There are events that I regret not having attended (the Hudson Pride Professional Networking Party at Club Helsinki, for instance, which I heard was a great success). Last week’s public hearing on the proposed historic designation for Robinson Street, however, was not one of them. I truly think my heart—or at least a number of blood vessels– would have broken had I had to witness this worthy if flawed presentation and all of the negative rhetoric being hurled about in response to it.
Robinson Street, an amazingly tight ensemble of modest 19th/ early 20th century working class houses built on a small cross street, is definitely a sight to been seen. Still it has more merit as an expression of old urbanistic values than of architectural ones, and protecting fine architecture is the fundamental purview of any landmarks law. The destruction of so much of the second ward through misguided urban renewal was a terrible mistake, but it is something of a stretch to try to redress that folly by making too much of a case for what’s left – at least on aesthetic merits alone.
Or is it? If there had been support for it, worse things could have happened than to have protections and guidelines set for the area. The fact is, the continued existence and careful stewardship of so many buildings here—both fancy and everyday– is the reason why Hudson has come back to life; it remains the best economic tool the city has at its disposal, whether everyone likes this fact or not. Contrary to myth, preservation law is capable of keeping a neighborhood stable without turning it into an enclave for the rich. And while it is a painful reality that such aesthetic values can lead to displacement (particularly of low income renters) and possibly add to the cost of maintenance and repair, it is average homeowners in the neighborhood in question and not some imagined “gentry” who would benefit the most from any attendant rise in land value. (Fear of higher taxes due to such a rise could be offset with an agreement for long term abatements from the city for lower income areas such as these.)
It was probably unwise for Historic Hudson to have gone forward with public hearings before having met with members of the neighborhood—not just for the sake of the proposal but for the cause of preservation itself, now seriously shaken here. Historic Hudson, as well as the Historic Preservation Commission, should be as much an educational as an advocacy group, and from the looks of it, it has been falling off the mark in this regard. But to have its values decried as a tool of the wealthy to get rid of the poor — impugning the motives of so many who have chosen to make Hudson their home, many of whom are of modest means themselves— is a divisive tactic and a hallmark of that reliable purveyor of malevolent and mischievous discord, Time and Space Limited’s Linda Mussmann. For once speaking in person rather than through some Manchurian Candidate on the city council, Mussmann laid down the gauntlet in typically antagonistic terms, as recounted here in Jamie Larson’s very able account in the Register Star.
“I will work very hard to postpone, stop, delay this plan,” she said, remarking that the cost of historic replica windows is unmanageable. She went on to say that there are many streets, like State and Columbia, that have similar architecture to Robinson, and asked why if Robinson was being proposed Historic Hudson wasn’t proposing making the whole city a historic district. “I think this is a hardship for a community struggling through a recession,” Mussmann continued. “This is the reality of historic preservation. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. They want it to be: Out of price, out of range.”
“They”? (It should be noted that Mussmann, far from being a purely disinterested party, is a home owner and landlord in the area she mentions and has recently purchased other properties there.) Given the forces trying to further divide this contentious little city, local preservationists need to find a better way to counter distrust, lack of information, and the opportunism of those who want to exploit those things for their own purposes. –Scott Baldinger