By Susan Kathryn Hefti
Special to The Clyde Fitch Report
Mercifully, a July 2009 federal court ruling spared the 76-year-old version of Holden Caulfield the experience of padding about the New York City streets that were such an indelible part of his adolescent universe. In finding that the new novel, 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye — in which Swedish author Fredrik Colting, writing under the taunting nom de plume J.D. California, imagines one of the most famous teenagers in American literary history as a man who’s been collecting Social Security for more than a decade — is sufficiently derivative of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to constitute copyright infringement, Judge Deborah A. Batts issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting its distribution in the U.S.
But the Brits published the Swede’s novel. And this has me worried about poor Holden coming unglued all over again. For the Salinger-California case, which has yet to go trial, provided a haunting observation about New York City’s track record on protecting historic structures and the sense of place they evoke.
As Clyde Haberman remarked in the New York Times, many of the places visited by Holden in the original novel no longer exist. Sure, Central Park has a carousel, but not the one he envisions his sister, Phoebe, riding in his mind’s eye. The Biltmore Hotel, where young Holden waits for his date, is long gone. So is the Paramount movie theater. And, of course, the Pennsylvania Station that Holden knew was tragically demolished in 1963.
So my concern for Holden goes way beyond Salinger’s legal right to protect his intellectual property. I believe that if California’s senior version of Holden were to ever actually set foot in New York City, the brevity of his visit would be epic. As Kent Barwick, president emeritus of the Municipal Arts Society (MAS), explained in a phone call while reflecting upon the imperative to reconstruct Warsaw after World War II, it’s a “basic need of human beings to be oriented.” When you take away physical reference points, the effect can be quite traumatic.
Given Holden’s particular history, the absence of so many places that defined the New York City he knew could cause too much of a shock for the 76-year-old man. And he’d be back in the hospital faster than you can say “bulldozed.”
Barwick believes the concept of place and why it matters is no mere construct of preservation advocates. To him, it’s such an integral part of the human experience that in 1998, the MAS partnered with City Lore to launch a project called Place Matters, which promotes the well-being of New York City’s vast, disparate collection of neighborhoods by focusing on the significance of places precisely because they “anchor traditions for individuals and communities” while helping tell the story of the city’s history.
And while many factors can threaten a sense of place, Anthony C. Wood, author of Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks, told me in a phone interview that demolition completely “removes the opportunity to take a place into the future.” When buildings are razed to rubble, it “just shuts down the whole conversation” said Wood.
If we could calculate the exact tonnage of debris from the demolition of New York City historic sites since the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye, the total would be off the charts. But since the current policy of New York City is to issue demolition permits without question as to a structure’s history (with narrow exceptions), the actual amount of historic material hauled away since Holden’s salad days remains, indeed, incalculable.
Rather than policies of demolish first, ask questions later, the National Trust for Historic Preservation advocates for the adoption of local ordinances that would require municipalities to ask a few fundamental questions before permitting the wholesale destruction of structures within their boundaries. The NTHP says that in order to safeguard against the indiscriminate use of the wrecking ball — thus putting in danger, potentially, historically significant building stock — structures should be subject to a review process prior to removal. That’s where a citywide survey of buildings can play an important role.
But with no comprehensive citywide survey, and approximately one million buildings in New York City, Mark Silberman, general counsel of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), questions the feasibility of administering a demolition review ordinance in Gotham. In a phone interview, Silberman expressed concern about the potential impact of such an ordinance on the LPC’s workload. “It’s not like the commission has a lot of free time on its hands” he told me.
Yet while the trigger for a review process can vary, many American cities have already successfully made demolition review a regular part of the development process. Boston, Chicago, and Yonkers, New York, for example, are among the cities that ask a few key questions before allowing its historic building stock to be knocked down.
Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner for the city of Chicago’s historic preservation division, told me the completion of a comprehensive building survey there, published in 1996, is what makes the administration of Chicago’s 2003 demolition-review ordinance manageable. Goeken says that, as a practical matter, integrating the survey’s application into the demolition-review process is crucial to its workability. If New York City initiated a citywide survey on the scale of, say, the one launched in Los Angeles, it could provide the framework for such a process to work effectively in Gotham.
And since the building stock in New York City is so enormous, there is a tremendous amount at stake. By its own account, during a two-year period in 2005 and 2006, the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) issued 122 demolition permits per week on average. Since the city has neither conducted a citywide survey nor adopted a demolition-review ordinance, it’s therefore impossible to know how many historically significant structures were lost. (The 12,655 permits issued over that two-year period doesn’t include figures for partial demolitions, only complete tear-downs).
Since the economy soured and the housing bubble burst, the number of demolition permits issued by the DOB has fallen off precipitously. In 2008, for instance, the city issued 3,979 demolition permits — an average of 77 per week. The figures for 2009 were even lower, according to the DOB: 2,066 demolition permits through Dec. 9, or about 40 a week. (Again, those figures are only for complete tear-downs.)
Predicting the demolition slowdown will not last, Adrian Fine, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Center for State and Local Policy, says communities should be proactive, encouraging their elected officials to use this “cooling off period” to craft development practices that will better serve the continuity of neighborhoods as well as the long-term economic resources of cities (read Fine’s piece, “Is the Teardown Trend Over?,” in the NTHP’s Summer 2009 issue of Forum-Journal: http://www.qm2.org/WhatCanWeDoForYou.pdf.)
Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, is another advocate who’d like to see New York City rethink its development practices to better protect the distinct sense of place that makes Gotham competitive for tourists and residents alike. “We have to be particularly careful to hold on to what is great about New York City,” he says. If we lose the unique stock that helps to define its sense of place, Gotham will be “like everywhere else, but more expensive and less convenient.”
Demolishing buildings without a real understanding of how they contribute to a sense of place undermines communities, adds Tony Hiss, author of The Experience of Place and the forthcoming In Motion: The Experience of Travel. Hiss says that “because people need webs and networks and continuities in their lives,” buildings are more than just brick and mortar: they provide the framework in which communities operate. If Hiss is right, just imagine how poor, unhinged Holden might become searching for those phantom places of his youth.
Ergo, until New York City’s development practices evolve, the Catcher is safer on the page. For as long as he remains fixed in Salinger’s classic novel about adolescence angst and rebellion against systems and attitudes in need of reform, the places that matter to Holden are still there.
Please send preservation news tips and info to: [email protected]
Susan Kathryn Hefti is a playwright and active member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her history play, A Defiant Soul, has been performed throughout the New York City school system as a teaching workshop in early American history. Hefti is also the author and curator of the New York City history exhibit “The Flushing Remonstrance: Who Shall Plead For Us?” Shortly after its 2009 opening, this celebrated exhibit was quickly booked at venues nationwide through the summer of 2010. Her new play, American Dames (or…Waiting for Dolley), introduces us to a group of Upper East Side women confronting their relevance in the ever-changing cultural landscape known as 21st century America. Hefti has been active in historic preservation pretty much her whole life.
The Preservation Diaries does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.