Column Outtake 2: Can the Historic Districts Coalition Re-Start a Movement?
My column this week asks the question of how the preservation movement can attract new people to replace the original activists. With some organizations, it's a matter of survival.
Take the Historic Districts Coalition, for example. As co-founder, coordinator, and one-time potential Historic Preservation Review Board nominee Nancy Metzger tells it, the group started in the mid-1990s as the scary-sounding Coalition for Greater Preservation Enforcement. Then, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' building inspectors were the only ones checking for historic preservation compliance, and they pretty much care only about safety. So the fledgling coalition lobbied for, and got, two inspectors detailed specifically to the Historic Preservation Office.
The group went dormant until the early 2000s, when Historic Preservation Review Board chairman Tersh Boasberg pushed for more of a grassroots movement to support historic preservation as a priority. The D.C. Preservation League does that, but it has historically focused more on downtown. Also, Metzger says, DCPL has a lot of non-D.C. residents on its board, which lessens its clout with the City Council. The Historic Districts Coalition serves as a loose network of neighborhood-based preservationists all around the city, and weighs in on legislation, HPRB nominees, and in front of the board on cases.
About a year and a half ago, Metzger says, they started working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to figure out a way to institutionalize the group, and it's been less active over the last six months as they think through a way to transition. In the mean time, she realizes they need to learn how to communicate online better.
"I don’t feel like we’ve figured out how to get ahead of the social media," she says, citing rumors about the downsides of historic district designation that spread electronically. "We didn’t have that kind of threat 20 years ago. You went to your neighborhood association, and you maybe talked with your neighbors, but you didn’t have this instant thing, and people jumping in from all over the city to a discussion in a neighborhood."
George Washington University professor Richard Longstreth, who edited the book on housing in Washington, would like the re-invigorated Historic Districts Coalition to become a much more forceful presence, bringing in people from all over the city to make preservation a consideration.
"I would like to see that coalition a lot more politically active," Longstreth says. "It’s always been a small, intelligent, very active group of people who’ve turned things around. But I’m talking about building up a big constituency citywide."
That will take some doing, because of the structural problems I've described. But learning the social media couldn't hurt.