Subscribe via RSS Feed

National Monuments

[ 67 ] March 26, 2013 |

I am very happy to see that President Obama named five new national monuments yesterday. Two are dedicated to preserving public lands–the San Juan Islands in Washington and the Rio Grande Del Norte in New Mexico. Obama’s public lands policy has not been very good. His ratio of protecting versus developing the public lands is far lower than the average president since World War II. Frankly, Obama doesn’t care much about these issues. Where he does have a stronger environmental agenda is around climate. That’s fine because it’s more important. It’s also really hard to get anything concrete done on that issue. So hopefully he will seek to create a stronger environmental legacy in areas he can control.

There are also three new historical parks. One is the First State National Monument in Delaware, which is largely Joe Biden’s move to establish the first national park site in Delaware, which was the last state without one. Perhaps more significantly are two new parks that highlight African-American history, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio. The National Park Service has done a fantastic job of creating new sites around African-American history and including African-American history in existing parks. I look forward to visiting all of these places someday.

It used to be that historical parks were designated as a National Historic Site. But that takes an congressional bill. With Republicans opposed to adding anything to the park system, Obama has to use his power under the Antiquities Act to create new parks. This gives him the power to create as many new parks as he wants and hopefully he will use that power in his second administration more than he did in the first.

In a more rational country, the federal government could step in and create interesting historical sites within the park system. Take for instance, the Northern Dispensary in Greenwich Village. Due to complex legal issues, this 1831 building has sat vacant on incredibly valuable property for 20 years. What would be great is if the government bought the building and turned it into a national park on the history of medicine and 19th century New York. The building seems large enough to do this (there are smaller buildings in the system for sure. See the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia. Or the JFK birth home. It’d be a great addition, it’s a historic building, and could tell some fantastic stories.

Alas, we do not live in a rational country.

Comments (67)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Lee Rudolph says:

    It occurs to me that you’d be just the person to ask. The one time I went a bit out of my way (it would now be much further out of my way) to visit the Museum of Work in Woonsocket, I got there just after it had closed for the day. Is it worth a visit (as contrasted with a Michelin mérite un détour)?

  2. Frankly, Obama doesn’t care much about these issues. Where he does have a stronger environmental agenda is around climate.

    His land use policies in urban and developed areas have been much stronger, too. It’s a shift in focus from viewing the environment as a place out there, away from us, to the places where we live.

  3. Erik the Parrot says:

    RACE CLASS GENDER, RACE CLASS….WHAAAT?

  4. Tnap01 says:

    Totally off topic but I just read that Buzz Bissinger article and know I need someone (daddy?) to hold me and tell me everything’s going to be alright, can one of you LGM’ers do this for me?

  5. catclub says:

    I heard the NPR report on sequesters and National Monuments.
    The director at one battlefield site, who was interviewed, has NOT gotten the TIDOS memo:

    He has portraits of Lee and Grant in his office and says “We don’t take sides,” … or some such rot.

    Of course, the battlefield (natch) is in Virginia. Maybe the Gettysburg director has stronger feelings about treason.

    • chaed says:

      Well, I once went to the Chickamauga site in northern Georgia. It’s quite a nice place with a cool museum, an interesting little movie that’s obviously designed for field trippers (but still informative) and a really nice touring system, where you can drive your car to different important places on the battlefield, call a number on your phone and you get a description of what happened at that point in the battle. I was very impressed.

      There was also a very large wall labeled “CAUSES of the CIVIL WAR.” It mentioned some other stuff (tariffs, industrialization) but it was made very clear that the number 1, ultimate cause of the war, was slavery and Southerner’s fears that Lincoln and the Republicans were going to try and abolish it. I was quite pleased with that.

      Despite what people think, a lot of Southerners realize who was in the wrong in that war. A direct ancestor of mine fought in the Battle of Chickamauga – on the Confederate side.

      • William Berry says:

        Not sure I’d give southerners any credit for the message of the parks, though. The major Civil War battlefields are parks administered by the NPS, right? One might say they are “Union” owned and operated.

        I can’t imagine what a Civil War site would look like if were administered by, say, Louisiana or Georgia. Wait, yes I can imagine it, and it ain’t pretty.

        • chaed says:

          That’s terribly mistaken.

