Revitalizing America's neighborhoods by conservation

The 167-acre Manchester are of Pittsburgh is a 10-minute walk from downtown and has about 4,000 residents. In the 1960's the area, which has an abundance of 19th-century Victorian buildings, was one of the city's worst ghettos and was rocked by racial riots.

The neighborhood is now a mixture of subsidized housing, owner-occupied houses, and vacant or vandalized buildings. But since the late 1960s, with the help of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the Manchester Citizens Corp., it has been improving, an example of "neighborhood conservation" in action.

"We happened to be driving down in Manchester, and here was this fantastic block of homes," says Arther Ziegler of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. "We got out to look, and some of the neighbors told us the city was planning to demolish it and the whole neighborhood. We went out and formed the landmarks commission to save it, and we're still there 17 years later. Now it's an official preservation area."

Since 1978, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has recognized the importance of neighborhood conservation. The organization now has a neighborhood conervation office and publishes a bi-monthly newsletter to help community organizations. And this year's theme of National Historic Preservation Week (May 10-6) is "Conservation: Keeping America's Neighborhood's Together."

"I look at neighborhood conservation as people in their own communities organizing and taking action to maintain the basic character of the community," says Trust Neighborhood Office coordinator Henry McCartney.

"Preservation and neighborhood conservation takes place at the lowest level of the community. It is very locally based," agrees Kathryn Welch of the Trust's Northeast regional office.

The Manchester program is the first restoration program for a black or poor neighborhood, says Arther Ziegler. It is also one of the first to try to avoid resident displacement.

"We did not see how it would ever be feasible to try to move all the residents out and move more affluent whites in. We didn't think it was the kind of place where that would work," Mr. Ziegler continues. "And we didn't think that even if it worked it would be right. Here were a lot of people who had already been moved, some of them twice, by urban redevelopment. We felt that if we were really going to save the neighborhood -- and later if we were ever going to save the inner city on a grand scale -- we had to do it in a way that saved the residents in the buildings."

A strategy was worked out to keep residents in Manchester. The URA will pay one-tenth of the appraised market value of the property and restore and exteriors, which the owners agree to maintain for 20 years. The interior must also be brought up to Manchester renewal standards for plumbing, wiring, etc.

Financial help to fix up the homes is also available in the form of low-interest loans and grants. Federal funds were used when the program started , but now the city itself is working to provide funds in the wake of federal budget cutting.

How would Mr. Ziegler describe the neighborhood now? "Very, very optimistic and positie. When you go up and down the streets you just see work going on everywhere."

A key to installing community interest, says Mr. Lowe, was a classification of each building in the area as to its historic interest.

"The first thing we say is, 'Know your neighborhood,' specifically the historic character associated with each building," he continues. What many inner city, mostly minority neighborhoods need to become aware of, he believes, is the "gold which already exists" -- historic treasures taht can be a cornerstone for a revitalization program.

Joan Rich of the Providence (R.I.) Preservation Society concurs. Since 1977 she has worked with community groups to build neighborhood pride. She says preservation is a great tool for neighborhood revitalization.

"I work with whatever neighborhood organization exists," he says. "It's remarkable how much pride people have in their neighborhood and its history. They feel it comes from them, and it's theirs."

Gets Obstfeld is executive director of Stop Wasting Abandoned Property. SWAP helps primarily low- and moderate-income families buy up and restore abandoned property to end up with, after a lot of labor, a godd, relatively inexpensive home. Since 1976, about 250 homes in Providence have been sold this way. He says SWAP and the preservation society have been involved with each other from the beginning, because both are interested in seeing that houses aren't torn down -- although not exactly for the same reason.

"We have a great love of houses, as do the people who buy houses through our program," says Mr. Obstfeld. "We try to make them aware of the workmanship that went into each one [most of which were built in the late 1800's]. Generally they try to restore them or repair what's there.

"We're about preserving neighborhoods, not restoring curlicues," he continues. "the people who buy our houses are not into restoration for renovation, they're into it for the sake of owning a home in good shape."

The neighborhood, too, gets a boost.

"the people who buy our houses are young families just starting out. They bring a lot of energy to the neighborhoods and are establishing a visual demonstration of faith in the neighborhood. With new people buying the worst houses on the street, the others on the street take heart and say, 'Well, if the worst house on the street can be saved, and these people are willing to invest all the time and a substantial amount of money in these houses, maybe my house, which just needs a new paint job or a new roof, is worth investing in.' It has a snowballing effect."

Nationally, a $1-million Inner City Ventures Fund has been established through the Trust and the Department of the Interior. It will provide grants and low-interest loans to about 10 inner-city neighborhood preservation efforts over the next two years.

The ways to develop community interest are as varied as the neighborhoods themselves. One city had a quilt contest, with participants submitting quilted squares depicting their neighborhoods. The result is a city quilt now displayed at City Hall and at neighborhood fairs and festivals.

The Old Southwest Neighborhood Alliance in Roanoake, Va., invited residents to bring pictures of their houses. Architectural experts identified the style and significance of each house. Later the alliance conducted a bus tour of the area for all city department heads.

Other events include block parties; neighborhood crime watch meetings; conferences on issues such as displacement, zoning, or organizing; clean-up days or green-up days for planting flowers in the community; even adopt-a-house programs to keep up a house belonging to an elderly or handicapped person.

Mr. McCartney says cooperation between preservation and community groups is vital.

"We're encouraging groups to form an alliance, not just act on their own," he says. "They need to coordinate activities."

Coorination becomes especially important with budget tightening on federal, state, and local levels. He says he's not sure just what effect this will have on the preservation movement. Some local groups are turning to corporations and foundations for funding, but others may have difficulties.

Joan Rich is more vocal.

"We are extremely distressed with Mr. Reagan's decision that historic preservation doesn't need any funding, that somehow national heritage is of no concern to the federal government. That very small historic budget has had a tremendous impact on Rhode Island, a very great leveraging effect."

How does one know if a neighborhood is worth conserving? It's up to the residents to realize what they have and to care for it.

"Our efforts have been to encourage neighborhood groups to recognize that their neighborhoods are worthy of preservation and conservation, and that it's imperative they get organized," says Ms. Welch.

Susan Park of Boston's South End Historical Society elaborates.

"People would feel very upset if somebody knocked down Faneuil Hall. They have a sentimental attachment to it. Old North Church means Boston. The State House. We're trying to raise the consciousness level of the community to other things which also means Boston."

She says what is important is the strength of feeling among the people in the neighborhood. In one neighborhood near the Jumel Mansion in New york, for instance, residents found out they could receive federal and state help if they wanted to restore the exteriors of their 19th-century houses.

"With one or two exceptions, the whole block of about 40 families or units came together and pulled together on a specific issue because they cared," says Mrs. Park. "Probably nothing of any national importance has ever happened on that street except for some very fine people who cared and pulled together -- wanted to save something and make something of it."

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