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13th January
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, January 13, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

Yankee Stadium is the most famous structure in Bronx County, the rare building that has achieved iconic status. It has been the scene of the greatest historic moments that defined the national pastime, and thus influenced American society.

As a new Yankee Stadium is set to rise just to the north of the great arena, the question is what will become of this irreplaceable historic sports venue?
Despite the importance of the building and the potential it may have, our city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has not seen fit to protect this special 20th century coliseum.

This week, the commission was busy focusing a few miles to the north, approving a plan to designate 250 homes in the privately-owned Fieldston community in the northwest Bronx as a historic district.

In this ill-conceived scheme, one can find all that is wrong with the city’s efforts to protect its historical heritage. Fieldston is a lovely community of homes typically selling for seven-figure prices. But is it historic, is it unique, or is it typical of an important architectural style? Is it even accessible to the public for study and enjoyment? The answer to all of these questions is no.

The commission was established to protect important structures that reflect our historical heritage from destruction. This quest took on great significance back in the 1960s when Penn Station, celebrated as one of Gotham’s finest buildings, was demolished to make way for the heap known as Madison Square Garden.

I wonder whether preservationists then could have anticipated the law being used to “protect” the homes of millionaires. I don’t think they meant to give rich folks a selling point designed to possibly jack up the price of their million-dollar private homes.

The landmarking of Fieldston would make the city the final arbiter of any exterior change made on these 250 houses in a community that is effectively closed to most New Yorkers. I use the term “closed” literally.The streets of Fieldston are private property. If you were to drive up here, park your car, and take a stroll to soak up the “historical” ambiance, your car would be, within minutes, towed at the direction of Fieldston’s private security force. Want to organize a bus tour? The Fieldston Property Owners Association bans “commercial” bus traffic, which includes school buses headed to the three elite private schools that border Fieldston on the north, south, and east.

Since Fieldston is a private community, and all of the homeowners are governed by the covenant they signed with the Fieldston Property Owners Association, why can’t they simply regulate themselves, without the interference of government?

Landmarking appears to me to be a radical solution to a problem that isn’t there. There is no wholesale move to destroy the ambiance of this attractive community. And that should come as no surprise. Homes in Fieldston routinely sell for several million dollars.The invisible hand of selfinterest is a far more powerful regulator than any government bureaucrat can ever be.

A growing number of residents of Fieldston have awakened from their slumber, finally realizing just how much of their personal freedom is lost when they surrender control of their homes to the whims of government.What could possibly be the compelling reason for other homeowners to invite the bureaucrats in?

There are many who believe that the real agenda is more about preserving a particular social atmosphere than protecting the buildings themselves. Talk of this has been around for some time. Back on October 1, 1997, Neil MacFarquhar of the New YorkTimes quoted Bernard Stein, the publisher of the broadsheet that competes with the newspaper I publish in Riverdale, as saying, “You hear a sense of discomfort. One woman told me that a house near her was bought by ‘another Orthodox family.’ You hear it in the way the voices drop in conversation, as if it is some secretive, not-so-good thing: ‘He has AIDS.’”

I have no way to look into the hearts of those promoting the landmarking idea, but Rabbi Avi Weiss, an opponent of the landmarking who is well known to brook no anti-Semitism, yesterday told the editor of The New York Sun that he does not believe the landmarking effort stems from animus toward Orthodox Jews; many pro-landmarking residents are Jewish; some are themselves Orthodox. So I’m prepared to take on face value that there is no sinister design afoot to thwart further in-migration of Orthodox Jews by putting roadblocks on the expansion of homes in Fieldston.

But whatever the motive, the landmarking is going to inconvenience particularly property owners wanting to expand their homes to accommodate large families,one reason most Orthodox Jews in Fieldston are against landmarking. Alan Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jewish Fieldston resident leading the anti-landmarking effort, told me that he and others in his group have received anonymous calls suggesting that if they are looking for a community that welcomes large families, they should consider Teaneck, N.J., a town known for its large Orthodox population.

So why is the city going along with a program that seems so controversial? This ill-advised plan can still be rejected by the City Planning Commission, the City Council, or the mayor.Wouldn’t the Landmarks Commission be better off trying to find a way to preserve and protect the old Yankee Stadium?

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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