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Partners in Opinion: Pros and Cons of a Preservation Contest

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Be not afeared: Defenestrated is Curbed's new architecture column, from the minds of Thomas de Monchaux and/or Philip Nobel. Send thoughts and leads to defenestrated@curbed.com. Here now, Philip Nobel on Partners in Preservation.

By now we've all had the chance to discuss it with Brian Lehrer, to talk and story-slam it out in the Greene Space, to view the videos created by an army of city teens, to pose with our favorites at the Preservation Station, to check in with the "Blogger Ambassadors" (???) who are tracking the progress of the very public competition to determine how a $3 million corporate donation will be shared by forty worthy nonprofits sited in historic structures around New York City. We've all had the chance, through today, to vote.

I don't know how you all have handled this amazing responsibility. For my part it has been a struggle. Do I heed a respected old acquaintance and go for St. Marks-in-the-Bowery? A cool institution, sure, keeping it real in the East Village all these decades. I think I saw some experimental music there once. And they really must need the money to restore their portico: St. Mark's is the second-oldest religious structure in continuous operation in Manhattan. I almost clicked. But I couldn't?I couldn't forgive the church its failure to build the four little skyscrapers Frank Lloyd Wright once designed for the site. The neighbors freaked out and killed the project, or the Depression did, or some engineer raised a red flag about all those cantilevers, or Wright was just too much of a loon. In the absence of evidence or fact I'm going to unilaterally decide the church could have pushed harder back in the late 1920s. They owed us that, New York architecture-lovers of the future. Now you have to go to Racine, Wisconsin or Bartlesville, Oklahoma to see one of Wright's weird towers. No money for you, St. Marks.

What about the Waterfront Museum? My girlfriend voted for them, without second thoughts. The old cargo barge is docked just down the street in Red Hook, after all?one of the things that makes the neighborhood great?when it's not being towed by the equally vintage tug Pegasus to a pier on the West Side (or much farther up the Hudson) to spread its message of?whatever its message is. I could never figure it out. They do weddings there, I've seen, and stuff for kids: circus acts. I mostly think it's cool that the guy who runs it lives on board. Probably not a strong enough rationale to shape such an important decision. Also I'm jealous. Next?

The obvious move would be to vote for Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim. The temple is in an interesting Classical Revival building from 1910; they need money to finish a restoration that's been going on for years. Too bad part of that money would go to restoring some of the stained glass windows, one of which depicts Moses himself, which of course goes very hard against the Second Commandment. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." No real wiggle room there for a purist who thinks Jewish sacred space should be about Jewish sanctity. But it's a real conflict: my kids go to the Hebrew school, the teachers are very nice, and however off-putting I may find organized religion in any form, there's all sorts of tikkun olam coming out of the place. Also, adding to the conflict, a colleague of mine designed a huge cardboard xylophone that was installed in the sanctuary as an awareness-building draw, part of the congregation's GOTV campaign, which has also included a flapping banner on Eighth Avenue, endless tweets and emails, an annoying pop-up video barring instant access to the web site, and prodigious Park Slope peer-pressure word-of-mouth. The temple has been pushing very hard, maybe too hard. And the neighborhood has responded. CBE has led the voting at times, it's in second place as I write, and it is almost certainly going to finish in the top four, which means its project will get funded at the full amount requested. The other 36 groups will get the leftovers. In past years, in other cities, the consolation prize has been $5,000. Probably not enough cash for a cash-strapped nonprofit to recoup the expense of participation. Another reason I didn't vote for Beth Elohim. Feel the guilt. Feel the justice.

Of course, since the voting was open for a month and one could vote each day for a different institution, I could have spread my say, my power, around. Or I could have tried to freak the system, as some were doing, by voting for whoever was in last place each day. That appealed to me a little, in an #owsy, eat the rich kind of way. But I couldn't pull the trigger. I was frozen by my ambivalence about the merits of this undertaking/stunt/model-of-civic-salvation. Was this the best thing ever to have happened to historic preservation ever? Is it a travesty? The shark-jump of crowdsource chic? A fatal blow to a role in society for the reasoned application of expert knowledge? A cultural blip?

