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When preservation means basic living standards

December 9, 2010

Reading this New York Times blog article by Village Voice writer Elizabeth Dwoskin, I became aware of my own “preservation” filter and contemplated the many various meanings that “historic preservation” can have in contemporary society.  In the story of this author’s quest to investigate the worst buildings (and landlords) in New York City, you read about buildings — and their occupants — left to slowly decay into nothingness.  Until demolition — and homelessness — is the only option.

Within the story is the bright spark of another definition of “preservation” — the building resident who mustered volunteers and paid for paint herself because she couldn’t stand the peeling facade any longer or who patrolled the halls to try to fend off the drug dealers.  It’s that spirit that cares for old buildings and creates a home for the people who find shelter within.

Read the full story here.   And this time of year, it’s important to do so — to count your own blessings and make an effort to help those less fortunate — be they buildings or people.

Here’s the passage where I came to realize this story wasn’t about brick inlay and exotic-revival details:

Lorillard — the street was named after the tobacco family who, after the Civil War, gave their estate to the nearby St. Barnabas Hospital, then called the Hospital for Incurables — was never an upscale building. But I could tell from the carefully arranged brick inlay and the Egyptian design on the doorway that it once had its charm. Decades before, the building was likely to have been home to an upwardly mobile-class of immigrant Italians who had the means to escape Lower Manhattan and had come to work in the nearby Bronx Zoo. Today, it mostly houses tenants that have a portion of their rent paid through Section 8 federal rent assistance, or any number of special programs that provide subsidies to recovering addicts, formerly homeless and substance abusers, or people with H.I.V.

Justin’s mom and I passed the line of broken mailboxes. Broken mailboxes, like busted locks and New York Police Department “Clean Halls Project” plaques, are some of the telltale signs that I had come to recognize in a neglected building. They make great places to stash drugs; tenants at Lorillard complained they were always opening their mail to find little illicit packages. I was only just beginning to understand that every crumbling building in New York forms its own chaotic, self-contained world.

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