Columbia University Press, 2021

Historic preservation and neighborhood change

Historic preservation is typically regarded as an elitist practice. In this view, designating a neighborhood as historic is a project by and for affluent residents concerned with aesthetics, not affordability. It leads to gentrification and rising property values for wealthy homeowners, while displacement afflicts longer-term, lower-income residents of the neighborhood, often people of color.

Through rich case studies of Baltimore and Brooklyn, Aaron Passell complicates this story, exploring how community activists and local governments use historic preservation to accelerate or slow down neighborhood change. He argues that this form of regulation is one of the few remaining urban policy interventions that enable communities to exercise some control over the changing built environments of their neighborhoods. In Baltimore, it is part of a primarily top-down strategy for channeling investment into historic neighborhoods, many of them plagued by vacancy and abandonment. In central Brooklyn, neighborhood groups have discovered the utility of landmark district designation as they seek to mitigate rapid change with whatever legal tools they can. The contrast between Baltimore and Brooklyn reveals that the relationship between historic preservation and neighborhood change varies not only from city to city, but even from neighborhood to neighborhood. In speaking with local activists, Passell finds that historic district designation and enforcement efforts can be a part of neighborhood community building and bottom-up revitalization.

Featuring compelling narrative interviews alongside quantitative data, Preserving Neighborhoods is a nuanced mixed-methods study of an important local-level urban policy and its surprisingly varied consequences.

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Featured in the Columbia News

Aaron Passell is associate director of the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is also the author of Building the New Urbanism: Places, Professions, and Profits in the American Metropolitan Landscape (2013).


“So-called ‘neighborhood preservation’ lands very differently from one place to another; here we learn just why. There is a ‘radical specificity’ that determines why the effect in Brooklyn is so different than in Baltimore.  Replete with insight and irony, Passell makes a genuine contribution to urban analysis more generally.”

Harvey Molotch, Professor Emeritus, Sociology and Metropolitan Studies, NYU

“Preserving Neighborhoods is a powerful book about how people and organizations work the system to advance parochial projects, a vivid demonstration of how the ‘social’ shapes “social policy” and, with it, urban form. There are far too few comparative ethnographies in urban studies, and Passell has produced an exemplary work.”

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life

“Historic Preservation is a movement focused on preserving the physical past. In Preserving Neighborhoods, Aaron Passell deftly illustrates the ways preservation is actually used as a catalyst for changing a neighborhood’s physical and social dimensions. Preserving Neighborhoods is a nuanced and detailed look at Historic Preservation as a force for neighborhood change and should be in the library of anyone with an interest in the physical and social fabric of urban communities.”

Lance Freeman, author of A Haven and a Hell: The Ghetto in Black America

“Aaron Passell’s Preserving Neighborhoods is a must-read for anyone interested in urban preservation. With case studies from Baltimore and Brooklyn, Passell reveals preservation as a malleable strategy that facilitates different ends across varied contexts, from neighborhoods facing gentrification and development pressure to those crumbling under the weight of entrenched vacancy and abandonment.”

Stephanie Ryberg-Webster, Associate Professor of Urban Studies & Planning, Cleveland State University

“Preserving Neighborhoods draws on a comparison between two distinct contexts to show how historic designation unfolds differently across different places. In doing so, Aaron Passell engages with a critical urban policy area of vital public importance that has received insufficient scholarly attention.”

Jeremy Levine, University of Michigan

Urban Studies Program
Barnard College
3009 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
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