As Construction Boom Continues, Social Media Influencers are Becoming Preservationists

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An industrial building built in 1911 on East Bigelow Street in Newark. Photo by Sharon Heyward.

Most people know Keith Taillon as the Instagrammer that is trying to walk every block of Manhattan. Impressive — but that’s hardly the driving force behind his popular social media page. The Harlem resident is trying to salvage the history of his city before it is lost to the construction boom.

“We’re going to be sad that we can’t show students where the Lindy Hop was invented or where Louis Armstrong played,” Taillon said. “I don’t know what to do other than feel sad and tell the stories of the places that are being lost.”

In such an oversaturated city, Taillon has a knack for peeling away layers of modernity to reveal things “forgotten and yet right under our feet.” Although he is trained as an urban planner, the 33-year-old stumbled into a decade-long career in fashion. His Instagram page is a passion project that wouldn’t have been possible in a different era. This type of research used to require hours in a library, rifling through card catalogs and microfiche. Weekend historians are now using social media to make meaningful contributions to an underfunded field.

 

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A post shared by Keith York City (@keithyorkcity) on Sep 12, 2020 at 5:24pm PDT

The issue is no less dire across the river, where the market now rivals Manhattan’s. In the next decade, thousands of new residences in Newark and Jersey City will vie for space with existing landmarks. But no matter how hard the preservation regime pushes back against developers, it is still limited in what can be legally enforced.

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An abandoned house in Newark’s West Ward. Photo by Sharon Heyward.

“There are developers who want to do things the right way and go through the historic preservation commission,” said Emily Manz, executive director of Preservation New Jersey. “But there are also buildings that are knocked down in the dead of night.”

The public, meanwhile, is getting smarter, learning things like how to restore vintage hardware in a crockpot. But to what end? Are we more likely than before to demand protection for historic buildings?

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A living room inside “Louise,” a Victorian home that was being restored — until it burned down last month. Photo by Cate Short.

That hasn’t really been the case. Last year, a bill to establish a state tax credit for historic properties floundered in the New Jersey state legislature. And despite the troubling underrepresentation of minorities in the field, the landmark commission in Montclair failed to win the support of homeowners on Wheeler Street, a historically Black neighborhood, and withdrew its designation as a historic district.

The problem could be that municipalities are too “balkanized” to rally for transformative change, according to Autumn Florek, a planning consultant to several townships in the region. But the real “existential” peril is that the field is far too elitist. In fact, less than one percent of people working in preservation are Black, the New Yorker reported. “By and large, the narrative that is getting told is the narrative of the privileged,” Florek said.

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Vintage hardware inside a Victoria home in Georgia that burned down last month. Photo by Cate Short.

This lack of diversity gives rise to a host of complications. Newark’s preservation scene is a candle burning at both ends. Downtown real estate is coveted by developers, but the surrounding neighborhoods are vulnerable to neglect, according to photographer Sharon Heyward. Heyward has been using social media to document the blight in places like Newark’s West Ward for the past six years.

The city of Newark recently chose eight minority developers to transform 21 blocks in the West Ward partly by restoring century-old homes. Heyward hopes the developers invite local influencers to help document these renovations and inspire the next generation of restorationists.

Still, these social media endeavors are only a means to an end, Manz warns.

“Sharing images is important,” said Manz, who cofounded the tour company Have You Met Newark. “But we need to be intentional about how they connect with the current owner of a property or a church and see where support and resources are needed.”

So you want to become an influencer? The field of historic preservation needs all the help it can get. Take the advice of these talented social media stars and the followers will come pouring in.

Tips on photographing historic landmarks:
1. Invest in a tripod: One of the hardest things to capture is interior light. Using a tripod, according to photographer Cate Short, allows you to use slower shutter speeds, which gives her art an air of warmth and mystery.

2. Wake up early: Documenting historic buildings often entails exploring unfamiliar locales. Sharon Heyward recommends hitting the streets early to avoid nosey neighbors.

