Theses Doctoral

The spatial politics of urban character: Analyzing the roles of historic districts in neighborhood land use activism to resist displacement, New York City and Los Angeles, 2000-2020

Dublin-Boc, Jenna L.

This three-article dissertation uses a mixed-method research design to examine a contemporary phenomenon related to grassroots resistance to urban gentrification. In New York City, Los Angeles, and other high-growth US cities, community-based organizations are utilizing National Register of Historic Places listing and local designation of historic districts as strategies to resist residential displacement in the context of gentrification and diminishing housing affordability. The central issue with this practice is quantitative research overwhelmingly finds that neighborhood socioeconomic trends follow indicators of gentrification after the implementation of historic districts. Qualitative studies also demonstrate that historic districts are most often associated with the interests of homeowners who seek districts to protect or increase property values. Therefore, the use of historic districts for anti-displacement purposes can appear counter-intuitive.

Arguably, the few existing studies of this practice do not thoroughly analyze the value of publicly stating the intention of districts for anti-displacement purposes or how organizational entities hypothesize causal links between historic districts and the reduction of displacement by gentrification. This gap between research and practice presents an opportunity to examine the functions of historic preservation regulations and participatory venues within the uneven distribution of racial, political, and economic resources necessary to affect authoritative land use decisions.

The three articles are sequential. The first article uses logistic regression to estimate the organizational, contextual, and neighborhood socioeconomic factors that influenced a sample of community-based organizations in New York City, NY, and the City of Los Angeles, CA, between 2000-2020 to state motivations for anti-displacement purposes at public hearings for new historic districts. The second article further examines organizations’ motivations through archived conference proceedings and focused interviews with the key informants of six (6) New York City community-based organizations on the political, socioeconomic, and racial processes that influenced their use of local and NRHP districts as anti-displacement strategies. The interviewed organizations were identified by the review of public hearing testimony and correspondence for Article 1. Finally, Article 3 uses a difference-in-differences statistical technique to test the neighborhood socioeconomic impacts of contextual rezoning in New York City between 1986-2020 as a type of non-FAR rezoning. Contextual zoning and historic districts are similar in that their implementation depends on the presence and maintenance of neighborhood character. Unlike historic districts, new development in contextual zones functions as an administrative process with the Department of Buildings without reliance upon discretionary review of proposals by a city agency.

The articles find that community-based organizations pursue historic districts for a blend of procedural, regulatory, and financial benefits related to anti-displacement activism. Some organizations seek historic districts as substitutes for neighborhood-wide downzoning due to rezoning’s high financial and administrative costs, reflecting power inequalities in urban politics. The articles’ findings also suggest that there are causal links between regulatory restrictions on development and the exclusion of new socioeconomic groups, albeit in the interest of excluding residents of higher-socioeconomic status to resist gentrification. Ostensibly neutral, character-based discourse in urban development is implicated in preserving historical patterns of urban racial and economic isolation. Without state and federal interventions in the provision of urban growth, historic districts and character-based rezonings have limited influence on long-term urban equity.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-07-26.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Freeman, Lance M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 27, 2022