          • William Berry says:

            Both my parents’ families were from the deep south,and I have lived in the south and mid-south myself for many of my sixty-one years. I am under no illusions about how widespread are the attitudes and beliefs of neo-confederate revisionism. These vile beliefs are the ascendant and predominant ideology of much of the White Republican South.

            Anyway, what I said.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The NPS has to tread a fine line on this because of the people who visit these parks. They can’t say it as such. But they can make the experience of African-Americans as central to the interpretation as possible, which they do quite effectively at most park sites, including battlefields. There are exceptions to this, but that tends to be at sites that are woefully behind in revamping exhibits and such for budgetary reasons.

  6. Aaron B. says:

    What would be great is if the government demolished the building and allowed that corner to be developed, so that, you know, more people could live and work in Manhattan.

    • Chester Allman says:

      If we need to knock down any buildings in Manhattan, I have a much better candidate to suggest.

      • dporpentine says:

        That really is the worst building in . . . the world maybe.

        • Chester Allman says:

          It’s certainly in the top five or ten, especially given its location between the Municipal Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

          A few years back it was bought by a developer who promised to put a facade on it; alas, that project fell victim to the financial crisis.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yes, let’s tear it all down and build super expensive high-rises that Kuwati princes can buy for $25 million a piece. That’s some smart multi-use urban planning!

      • Aaron B. says:

        Or, you know, high-rises where offices can go, or apartment buildings where people can live, allowing more jobs into the city or driving rent costs down. People whose money will then go into the city’s coffers to be spent on other projects.

        Museums are nice. You know what else is nice? Having a place to live or a job to go to.

        • Chester Allman says:

          I actually thought you were joking with your original post.

          There are plenty more places to put offices and apartment buildings in NYC. What’s missing is the market (and, of course, the federal subsidies for affordable housing). I walk by plenty of abandoned, half-constructed shells every day, in perfectly nice parts of Brooklyn. Destroying a historic gem like the Northern Dispensary would be completely pointless, except perhaps for the sake of lining the pockets of the developer of the small luxury building which would be the only housing that could possibly be constructed on that site.

          • Aaron B. says:

            Yes, lining the pockets of the developer – and the construction workers they will employ, and the businesses that supply the developer with construction materials, and businesses in the area, and the person/persons who can now live there, and everyone else in the city whose rents will go down if we take the idea that people need places to live and work seriously. (Obviously, the last claim is pretty abstract, and is meant to refer to pro-growth urban policy as a whole, not individual cases.)

            • Chester Allman says:

              I mean, it just seems like a very strange site on which to make your pro-growth stand. The potential benefits in terms of construction jobs and effect on the real estate market of any possible development on that site are vanishingly small, particularly when weighed against the loss of an aesthetic and historical treasure. There are lots of places to build in NYC.

              • Aaron B. says:

                Of the 112 National Historic Landmarks in NYC, something like three quarters are in Manhattan, which is also the borough with the highest property prices. I am not saying that one caused the other, but that’s a lot of underdeveloped land sitting around, in the aggregate, and it certainly isn’t helping bring the cost of living down.

                • Chester Allman says:

                  Right, but I’d be willing to bet that that’s about 112 townhouse-sized buildings, at best. Compared to, say, the 26 million square feet under redevelopment at Hudson Yards, that’s peanuts. I’m actually pretty pro-growth myself, but going around eminent-domaining national historic sites seems a little over the top. I mean, why not knock down the museums and build over the parks, too?

                • Aaron B. says:

                  Since Manhattan already has such a wealth of parks, museums and historic sites, maybe we should just be skeptical about protecting more going forward.

            • Hodor says:

              Yes, surely with THIS highrise we’ll solve the Manhattan housing shortage once and for all.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Look at the Bloomberg administration. What sort of urban development has been prioritized in Manhattan?

          You sound like someone who would happily go along with a Robert Moses project because of theoretical benefits at the end that no one guarantees and that don’t actually end up happening.

          • Aaron B. says:

            Building a place where people can live and go to work isn’t “theoretical,” it’s quite concrete. If anything, it’s the benefits to historical preservation that are abstract in the extreme. Your aesthetic preference to visit old buildings where vaguely historical things have happened doesn’t automatically supercede people’s need to live and work somewhere, and shouldn’t trump all economic considerations.

        • Museums are nice. You know what else is nice? Having a place to live or a job to go to.

          Residential and commercial space in a city is a good thing, yes, so let’s weigh the goods.