Tips on researching historic landmarks:
Many resources have gone digital, so you can do plenty of research at home with a cat on your lap:

– The National Park Service has an online database of landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.
– For other landmarks, Chronicling America and Newspapers.com allow you to search newspapers from as far back as the 18th century.
– If you have the name of a homeowner, you can find immigration and census records at FamilySearch or Archives.
– The Newark Public Library and New York Public Library have historic atlases, such as fire insurance maps, so you can figure out when a property was built.

Follow in the footsteps of these local influencers: 
1. A Newark native began this Instagram page @NewarkNJblog in hopes of fostering pride in New Jersey’s most populous city. Well-researched walking tours have earned him a massive following that includes celebrities like Queen Latifah and Ice-T.

2. Some history can’t be found in books. Mark Andrew Holmes runs a Facebook community Newark, NJ History of past and current Newark residents who love to reminisce.

3. East Orange, a city steeped in history, finally has the fan page it deserves. Marjani Jones may have created the Facebook group Beautiful Homes of East Orange, NJ to spotlight the architecture in her town. But she and her followers often share stories about the homeowners who have shaped the city.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. The thing is, “historic preservation” is in and of itself an elitist pursuit in a growing city. There are some buildings that have extraordinary cultural and historical significance and deserve preservation. But more often “preservationists” are just people seeking to create landmark districts, which means making it nearly impossible or extremely expensive to repurpose vacant lots, expand old buildings, replace dilapidated structures, in sum making it impossible for neighborhood to grow and change organically. Which is ironic, because historically that’s how these neighborhoods developed and redeveloped, without all these rules…the “preservation” is completely ahistoric. Notably, free reign is given to gentrifying house flippers to gut the interiors of these buildings and transform them into luxury houses with Instagrammable luxury finishes, and the landmarking rules have nothing to say about that.

    Almost universally, the buildings in these landmarked neighborhoods are “preserved” but the people who *really* made up the neighborhood are pushed out. All those exquisitely preserved brownstones in Hoboken and Park Slope used to have working-class Latinos living in them and now they’re only for millionaires. And the work of “perservationists” only accelerates this process. Look around–all the most expensive and exclusive and gentrified neighborhoods in our region are landmarked districts, from Greenwich Village to Glen Ridge.

  2. @Hector- Just about every word of your post is complete nonsense. Historic preservation is actually the antithesis of an elitist pursuit. HP, in fact, benefits society at large for current and future generations regardless of one’s income level.

    Additionally the history of Hoboken didn’t begin with the influx of PRs in the 1960’s. If any group who “really made up the neighborhood” got push out it was the Lenape Indians 350 years earlier. In case you haven’t heard the brownstones in Hoboken and Park Slope were built by German, Irish and Italian immigrants, not PRs. The PRs got low cost housing when those groups left. Anyone, PR or otherwise, who bough property and maintained it in the 60’s and 70’s cashed out if they sold in the 80’s and 90’s.

    Greenwich Village received historic designation in 1969 way before the term gentrification was in common usage. There were still tons of rent controlled apts in the 1970’s and 80’s. No one was pushed out. Rents went up when people left of their own volition or passed away.

  3. There shouldn’t be any confusion on the “gentrification” front, that’s just the simplest form of economic supply and demand. The first flaw in your statement is that the brownstones in Park Slope and Hoboken were occupied by working class Latinos…that’s just false. At least for Hoboken, it was all different cultures, from Latinos to Italians or Irish. It was just occupied by lower to middle class families. But they weren’t the original occupants. Most were actually built by incredibly wealthy individuals in the 1800 – early 1900s.

    During the urban flight in the 1960s and 1970s, most of these properties fell into despair as reflected in the pictures. As vacancies increased and demand plummeted, which naturally leads to drop in prices. That’s when the lower to middle class took over. And nothing wrong with that, just and economic up and downs. But now as demand has increased due to clean up of Manhattan and rapid growth in that area which expanded to outer boroughs and across the river.

    The purpose of a historic district is to preserve the history of the neighborhood, so yes renovations are more expensive since the city will ensure proper material is used to preserve the history. Without a historic district, you get what happened in JSQ or The Heights when the area’s economy collapsed and hacks moved in and demolished beautiful brownstones and victorians and replaced them with cheap, ugly building (I’m thinking Bayonne boxes). And I’m glad the renovations are more expensive, since these originally were expensive buildings, that required expensive material…hence why it’s still beautiful and timeless. You think people in 100 years will look at Bayonne boxes as some sort of architectural gem?

