Though we tend to think of New York City as modern and up-to-date, this helluva town has a history spanning more than 350 years. Only a few remnants of 1654 survive to remind us of that fact, but of more recent vintage - say of the 19th century - there are whole neighborhoods: Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Heights, the Upper West Side, reminiscent of that era. Some of them are protected from unrestrained demolition because they have been designated historic districts by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Others are not, and unless somebody looks out for them, they could vanish like their predecessor neighborhoods.
One group looking out for New York City's architectural and community history is the Historic Districts Council (HDC). According to its mission statement, the HDC is the citywide advocate for New York's historic neighborhoods - designated or not. HDC is a nonprofit organization, independent and nonpartisan, which was formed in 1971 as an offshoot of the older Municipal Art Society to work on special neighborhood-based projects. HDC became more advocacy-oriented in the late 1970s, and in 1986 incorporated as an independent organization with its own officers.
The council's advocacy takes different forms. For the more than 80 designated historic districts in the city, it advises building owners and community groups about what regulations govern their districts and how to work within them. HDC also reviews applications for alterations to buildings in historic districts when they come before the LPC - about 400 a year - and writes testimony on many of them.
Neighborhoods that are not designated and want landmark protection often come to HDC to find out how to go about getting it. The staff meets with local leaders to describe the process to them, and a committee tours the district by foot to figure out what boundaries HDC could support. Throughout, HDC offers advice, provides contacts, helps plan projects that will further the effort and helps get elected officials involved. In the entire city, about 40 local groups are at some stage in this process at any given time.
When the area in question lacks local community leaders, HDC may initiate the historic designation process itself. Such a project is currently underway now for the John Street/Maiden Lane district in Lower Manhattan. HDC conducted a preliminary survey of basic conditions, assembled enough research to nominate the district to the New York State Historic Preservation office, and is now planning a fundraiser to hire an architectural historian to complete the application.