated himself to documenting it. Shepherd, 75, has since written four books on the subject of Staten Island history.
He said Mount Manresa is the most endangered historical site on the island. The 10-acre site, which encompasses a Jesuit retreat house, an 88-year-old chapel and completely unaltered terrain, was recently sold to real estate developers. Community members who worry it will be turned into townhouses or a strip mall are working to preserve the site and maintain it as a park. Demolition at Mount Manresa began this month and activists have held protests at City Hall and on Staten Island to bring attention to their cause.
“Even though you don’t always win, you know it’s the right thing to do to try to understand our history and work for better understanding on the part of the project,” Shepherd said about preservation.(Credit: Linda Rosier; Bill Higgins)
BROOKLYN: DEBORAH YOUNG
President of the Crown Heights North Association
Big wins: Phases I and II of the Crown Heights North Historic District
Most endangered site: Phase III of the Crown Heights North Historic District
When asked about the importance of historical preservation in her community, Deborah Young illustrated her passion for landmarking with an anecdote: There was once a beautiful, old colonial house, built in 1860, on Bergen Street that Young would stop to admire. Before she could learn anything about the history of the house, it was torn down and “up went a lego house,” Young, 62, said.
“These beautiful structures get torn down and much more contemporary housing is built, which doesn’t lend itself to the architectural jewels in this community,” she explained.
The proposed district encompasses a hook-shaped portion of the neighborhood that runs south of Pacific Street and north of Lincoln Place in between Kingston and Albany Avenues and part of the area south of Park Place and north of Lincoln Place in between Brooklyn and Kingston Avenues. Young, along with several other members of the Crown Heights North Association, have acquired landmark designation for two portions of the Crown Heights North Historic District. The group is now working to have Phase 3 designated.
Among the group’s successes, Young said, is the organization’s annual house tour, during which members of the community invite outsiders into their homes. The house tour brings a sense of pride and responsibility to the neighborhood, Young said.
“It brings attention to the community,” she said. “It lets people know we are here and that our homes are just as beautiful as those in other neighborhoods.”(Credit: Linda Rosier; Stephanie Samuels)
QUEENS: MICHAEL PERLMAN
Chairman of the Rego-Forest Preservation Council
Big wins: Landmarking of the facade of the Ridgewood Theater
Most endangered sites: Forest Hills Tennis Stadium; the Midway Theater (pictured here)
Michael Perlman, a Queens native, began working in preservation when he was only 23.
“I felt it was my calling and obligation to take a proactive stance and do whatever is possible to document Queens history,” Perlman, now 31, said about starting so young.
He also earned the nickname “Diner Man” for his efforts to save New York City’s old-school diners. He works to find potential buyers for the prefab structures and convinces the buyers to relocate them, sometimes within city limits, sometimes to other states.
Perlman said two Queens sites in particular are endangered if they don’t attain landmark status soon: the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium — at which the Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix and others performed decades ago — and the Midway Theater, the last movie house designed by architect Thomas Lamb, built in 1942.(Credit: Emilio Guerra)
BRONX: HOWARD YOUROW
Historic Districts Council, board of advisers
Borough: The Bronx
Big wins: Bronx Community College’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans, Bronx General Post Office
Most endangered site: Public School 31 (pictured here)
The spiritual and aesthetic values of a place are enshrined by landmarking, said Howard Yourow, 64.
“The preservation of the old and worthy does attract people to the neighborhood, and it keeps them there,” he said. “It’s good all around for stability, jobs, the economy and real estate values.”
He said Public School 31, the “Castle on the Concourse,” is among the most endangered sites in the Bronx — a site that has been so neglected that it may be torn down despite already receiving landmark designation, a potential move that has angered the local community.
“It’s a sad loss in that neighborhood,” Yourow said. “Tragically, it might be used as an example of something that is too late to save.”
Click here to see more photos of endangered spots in all five boroughs. (Credit: Charles Eckert; Anne Dee Goldin)