  4. @XTC you absolutely show your ignorance of history with every word of your arrogant post. “HP benefits society at large for current and future generations regardless of one’s income level.”
    It absolutely does not benefit low-income tenants who are pushed out by the gentrification “historic preservation” wreaks.
    “Anyone, PR or otherwise, who bough property and maintained it in the 60’s and 70’s cashed out if they sold in the 80’s and 90’s.”
    This homeowner mentality shows just how out-of-touch preservationists are. Upwards of 70% of people in Hoboken and JC are renters, and they tend to have lower incomes than those who aren’t. “They should’ve bought property!” is tone-deaf and just underscores how wrong you are to say HP benefits everyone “regardless of income levels.”
    “Greenwich Village received historic designation in 1969 way before the term gentrification was in common usage. ”
    That doesn’t mean gentrification didn’t exist. But you’re right that its gentrification really picked up after its historic designation! Not sure that makes your point at all.

  5. @XTC “Rents went up when people left of their own volition or passed away.”
    That certainly isn’t what happened in Hoboken. Several thousand predominantly Latino tenants were forcibly removed from their homes through disrepair and arson despite being rent controled. Read “Hoboken is Burning: Gentrification, Arson, and Displacement in the 1970s” published last year in the Journal of American History.

    @dazedandconfused “There shouldn’t be any confusion on the “gentrification” front, that’s just the simplest form of economic supply and demand.”

    Yes, and historic designations often restrict any new supply in a neighborhood. It becomes a limited edition collector’s item. Not surprising the price goes up.
    You say that it’s “just false” that working-class Latinos lived there. Then you say that working-class Latinos lived there. Uh, OK.
    “You think people in 100 years will look at Bayonne boxes as some sort of architectural gem?”

    I have no clue, but here are some 19th century critiques of brownstones quoted in Suleiman Osman’s excellent book about preservationist gentrifiers “The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the search for Authenticity “:
    —-
    “critics in the nineteenth century decried the mechanical, dehumanizing monotony of brownstone rows. ‘When one has seen one house he has seen them all,’ wrote one writer, ‘the same everlasting high stoops and gloomy brown-stone fronts, the same number of holes punched in precisely the same places.’ ‘The architecture is not only impressive, it is oppressive,’ complained another critic. ‘Its great defect is its monotony, which soon grows tiresome.’ Still others, prefiguring 1990s dismissals of McMansions, lambasted the gaudy, overadorned stone fronts preferred by New York’s brownstone nouveau riche: ‘What we lack in invention, we can cover by “ornamentation” and hence we have miles of reiterated and unmeaning rope mouldings, filigreed jambs, and window-heads twisted into all sorts of conceivable contortions.’ Some regarded Brooklyn brownstones as particularly fake. ‘The majority are deceptive, fraudulent, pretentious — mere shells,’ complained a Washington Post writer in 1886 of the rows of small, boxy townhouses. ‘[They are] plated, so to speak, with a coating of brownstone in front and trimmed inside with cheap pine so that a poor man may boast a brown-stone house. And they have alcove bed-rooms and marble buffet niches and factory-made stained glass door panes, so that the clerk may live like the shadow of the millionaire.'”

  6. @Hector- Re: Osman’s critique. And what exactly is your point? The Eiffel tower was also ridiculed as a monstrosity by some of the most prominent writers and artist in 1847 including de Maupassant who called it “a dark ink stain, the odious shadow of this odious column of bolted metal.” Same for French Impressionist painting which was soundly rejected when it first appeared. It took critics 300 years to discover Vermeer. Van Gogh died penniless. The fact is those “monotonous” row houses and brownstones today have a historic designation for a
    reason- they have an appeal, charm and aesthetic value that is lacking in most contemporary urban housing.

