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News > Context Spring 2024 > Editors’ Letter: The Future of the Past

Editors’ Letter: The Future of the Past

It’s time to survey what’s been happening recently in historic preservation — and look forward. In Jim Kenney’s two terms as mayor, we saw some of the good, the bad, the not-so-good, and the not-so-bad in managing Philadelphia’s enormous inventory of older buildings. This is our city’s most valuable material asset, attracting visitors, providing economically and environmentally responsible places for Philadelphians to live and work, and defining our distinctive neighborhoods. Mayor Cherelle Parker has the opportunity to move the needle firmly into the “good” zone. 

As a city councilman, Kenney went public with his anger at the mutilation of the former B’nai Reuben synagogue in Queen Village. He campaigned for mayor with a pledge to protect more historic buildings through designation. But in 2016, his first year in office, 400 demolition permits were granted, including one for the iconic group of nineteenth-century buildings on Jewelers Row. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was even petitioned (unsuccessfully) to put the entire city on its “endangered” list. 

Then things improved a little. In 2017, Mayor Kenney assembled a large Historic Preservation Task Force. In their 2019 report, they managed to thread the needle, recommending a balanced program of regulations and incentives, and presenting a good deal of innovative thinking about seemingly intractable problems. Not enough of their recommendations have been put into effect, which cannot be entirely blamed on COVID. Most of the items that require spending are in limbo, and the huge, foundational work of building an inventory of all our historic resources will take years to complete.  

Fortunately, during this period, the Historical Commission was given more staffing and urged into action. There are now 26% more buildings on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, many of them in 24 new districts. There has been a welcome emphasis on protecting sites associated with the life and work of Black Philadelphians. 

In this issue of CONTEXT, it’s time to survey what’s been accomplished and provide some background for charting our next steps.  

We begin with JoAnn Greco’s profile of the remarkable Paul Steinke, who has steered the Preservation Alliance, Philadelphia’s principal advocate for historic preservation, to a position of greater strength and prominence.  

Then we have a report on the work that has been done to implement the recommendations of the mayor’s Historic Preservation Task Force. It was penned by the Task Force’s chair and vice chair, Harris Steinberg and Dominique Hawkins, who also outline what remains to be done.  

Three additional essays tackle some of the knottiest problems in historic preservation and dispel some of the most persistent misunderstandings. Francesca Russello Ammon tells a new story about the creation of Society Hill, describing the provisions that were made to limit gentrification and enable some of the original, moderate-income residents to remain. In another piece, Amy Lambert and George Poulin argue that older buildings provide some of the best opportunities for creating affordable housing. Finally, Julie Bush chronicles the efforts of her Spruce Hill neighborhood to secure designation. She details how the current uptick in creating historic districts is the product of a powerful grassroots effort to use the protections afforded by historic preservation to promote stable communities. 

Historic preservation has been around for as long as some of the buildings that we now need to protect, but the authors published here show that we still have a lot to learn. 

Julie Bush, ASLA 

Principal of Ground Reconsidered 

CONTEXT Editor 

David B. Brownlee, FSAH 

Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor Emeritus of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania  

CONTEXT Editor 

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