Research , Studies



Rethinking Sites of Cultural History

Report of a Symposium held at Riverside Church in New York City

on October 1, 2018

First Edition, 2020


Traditionally, preservation has focused mainly on architectural merit, but recently attention has been drawn to sites of cultural importance, which are often invisible to passers-by and left unprotected. Advocates across New York City are working to raise awareness of a diverse array of cultural sites, from the Bowery to Arthur Avenue, Tin Pan Alley to Yorkville, and Walt Whitman’s house in Brooklyn to a recently rediscovered African burial ground in Queens.

In 2018, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Central Harlem – West 130th-132nd Streets Historic District, describing it as “not only representative of Central Harlem’s residential architecture, but the rich social, cultural, and political life of its African-American population in the 20th century.” In recent years, Greenwich Village’s Caffe Cino and Julius’ were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as significant and influential sites connected to the LGBT community; The New York Times profiled a historian giving tours of Muslim sites of significance in Harlem; and the City is commemorating some of our most storied and accomplished female citizens with the installation of statues in all five boroughs.

Furthering this momentum, the Historic Districts Council, the New York Preservation Archive Project and the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project were proud to host a day-long conference, uniting preservationists with historians, artists, planners, and place-makers for a discussion on how best to protect and celebrate cultural landmarks. Sessions included case studies, tools for documentation and protection, and action plans for preserving building and building public engagement.

The intent of the Symposium was to clarify what cultural significance is and how it can work, how to document and create compelling narratives around cultural sites, and how to identify the specific challenges of cultural sites from a preservationist perspective. The goals were to forge connections among different organizations throughout the city, enable mutual support for important causes, and examine different perspectives, methodologies, and case studies in order to create a basic toolkit of best practices for preserving sites of cultural significance.
This report is presented as notes from the conference panels, with speakers’ backgrounds noted before each section.