Interview with Professor Passell

Aaron Passell is an urban sociologist currently serving as the associate director of the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College, Columbia University. We sat down with him to discuss his newest book, “Preserving Neighborhoods: How Urban Policy and Community Strategy Shape Baltimore and Brooklyn,” and how its thesis informs and empowers our work at the Morningside Heights Historic District Committee.

Q: To start us off, I’d like to ask you a few questions about how you first got involved in historic preservation work. When and how did you know that this is what you wanted to pursue professionally and can you speak to your background as an urban sociologist?

A: I knew I wanted to do work like this professionally because I was a sociology major in college interested in the issue of affordable housing. I wrote a senior essay on government constructed versus voucher supported affordable housing programs and then I went out and worked in the world for five years less focused on urban issues; living in San Francisco influenced how I think about cities. But more broadly as a sociologist it was critical for me to understand what work was like for most people: having to manage a budget and learning to live in a new city – all of those were really critical to my understanding of the world around me as a sociologist. After 4 years I decided to go back to graduate school. That time out was a period in which I effectively experimented with other things and then realized how much the work I had done as a college student in sociology influenced the way I thought about things and was what I wanted to continue to be doing. So I came to graduate school at NYU thinking of myself as generally interested in microsociology, ethnography in particular, and the combination of living in New York City. I’m from Boston so New York City is sort of the enemy – I never imagined myself wanting to live in NYC, but was hopelessly ruined by living here because once you do you can’t live anywhere else. So partly due to living in NYC and partly due to some of the folks I encountered in grad school, I sort of began thinking of how understudied the role of the built environment was. My earliest work is on a design and planning movement called the new urbanism – a group of architects and planners who think of themselves as designing for a community and the movement really grabbed my attention because I felt at the time that sociologists didn’t really understand what community was. We worked hard to but the idea that an architect can whip out a design and produce community seems perplexing, fascinating, and problematic to me. So, I dove in with the new urbanism which influenced my more recent work by showing me that I had to situate the built environment and its production in a set of processes that were political, cultural, economic, and professional (having to do with architects and planners.) I carried those sorts of lessons forward with me into a different line of work in historic district designation which is effectively what my book is about. The interest in this book originally grew out of my personal attachments to environmentalism and dense cities. I was relatively new to living in Philadelphia and observing that it had lots of unused neighborhoods which is true of lots of cities in the U.S which lost significant population after 1950; including NY which substantially recovered and Philadelphia which is beginning to recover. Places like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit, though, have yet to recover their populations significantly. So I began to think as an environmental question, what would it mean to re-use these neighborhoods? Would it be environmentally beneficial to reuse these neighborhoods and would there be risks to the long-time residents of those neighborhoods to implement a kind of green adaptive reuse, or a green preservation. While the environmental piece sort of fell out of my research as I moved forward, I discover very quickly that there wasn’t a ton of work to suggest – this is becoming less true recently – linking environmental efforts and gentrification, and there was some work linking historic preservation and gentrification, but this work assumed a connection in the first place and then built from that assumption. It struck me that that assumption was untested and unexamined. So I set up the Baltimore v. Brooklyn case studies as a way to sort of complicate this question.

Q: Now I’d like to ask a few questions about your most recent book; “Preserving Neighborhoods: How Urban Policy and Community Strategy Shape Baltimore and Brooklyn.”

A: In this work, by contrasting case studies of historical preservation efforts in Brooklyn and Baltimore, you illustrate the diverse functions and consequences of historic district designation from city to city and even neighborhood to neighborhood.


i. Can you speak to how and why urban policy and community strategy takes different forms in different areas? What might generate these different mechanisms of historical preservation efforts in different neighborhoods?

One of the things I have wrestled with, beginning with my graduate training, is the fact that sociologists don’t, in my mind, pay enough attention to the built environment. As such, I’ve been trying to use my sociological training to take up questions of the built environment as a social process, beginning with my doctoral work which became my first book and now, this more recent book.

