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African American Preservation as an Economic Development Tool

Published by Irvin Henderson on Friday, February 5, 2021

Journal Cover February 2021   Download PDF

Preservation as an economic development tool has often been cited in this and other journals as an important means of urban and rural redevelopment. Cultural heritage tourism and the recognition of underserved communities’ contributions to America’s history and culture are twin drivers of the appreciation of space with linkages to these drivers. The combination of these two phenomena have ushered in a renaissance of African American historic preservation placemaking.

Throughout the history of America, there have been many contributors from the African American, Latino, Native American and Asian communities that have not received recognition for their legacy of service and import and consequently, the structures and spaces associated with the accomplishments and architectural significance of these Americans have also not received the recognition and preservation that is deserved. However, thanks to many efforts by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service (NPS)–as well as other entities such as Preservation North Carolina, led by Myrick Howard,–these wonderful spaces and structures are benefiting from more interest and more resources for revitalization and restoration.

Several years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation highlighted several such treasures and also encouraged the publication of a manual guiding African American historic preservation, written by Brent Leggs. Highlighting places such as the lavish estate of Madam C. J. Walker’s (America’s first female self-made millionaire) Villa Lewaro in Irvington, New York, the childhood home of songstress Nina Simone in North Carolina or the home of vaunted saxophonist John Coltrane in Philadelphia, has brought new attention and efforts for historic and cultural heritage preservation to these sites. It is important to note that the renewed interest has saved some of these cultural American gems, but not most.

Villa Lewaro was saved and restored in all its grandeur, but the Coltrane home is now on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 roster of “at risk” sites. The Nina Simone Childhood Home has just been permanently protected with a preservation easement through a partnership of the National Trust of Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the World Monuments Fund and Preservation North Carolina. The home is where Nina Simone taught herself the piano at age 3 in 1936. The three-room, 660-square-foot clapboard house had fallen in disrepair. But thanks to four African American visual artists–Adam Pendleton, Rashad Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu–who purchased the home, its history and inspiration will be preserved. Working with these international, national and state-based entities in partnership, this preservation is permanent.

Telling the full American story will always depend on some enlightened philanthropy. All preservationists owe a debt of gratitude to many supportive donors for historic preservation in our country and throughout the world. In many cases, it is the only way that preservation can occur. But sustainable preservation of many of the sites will depend upon their adaptive reuse economic development redevelopment projects. Using the historic tax credit (HTC), often in conjunction with new markets tax credits (NMTCs), some of the more underserved neighborhoods are being revitalized, with historic preservation of African American significant sites as the economic engine.

Building revitalized communities around structures such as the Prince Hall Grand Lodge Masonic Temple in Birmingham, Alabama, creates vibrant neighborhoods that very often used to house African American commerce in segregated America. These Black business districts are often the home of consistent poverty and degradation within the past 20 to 50 years. African American chambers of commerce and Main Street communities are now looking at these assets as what they are, precious jewels that will aggregate interest and bring consumers to revitalized areas because of their desire to follow cultural heritage pursuits. The concept is simple, using inspirational spaces of the past to solve essential needs of today. Leggs, the very skilled and articulate leader of the African American cultural Heritage Action Fund and the author of the aforementioned manual, says it this way, “These spaces represent an opportunity to tell the full American story while providing utility for current use.”

Around the offices and hospitality spaces in the Masonic temple, there will be restaurants, drug stores, retail boutiques for men and women, historic barbershops, small business incubators, educational institutes and new residential housing, creating a community mix of economic development to sustain the historic preservation of the Temple. The Masons, under the leadership of Grand Master Corey Hawkins, have launched this effort as the centerpiece of a Fourth Avenue restoration in Birmingham’s Historic Civil Rights District.

Using these precious structures, community developers are blazing the trail for others to join them as private sector actors, creating economic development zones with historic preservation as the principal economic engine. In fact, working with one of the prudential banking regulators, Deputy Comptroller of the Currency Barry Wides, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), then led by founder John Leith Tetrault, was able to get HTC investments listed as one of the eligible investments for Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credit for the national banks. Under the current president and CEO Merrill Hoopengardner, NTCIC has continued to be one of the most prominent national champions for preservation as an economic development tool, twinning NMTC and HTC.

This movement is extremely effective because many of the underserved communities in urban areas and rural areas have significant African American history and legacy. Because of disinvestment and prejudice, many of these structures are in disrepair and have been for a number of years. So, what is viewed as a source of slum and blight, with sensitive historic preservation becomes a source of inspiration and a potential anchor for revitalization. The dollars that are associated with adaptive reuse and cultural heritage tourism are not small. The NPS estimates that for every dollar spent in developing a national monument such as the Historic Civil Rights District National Monument in Birmingham, $10 in economic development is generated. This type of leverage for private and public sector investment is rare.

These cultural icons can also play a critical role in the provision of essential services in largely African American neighborhoods that have become food deserts and economic development black holes.

In the Hill District of Pittsburgh, there is the New Granada Theater, which is the first place that Duke Ellington was referred to as the “King of Jazz” on a live broadcast of a national radio program. The Hill CDC, led by Marimba Milliones, is the sponsor of a catalytic revitalization effort for the entire middle Hill area on Centre Avenue. Not only will the historic New Granada Theater provide performance space for jazz and blues as it did in its heyday of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but it will bring restaurants to this food desert and will have an entrepreneurial incubator space to be occupied by small African American businesses that need the foot traffic and the opportunity consumers that will visit this new revitalization of the Hill. Offices bringing jobs and consumers to this underserved area will be one of the adaptive reuses. The University of Pittsburgh will be an anchor tenant. The New Granada Theater is an example of collaboration from all sectors as there is philanthropic support from Pittsburgh’s foundations, NMTCs, HTCs, state support, Urban Redevelopment Authority support, a senior bank note and equity from the CDC itself.

Each of these historic restorations would not be possible without the HTC, the NMTC and renewable energy tax credits. Each of these would not be possible without the love and care that has been exhibited to these artifacts by struggling community development entities, led by African American preservationists, determined to hold on to the properties long enough to see them through this revitalization.

Now it is time for these projects to support the sponsors as revitalization and commerce come together to create jobs and small business opportunities for these underserved neighborhoods and residents. The effect of successful completion of these projects will be millions of dollars harvested from all aspects of the communities to support this history and culture in sustainable ways. The jobs, quality jobs generated, and the small business opportunities generated will sustain numbers of households for years to come. The tax base of the municipalities will be enhanced because the property tax receipts from distressed areas usually are meager.

The sustainability will not be based upon philanthropy alone, but will be supported by the treasure itself becoming an economic engine, using the spaces of the past to solve the problems and needs of today, a full story of America solution.

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