Historic districts as cultural landscapes

Robert E. Cook uses Birnbaum’s definition of cultural landscapes in his essay, Is Landscape Preservation an Oxymoron?: “a geographic area, including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historical event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values.” It is easy at first to think of a place easily identified as a landscape to go along with this definition, like Valley Forge National Park; the land remains (mostly) undeveloped and animals are free to roam and live in the area there, just as us humans are free to visit. Would, or could, a historic district fit into the category of a cultural landscape? I will use two examples of historic districts in Manhattan to attempt to answer this question.

The African American Burial Ground and the Commons historic district is a palimpsest of history and landscapes. The Commons was an area of pasture and public gatherings in New Amsterdam, and since slaves were not allowed to be buried among the white residents, the northern portion was used as an early African burial ground for nearly 100 years. By the 19th century, the land was leveled, sold off, and became landscaped and park-like as the municipal buildings of City Hall, the U.S. Post Office, and the Tweed Courthouse were built on site and nestled into this curated natural environment. In the 1990s, the burial ground was discovered while excavating for new construction. Certainly, there are many layers of social, political, racial, and economic history found in this small site, and is one which integrates topography with history.

Timeline and column of layers of development on African burial ground site

What about a more traditional urban historic district in Manhattan? Let’s take Greenwich Village historic district. The 1969 designation report calls for its nomination due to “its many treelined streets, the human scale of so many of its buildings, and the special architectural qualities of its houses.” At first glance, these descriptors could certainly apply to the definition of a cultural landscape. However, it is easy to assume that the trees were planted by people and were not developed around. Although there is green space within the historic district, none of it originates from the original topography of the city. Is a park like Washington Square a natural resource if it is man-made? Do the squirrels, rats, and pigeons who live in this area contribute to its cultural landscape? As a novice in historic preservation theory I can speculate about the answers to this question, but I am also called to wonder how come modern perceptions of cultural landscapes seem to emphasize those areas which are overwhelmingly natural, when the definition includes those areas in which the natural and the cultural can coexist? I think cities are hard to see as natural environments because they are inherently nature-combative – the 1811 Manhattan grid being a clear example of the city attempting to control the natural environment for future development.

Greenwich Village Streetscape (not unlike our assignment for digital media this week) - taken from GVSHP website

Greenwich Village Streetscape from 1969 designation report (not unlike our assignment for digital media this week) – taken from GVSHP website

I would encourage anyone who has time to read through the nominations of these two historic districts — although nominations are comprehensive, they are by no means the final say in and provide a good overall impression of a site.

Greenwich Village Historic District

African American Burial Ground/The Commons Historic District

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