Erika Petersen: West End Preservation Society
Voices from the Neighborhood
Interviewed September 21, 2010, by Susan S. Hopper, HDC board member
How did you get started with preservation? We were trying to get a couple of buildings landmarked and realized the mission was larger than that, so we started to look at all of West End Ave. I co-founded the West End Preservation Society along with Richard Emery. At first, we didn’t know what we were doing! I am not sure how we first heard of the Historic Districts Council, but I think someone mentioned them at our first 2007 meeting.
How has the Historic Districts Council helped? We had no idea how you do this thing, but all the basic questions were answered by someone at HDC or in their excellent publications. When you start out you are so trepidatious because this is so overwhelming. We couldn’t have gone forward without HDC, their education, guidance, and even more, support and encouragement. HDC encourages you to take step one, step two, and there were specific points where Simeon Bankoff, executive director, said, “this is what you need to do now.” I had the advantage of advice from a very knowing person about how to maneuver in this world of different and competing interests. HDC makes a really important contribution. I remember Richard saying at a meeting, we have someone here from HDC, Nadezhda Williams, director of preservation and research, to help us. She said to us, “You are not the only ones going through this.” HDC included us in an enormous community we did not know about and introduced us around. One of our members or I went to night meetings with people from Staten Island and Brooklyn on how do you go about this or that. We said this is what there is out there, and these are the people doing it. HDC acts as a nexus for all these different groups. If you talk advantage of what HDC is offering, it is a portal to a whole world.
Where are you now with preservation and historic districting? We are at an extraordinarily hopeful point. We asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission for an historic district on West End Avenue from 107th to 70th Street. Richard is one of New York’s civil rights lawyers and very involved in city politics. He said let’s have a study made, let’s actually present a study, so we hired Andrew Dolkart, and he produced this tome (it took almost a year) on every building on West End Avenue, plus a 27-page introduction/overview. We presented it to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in March 2009. Now, unbelievably, LPC has decided to expand the proposed district. At an owners meeting last week, LPC proposed a district from 109th to 70th from Riverside Drive to the west side of Broadway, not just West End Avenue. They said that so many neighborhoods are asking for protection and we will be revisiting this one forever unless we see it as a whole. Now we are waiting for calendaring—once we know, we will call Simeon and ask what we do now.
We have had the most incredible support. After the first meeting, we had a letter from Jerry Nadler and others to the mayor about the proposed West End District. The elected officials understand how important West End Avenue is to the economic health of the Upper West Side—I think Linda Rosenthal and Gale Brewer are really trying to do what is right.We interacted with others like Landmarks West!, The Coalition for a Livable West Side, which also helped financially, the West 80’s Neighborhood Association, and the West 83rd Block Association.Residents contributed. Richard said everybody better pony up with $100, and we got $3,000 right away. Our members—we call ourselves WEPSians—wrote letters and made calls! And the preservation community around us encouraged us and gave so much help along the way. From a humble beginning of 75 from the first meeting, we now have a mailing list of almost 700.
Advice for other neighborhoods interested in an historic district? I would tell them it’s the first place you want to go—go directly to HDC—go down there, talk with someone and get the skinny or otherwise you will be wasting your time.
Updates: In March 2011 and again in June, the West End Preservation Society, Landmarks West! and HDC staff testified at the Landmarks Preservation Commission on behalf of the proposed Riverside Drive-West End Avenue Historic District. The final hearing was on Oct 25. The Riverside-West End Historic District Extension was designated on June 26, 2012 . For more on the proposed district and the West End Avenue Preservation Society, see: http://westendpreservation.org/