          The additional office or residential space this lot would add to the city’s total would be a vanishing drop in the bucket. However, the loss of this historical building would make a meaningful dent in the city’s roster of historically-significant buildings. The addition of this additional museum space would be a noticeable addition to the city’s inventory of cultural spaces. And the installation of a significant public/cultural anchor at this location would bee a real boon to the immediate area.

          • Aaron B. says:

            There are 112 National Historic Landmarks in New York City. That’s one landmark for every ~75,000 people.

            There are 2,507 National Historic Landmarks in the US. That’s one landmark for every ~125,000 people.

            I couldn’t find any reliable metrics about the number of museums in the US, but as you can see, National Historical Sites are already concentrated in NYC at a well above-average rate, and that doesn’t count local protection and preservation efforts. I’m not saying some higher degree of protection isn’t appropriate in New York – it is, very all, a very historic city – but at a certain point we have to ask what the relative benefits to be gained are by continuing to expand these restrictions in extremely high-value areas where people need property to build live, work, eat, etc.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              If you think National Historic Landmarks are at all responsible for the insane costs of living in Manhattan, I don’t even know where to begin.

            • There are 112 National Historic Landmarks in New York City. That’s one landmark for every ~75,000 people.

              There are 2,507 National Historic Landmarks in the US. That’s one landmark for every ~125,000 people.

              New York has a lot more history than most the US. So?

              But more importantly, a landmark in the middle of 75,000 people on Manhattan is going to get a lot more use than a landmark in the middle of 125,000 people in Montana. This building, with its public space and historic rehab, defining the streetscape at this major intersection, would define that place, and a be a part of the daily lives tens of thousands of people.

              but at a certain point we have to ask what the relative benefits to be gained are by continuing to expand these restrictions in extremely high-value areas where people need property to build live, work, eat, etc.

              You’ve got this just backwards. It is the places that are most dense and urban that get the most benefit from public assets like this.

              • Aaron B. says:

                You’ve got this just backwards. It is the places that are most dense and urban that get the most benefit from public assets like this.

                That is true of any other use for the space, including an office building, an apartment block, a movie theater, a public park, or a bar. Building more amenities in a densely populated area generates more surplus than in a sparsely-populated one. Building housing, which results in higher population, has a parallel effect but in the reverse direction, because it increases the value of the surrounding amenities (bars and restaurants OR parks and museums).

                A museum doesn’t generate more positive externalities than a new office block or a business or an apartment building, just a different kind. All you’re really saying is that, for aesthetic reasons, you prefer to mandate one kind of use rather than let people who want to use the space and are willing to pay for it decide.

                • That is true of any other use for the space, including an office building, an apartment block, a movie theater, a public park, or a bar.

                  Which brings us to this specific location. Lots of housing, lots of offices, lots of bars, lots of shows, but not defining public space, like a park or museum.

                  Since they’ve got a historical building that’s been preserved in the midst of an area that’s undergone a building boom, knocking it down for a park doesn’t make sense.

                  All you’re really saying is that, for aesthetic reasons, you prefer to mandate one kind of use rather than let people who want to use the space and are willing to pay for it decide.

                  Libertarian garbage, based on the denial of the concept of a collective good. A museum that serves the public isn’t better for the public then some more office space, and we’re supposed to know this because it’s less profitable for the building owner. Except that’s not even your real point. You don’t give a shit about what’s better for the public, you’re just offended by the concept of public use in general.

                • Market fetishists define “aesthetic” as “any values other than the profits generated for a private party.”

                • Aaron B. says:

                  One, it’s not a “libertarian” position, it’s position that broadly embraces capitalism. I didn’t say I don’t accept the concept of public use, or I think government should be limited to police and legal functions, or anything even remotely like that. You apparently have bought the conservative propaganda that if conservatives are always opposed to government intervention, liberals must always be for it. Except I’m not always opposed to it, I’m just broadly skeptical of it in cases like this.

                  That’s because I think the ability of people to live in Greenwich Village, or work there, or eat a sandwich there, also creates a public good in the form of consumer surplus. I don’t think that therefore we should never build museums or protect historical landmarks, but it has to be weighed against the cost of not allowing that land to be developed to so it can provide what people would otherwise want to buy.

                • One, it’s not a “libertarian” position, it’s position that broadly embraces capitalism. I didn’t say I don’t accept the concept of public use, or I think government should be limited to police and legal functions, or anything even remotely like that.