  7. Hector simply put, brownstones weren’t built for the lower class. They were just lucky enough to occupy them during the downturn. Lower class occupants simply don’t have the money for the upkeep of a brownstone or any historic home. Hence why they were all falling apart until demand went up and the cost of renovating them made sense. No brownstone owner is going to invest hundreds of thousands if not millions to properly renovate a historic brownstone if the tenants are paying $500 a month. Just simple understanding of economics. You are trying to be emotional about it but just doesn’t work that way.

    You made it sound like Hoboken was some Latino haven like Miami. Hoboken has always been predominantly Irish and Italian but really a melting pot of cultures including Latinos. It’s frank Sinatra’s home town not Julio inglesias.

  8. @Hector, If Hoboken PRs were smart they should have pooled their money and bought some real estate. One could jam a lot of PRs into a 4 story row house. They love that shit. Thank you for the Hobo is Burning article. I have no doubt some landlords engaged in arson. I also have no doubt they paid PRs to burn out their fellow PR’s. As I see it the writer loses credibility when he uses the term yuppie, which is a dog whistle for affluent and educated white people, and then uses inflammatory quotes like “We don’t want see people burned but we don’t want to live next door to that eyesore either.”

    As for my statement that HP benefits everyone, one only need to look at Central Park which has landmark status though you probably see as a “vacant lot” that should be used for low income housing for impoverished Latinos. Speaking of low income housing (and government entitlements and services) where do you think the money comes from to pay for that? It’s from the sky high taxes that property owners and landlords pay who live in those historic districts, you know people who aren’t on food stamps, section 8, medicaid.

  9. I understand both perspectives. Hector’s argument may appear emotional because gentrification is an emotionally charged topic. I think there are pros and cons to it, the biggest con of course being displacement of existing residents who stayed in the community during the roughest times and kept those neighborhoods alive. Often, gentrification occurs after those residents implement initiatives to clean up the area, make it safer or more vibrant. Gentrification builds off of that foundation. I akin it to a woman sticking by and supporting her husband while he’s unemployed, trying to build a business or go to school and then once he makes it, he divorces her for another woman. That sh*t makes you emotional. lol.

    One of the pros of gentrification is that it introduces services and amenities that otherwise would not be there to a wide range of socioeconomic groups… like a CVS. But you need development in order to make that happen. We just need better balance. At the end of the day, cities are dynamic places that are constantly changing. The highs and lows are a part of urban life.

    But XTC, some of your comments are clearly racist and offensive and it weakens any argument you try to make. Don’t be that douchebag.

  10. Scrollhectic- “the biggest con being the displacement of existing residents (who) kept those neighborhoods alive.” That has to be the most idiotic statement I’ve ever come across. Those very neighborhoods, going back to pre-gentrification circa late 1970s, were pissed on, shit on, ghettoized, and turned into drug infested war zones- South Bronx, Lower East Side, Bushwick, Harlem, Bed-Stuy. Downtown JC wasn’t quite as bad but not far off. This ignorant, lower class prolertariat had nothing in common with their predecessors who built those neighborhoods. The second most idiotic thing is your silly twaddle about comparing gentrification to a guy leaving his wife. Critical thinking is obviously not your forte.

    I don’t care what you think of my comments. Personally I’m sick of reading the same cut and paste comments by Latinos who think the history of the US starts with the influx of PRs in the 1950’s and how badly they’ve been treated. When they post shit I’m going to give it back to them. Call it what you want.

    While we’re on the subject of historic preservation, I would suggest people like Hector and his ilk (and everyone actually) visit Merchants House Museum , the only fully intact 19th century house in NYC. No one was treated worse than the Irish immigrants, except of course Blacks and dogs.

  11. gentrification and development go hand n hand. Its all competing interest, owners vs renters…

    renters want to stay in a nice neighborhood and have nice things but they dont wanna nesscarily pay for it in thier rents. This means the cost of constructions has to be subsidized by tax payers, because the builders are sure as heck are not paying for someones cheap rent. This economic reality many renters dont understand or dont care to understand.

    Owners have an interest because gentrification increases property values. Some lower income residents cant afford the rents while property taxes continue to escalate for public services and public employees. So of course they want higher earners moving. Gentrication is about income not race. Owners sometimes forget renters still have signficant political influence and they will support antilandlord ordinances

    In NJ, the local government is really the landlord.

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