Linking Urban Renewal with Historic Preservation

La Salle University
Graduate Program in Public History 

This week for History 505, Introduction to Public History, the class read Reconstructing Times Square: Politics and Culture in Urban Development by Queens College professor Alexander J. Reichl (University Press of Kansas, 1999).

There were two things that struck me about this book. First, that the writing was refreshingly excellent and second, that I had been unaware of the history of urban renewal in the U.S. as it relates/co-exists with the needs of historic preservation.

As Dr. Reichl points out, co-existence was not always the case. Prior to the late 20th century, historic preservation was not taken into consideration as cities sought to modernize and monetize their interiors to reflect a changing society. “Historic preservation became an established part of the field of architecture in the mid-1960s when it was introduced in the curriculum of the architecture program at Columbian University by James Marston Fitch,” writes Reichl. “Fitch and other social theorists argued that retaining physical manifestations of the past was essential to the emotional well-being of individuals and the stability of society.”

 My daughter, Holly, in Times Square NYC in January 2020. 

Urban renewal particularly changed after President Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Some scholars attribute the passage of the legislation to reaction based on the razing of several important buildings, including the original Pennsylvania Station train station in NYC. Opened in 1910, covering two NYC city blocks, and designed in the beaux-arts style and modelled after Roman architecture, the building was destroyed in 1963 to make way for entertainment venue Madison Square Garden. Art historian Vincent Scully might have reflected broad public sentiment when he said, “One entered the city like a god. One now scuttles like a rat.” The current Penn Station is a subterranean maze with few redeeming features.

By taking a close look at the urban renewal of Times Square in NYC as a case study, Reichl takes us on a journey of how private and public interests clash, e.g. developers vs. historical preservation groups, before eventually and laboriously reaching an approved-on development plan. “By linking historic preservation and the arts with the development of high-rise office buildings and luxury residences, transferrable development rights provide a mechanism for drawing higher-income city residents back into the pro-growth coalition,” says Reichl. The book goes on to describe how federal policy in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond began to create a new economic context for profitable urban development centered around historic preservation. According to the website www.stuffnobodycaresabout.com, Times Square was once called Longacre (or Long Acre) Square and was an uptown neighborhood with a few brownstones in it. The horse and carriage businesses were located on 42nd Street. The first mention of Long Acre square found in print, says the website, was an 1883 New York Sun advertisement for the Barrett House hotel, at 42nd and Broadway.

I have my own memories of a New York City that no longer exists. I first went to Times Square as a teenager in 1984. I know my parents were afraid for our safety (big city, dodgy neighborhood). I remember Times Square as a busy place with lights and a lot of traffic and noise and cigarette smoke and a few sex shops. 

Last month, I took my 13-year-old daughter to hang out in Times Square before we saw a Broadway show. Times Square has changed dramatically in 35 years, through a process described by Reichl in his study of twenty years ago. There is a now a clean, touristy pedestrian-only section featuring tall steps for visitor to leisurely lounge on for as long as they’d like, while they take selfies and photos and gape at the digital signs and lights that bedazzle the square. There was certainly no sense of fear for us, even as females on their own, apart from the usual pickpocketing threat which didn’t bother us. Even smoking in Times Square became prohibited in 2011. The renewal and protection of a prime tourism spot in America’s most populous city has been prioritized over urban decline, and just as strikingly, also protected from development that catered only to private interests and investors.