The Coney Island Wonder Wheel, Rockefeller Center and a magnolia tree in Bed-Stuy. The Holland Tunnel, the Dakota and an art deco Sears department store in Flatbush. Brownstones, high-rises and the ruins of a smallpox hospital.
They’re all New York City landmarks.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission has designated more than 35,000 sites, when historic districts are included, since the Landmark Preservation Law was passed in 1965. Manhattan, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominates the list with 20,679. Civic groups in wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods have traditionally driven preservation efforts. There are fewer preservation activists, and sometimes even a resistance to landmarking, outside Manhattan.
“There was a longtime political agenda and focus on Manhattan-based landmarks,” said Kirsten Reoch, historian and archivist at the Park Avenue Armory. “Where people focus their funding is where people are pushing for landmarks, and where they have support.”
When the landmarks commission held a meeting to clear its 20-year backlog of tabled properties in February, the commissioners cited community and local City Council member support as a key factor in whether or not a property was recommended for landmark status.
The boroughs outside Manhattan often lack such support.
Columbia University researchers found little interest in the neighborhood when they commissioned a study about creating historic districts in Bushwick. Landmarks aren’t even on the radar in East New York, where residents told us they are more concerned with paying rent than preserving history.
But Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island don’t lack sites of cultural or architectural significance. We explore several of them, from a swimming pool in Brownsville, one of the neighborhood’s two landmarks, to an abandoned farm colony in Staten Island.
There are preservation activists in the outer boroughs, and they aren’t necessarily who you would expect. Street artists tried but failed to save 5 Pointz, an outdoor graffiti art gallery in Long Island City. Woodhaven residents have banded together in an attempt to landmark their neighborhood watering hole, Niers Bar, which has stood on the same spot since 1829. And the landmarks commission is taking a broader view of where landmarks should be.
“The last couple commissioners have focused on trying to designate more outer borough landmarks,” Reoch said.
That designation process will play out in the coming months. The commission will hold a public hearing on each property recommended for consideration at the meeting that cleared their 20-year backlog.
This project looks beyond the traditional power and wealth centers of Manhattan for a view of landmarks that includes the entire city. We explore architecture, culture and, most importantly, the people affected by New York’s historic structures. It’s an examination that is past due.
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