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Ideas for Preserving Our Small Businesses and Creative Spaces


Many Gotham dwellers just about have their spirit broken from all the eclectic, only-in-New-York kinds of places that have been “developed” into achingly boring, everywhere-on-the-globe kinds of places. Unique theaters, gardens, community centers, shops, restaurants: Now they’re chain banks and drugstores and luxury dwellings. It’s enough to make a heartbroken New Yorker give up.

Not so fast, says a group from the West Coast, leading the way as California has ever since introducing us all to wheat germ and yoga. A new report from the group SF Heritage, Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History, is full of “strategies for conserving cultural heritage assets.”

In fact, in the wake of the report, a San Francisco supervisor has introduced new city legislation to define “legacy businesses” and create financial incentives for property owners who help keep those businesses in place. The report, a well-written and interesting read, helps to explain the problem we see all around us, and offers some potential solutions to solve it. For the most part, you can substitute “New York” for “San Francisco” throughout:

For generations, San Francisco has been home to a thriving collection of local businesses, nonprofits, and traditions that reflect the city’s history, culture and people. These places have the power to bring people together, provide a sense of continuity with the past, and lend the city a rich and layered identity.

…Amid unprecedented economic pressures, mainstays of San Francisco’s cultural landscape – our cultural heritage assets – are increasingly imperiled by skyrocketing rents and property values, encroaching new development, and incompatible adjacent uses.

…While [some] cultural touchstones … have been declared San Francisco City Landmarks, historic designation is not always feasible or appropriate, nor does it protect against rent increases, evictions, challenges with leadership succession, and other factors that threaten longtime institutions.

New solutions are needed. And SF Heritage offers these main strategies to address the loss, or potential loss, of both tangible and intangible “cultural resources” that give heart, soul, identity and pride to cities and their citizens:

1. Develop a consistent methodology for identifying and documenting cultural heritage assets.

2. Support neighborhood cultural heritage conservation initiatives.

3. Support mentoring and leadership training programs that transmit cultural knowledge to the next generation.

4. Develop financial incentives and property acquisition programs for owners and stewards of cultural heritage assets.

5. Promote cultural heritage assets through public education and, when desirable, sustainable models of heritage tourism.

6. Establish a citywide “Cultural Heritage Asset” designation program with targeted benefits.

What had been the country’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, at 15 Christoper Street, has been gone for a while. The building is now for sale.

With a number of neighborhood initiatives in place or under way, San Francisco is already making significant progress. A “Calle 24 SF” Latino Cultural District has been designated, a Filipino Social Heritage District is proposed, a comprehensive city-backed plan is in the works to protect Japantown. The city’s Planning Department has even created a Social Heritage Inventory Form to help take stock of cultural resources. The U.N., by the way, has been on this for some time, with a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage ratified in 2003.

While San Francisco has been inspired by other initiatives around the world, from pub protection in England to bookstore conservation in Paris, the report notes that here in New York we have already done a few things right. In 1992, NYC’s first and only “association center” for nonprofits was established at 120 Wall Street – home to WBAI, the Center for an Urban Future, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and many others – by exempting the building owner (Silverstein Properties) from real estate taxes that are usually passed on to tenants. In the Bronx, the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education developed the South Bronx Culture Trail to make the public aware of local cultural achievements and turn them into an inspiration for the present. And we have several recognized Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, including the Fourth Arts Block here in the East Village.

But it’s clear that our community groups, nonprofits, Department of City Planning, Mayor de Blasio, and other city leaders can do much more. An excellent playbook is available to provoke thought and discussion.

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