                  You’re not actually fooling anyone:

                  All you’re really saying is that, for aesthetic reasons, you prefer to mandate one kind of use rather than let people who want to use the space and are willing to pay for it decide.

                • Aaron says:

                  I’m a market liberal who doesn’t accept that the preservation of historic structures and artifacts is a value. Or at least, not an important one. The preference for old places is an aesthetic preference just like a preference for Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.

                  If you were advocating for building a park or a free clinic, this would be a different discussion.

            • ChrisTS says:

              Wouldn’t turning the site into a museum also provide construction (renewal) jobs and some longer term jobs, as well? Wouldn’t it also bring at least some amount of tourist traffic and dollars?

          • ChrisTS says:

            Thanks for this analysis. The notion that destroying one historical site would benefit the renters/owners in NYC is pretty silly.

            • Aaron B. says:

              It’s clearly true in the aggregate that if we just refused to allow new development in New York, prices would go way up and everyone would suffer. If we only allowed new development on one lot, and banned it on all others, the same thing would happen. If we only allowed development on two lots, etc.

              My point is that there’s no clear “bright line” here – restricting development is a sliding scale. Every time we put restrictions on a lot, we make developable land scarcer and increase prices – these costs are just hidden.

              Now, what I’m certainly not saying is that historical preservation is never justifiable. I’m just saying that we should acknowledge that it always has hidden costs, and given that New York already has substantially higher rates of historical protection than the country as a whole, we should have a high threshhold for things we think are worth protecting.

  7. Chester Allman says:

    The San Juan Islands are a treasure. Special thanks to Kaiser Wilhelm!

    Also saw that piece about the Northern Dispensary. While I think the museum idea is a good one, would that meet the deed restrictions? Would a museum’s educational purpose be enough to satisfy the requirement that the building be used to serve the poor? Also, it seems to me that even the federal government isn’t capable of it, there are plenty of other ways to establish something like that – the impression I got from the article was that the problem was more to do with the current owner, who has a history of holding onto properties and doing nothing with them.

  8. dporpentine says:

    There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen—indeed to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.

    Robert Musil
    He was writing about a different kind of monument, so technically this is off topic, but it’s a great quote from a great essay and deserves to be more widely known.

    • Chester Allman says:

      It does sometimes strike me as funny, walking past the statue of some politician or general (or political general), that the monument was errected with the notion that it was buying its honoree some kind of immortality – when, in fact, none of the people streaming by, noses in their phones to read the latest on Lindsey Lohan, can even see it.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Well, a few people see it maybe.

        I love these public monuments and always stop for a closer look if I have the time. I guess I am old fashioned but the newer examples tend to leave me cold. The new MLK in DC seems horrible to me.

  9. howard says:

    once upon a time, you could count on the national park service for bland, consensus, don’t rock the boat interpretation at their sites, but i want to second erik in noting that there really has been a noteworthy step-up in the nps game, not just at african-american historical sites (many of which have the advantage of allowing for newly built interpretive facilities) but more broadly.

    since park service historical sites are one of the primary ways that many americans come into contact with american history, it is encouraging that the message they are getting is improving.

  10. OmerosPeanut says:

    “His ratio of protecting versus developing the public lands is far lower than the average president since World War II.”

    I think you mean “higher.”

  11. jkay says:

    But, how’s YOUR choice ATALL rational?

    NYC already has NINE monuments. In fact, they might already be running out of space ;-) TOO MANY, already, though, unlike, say, the whole state of Delaware with its whopping ONE when it’s open.

    Isn’t tne Village TOO ‘lite to make a good AMERIICAN national monument spot? Why think we need to subsidize the property values of the top 1% of our fine oligarchy?

    Why does every old building you like need to be a NATIONAL monument? Unlike say, the Underground Railroad site, which has a clear case?

  12. Birdman Berto says:

    Erik you really need to stop engaging a certain leftier than thou with a French blog name. They think they’re ostracized from mainstream conversation because they speak truth to power and force liberals to confront uncomfortable truths and inconsistencies in their politics. In reality, no one listens to them because they’re idiots. Stop feeding the persecution complex.

  13. [...] 27, 2013 at 9:03 am by Bob Cesca Great news from the White House on the historical preservation of national park land. Two are dedicated to preserving public lands–the San Juan Islands in Washington and the Rio [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • Switch to our mobile site