So we have to talk at least at two scales: one is the scale of the city as a whole and the idea of making policy at the city scale and the other is the neighborhood scale. Baltimore is a perfect example of a radically shrunk city as it lost close to a third of its population between 1950 to 1990 and has yet to recover much of that population. It is a city in which there isn’t much development pressure and there isn’t a radical demand for housing since there is so much available housing in various states of disrepair across the city. So I thought of Baltimore as a sort of top-down case where a city-wide authority interested in historic preservation both within the city government and a city-wide non profit thought about the city as a whole most of the time and had lots of interactions with neighborhood groups, but were working in this broader context of shrunk and not growing Baltimore. So preservation in the context of the absence of development pressure looks like an effort to channel resources into neighborhoods by reinforcing the durability of the built environment so that it lasts maybe until a point where there’s some excitement about a return to a denser kind of living. So that’s what it looks like in the Baltimore context and, jumping to the regional scale, the housing market in DC is so expensive that you see ads for Baltimore throughout the DC metro system. The commute is not much worse than the commute from Queens to Manhattan and the housing is comparatively affordable in Baltimore. So there’s reason for some optimism of the potential for young people looking for affordable housing to consider Baltimore as an option. By contrast, central Brooklyn, because it’s in the broader NY region, is a space under ongoing intense, continuous, and long-standing development pressure. It’s a much more neighborhood by neighborhood sort of organized effort to grab any sense of control over a development process that is substantially out of anyone’s control. I’ve been reading about gentrification for decades now and my favorite gentrification scholar, Neil Smith, one of the earliest critical scholars on gentrification, is talking about things like international capital and its influence on urban redevelopment. One of the difficulties of working with critical scholars, specifically Marxist influenced scholars, is that it’s hard to find capitalism. I’d ask: Who is that? Who is actually doing it? And then I found myself doing research in central Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy, and came across this Australian hedge fund buying up Bed-Stuy brownstones and redeveloping them as luxury rentals. So there it is! There is international capital doing it, I found the guy. For me this was a remarkable expression of how intense and highly pressured this process was and why I wanted to work at that smaller scale. So while the Baltimore story is really one about seeing how power is trying to think about the city as the whole, the Brooklyn case is much more one of neighborhood by neighborhood. I think the intensity of the development pressures exaggerates the differences and contingencies in these neighborhoods so that it becomes clear how they’re different from one another.

Q: And perhaps most importantly, in “Preserving Neighborhoods”, you give nuance to a common conception of historic district designation as an elitist top-down mechanism interested solely in safeguarding aesthetic integrity, by investigating bottom-up historic preservation. Can you elaborate on the ways that grass-roots historic preservation work can strengthen the social fabric of a community and empower neighborhood change?

A: So I see it as an organizing mechanism, but there are cautionary aspects to this. I see historic preservation efforts as an organizing mechanism because of the ways they require community involvement. So even in the case of sort of top-down preservation efforts like I saw in Baltimore, preservation is still about local activity, about neighborhood activists making claims about historicity and integrity of the neighborhoods they live in. And even in a situation like Baltimore, nothing happens without neighborhood activism. The ways that efforts of historic preservation — or landmark designation in your case— require getting to know one’s neighbors and neighborhood, is roughly it. You need pictures of all the contributing buildings, you need research on the year and dates that they were constructed and the ways they’ve been used and inhabited since. You need a lot of legwork, you need people who know the neighborhood and that can move around it. You need people who are willing to talk to each other because they share a neighborhood in common. As far as I can tell, the preservation effort refocuses people on the neighborhood that they share in common and that’s very powerful in the sense that they do in fact share the spaces that they move through; they share the common spots of wherever they shop for groceries and the playgrounds they go. The preservation effort is likely to help them articulate that shared experience. I think of preservation efforts and historic designation as one of the few tools available for the neighborhood groups to exert some control over the environment around them, but sometimes a tool of limited impact.
The more cautionary piece is that, on the one hand, that can lead to exclusion.

I think that there are parts of NYC and there are certainly parts of Baltimore where organizing around preservation issues has been in part a kind of pulling up the ladder behind you effort. The other cautionary note that I want to ring is to say that in my mind in central Brooklyn could only accomplish so much there’s an opportunity for preserving the built environment which doesn’t necessarily intervene in property price change; it doesn’t necessarily keep a community in place if the neighborhood is valued in the real estate market. You know the obvious example for me is in Prospect Heights where real estate prices went through the roof over a 20-30 year period meaning that though the late 19th century brownstones remain they are increasingly out of reach for the kinds of families that were living in them 30-40 years ago.