I've gone through all the stages of apathy and rage on this one. I'm still not sure what I think. Some possibilities are below. Please tell me in the comments what my final opinion should be. That seems to be how, as a culture, we roll.

1) Who Cares

None of this matters. It doesn't matter what I think and it doesn't matter what you think. It doesn't matter who wins. And it doesn't matter who got creamed in the voting, wasting time and scarce money. It's fun to click buttons in online polls. We're all going to die.

2) This is an Unconscionable Miscarriage of Justice

It came up in the call-in during Brian Lehrer's segment on the competition--in his careful, evenhanded way he made a point of mentioning it--and I'm sure many times in discussions elsewhere. Is it an accident that the last-place institution is in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx, and the first-place institutions (CBE at #2, and as of now the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at #1) are in a networking-class neighborhood in Brownstone Brooklyn? Could it be that in some parts of town people have better access to communications devices, and the free time to poke around on them?also the down moments and savvy to email, tweet, like, plus-one these non-life-or-death causes they so ardently believe in? Could it be that even today (it is twenty-twelve for God's sake) there is a gradient of access to technology that follows ages-old socioeconomic patterns? Did maybe the complexity of navigating the voting itself privilege those with prior experience with the internet's ins and outs? And if so, might it not be totally unfair, and not a bit counter-productive to the purposes of supporting needy institutions, to base giving in part on a high-tech popularity contest?

3) Thank You, Corporate Moneylords!

Facts of the 501(c)3 world: Tax receipts are down. Nonprofits increasingly rely on for-profit largesse. And for-profits don't do anything out of altruism. If participating in this circus is the price some very worthwhile institutions need to pay in order to get some of the money they need, if even the National Trust for Historic Preservation needs to go to these extremes of prostitution in order to hold the interest of its sponsors, so be it. God Bless America. Thousands of people who probably didn't give a shit before are thinking about the fate of old buildings now. And American Express.

4) Preserve the Mandarins

Some things are too important to put to a vote. Some decisions must be made on principle. In political life, the bodies charged with deliberating such things are most often the courts?the judicial branch of government. Judicial! Hence some of the pained resistance to putting civil rights issues (gay marriage, say) up to popular referendum (even if it seems likely to pass); it is properly the role of judges?learned, careful, experienced, accountable judges?not, with all due respect, you and me, to determine what a given state's constitution, in the context of the nation's, can abide. In the private sector, boards of directors, not shareholders or executives alone, are the deliberative bodies. And the board of a philanthropic organization, if not filled with experts already, will sure as hell consult whoever they think necessary to help vet applicants for a large grant. Especially one involving construction. This is expert work, determining who can best use what monies when, not something that should be thrown up for inexpert review. This whole episode of the past month, the public spasm of entitlement-to-choice (in the service of corporate brand exposure), has done major damage to whatever respect may be lingering out there for specialized intelligence and earned judgement, in this field and others. Save the Knowledgeable Elite! Last-minute write-in campaign! Go!

5) Power to the People

There may be something to this crowdsourcing fad after all. Clearly the top three groups are benefitting disproportionately from name recognition (the New York Botanical Garden is steady in third place) and a fired-up, college educated constituency (with leisure time), but the results as they stand aren't awful. The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum and Carriage House (right), a Bronx site I'd never heard of, seems a worthy beneficiary in fourth place (they're seeking funds to restore their gardens). More interesting are the big guns that are languishing in the middle and near the bottom of the list. The Intrepid Museum (at #12) can find some war buffs or nostalgic seamen to fund repairs to the Growler submarine. The Guggenheim (at #15) can pay for its own goddamn front doors (and if not, see Opinion 1 above). The High Line, which not long ago took preservation fundraising to previously unimaginably lucrative heights, will finish up near the very bottom (at #32 with 1 percent of the vote), between Historic Weeksville's "addition of shed and root cellar for expanded site interpretation," and the "restoration of windows in connecting corridors" at the Ellis Island South Side Hospitals. It looks like someone other than Amex will have to fund the "restoration of the Tenth Avenue sunken overlook deck" only three years after its opening. Perhaps Diller Scofidio + Renfro themselves?
?Philip Nobel
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