When Businesses are Cultural Monuments

When Businesses are Cultural Monuments

How do we preserve history and culture?  And how do we determine what history and culture is worthy of preservation  Traditionally, historic buildings or sites of notable historic events are protected as reminders for future generations.  But these static monuments can only tell part of the story.  

The recent rumors that the Amoeba Music store in Hollywood may be replaced by a new condo tower (since updated to confirm that Amoeba isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet) got me thinking about the importance of certain businesses as cultural monuments, and how those businesses are valued within cities driven by market forces.  Amoeba has been in their Hollywood location for just under 15 years, but has since become something of a local institution.  The news of its potential demise even drew a statement from the area’s City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell expressing disappointment, but also hoping that Amoeba might be able to find a new home in Hollywood.

A handful of optimistic commenters on LAist and Curbed advocated for some sort of preservation effort for Amoeba, something that is nearly impossible given the relative youth of the business in its Hollywood location.  Even if the building were older, it would struggle to meet anything more than local historic significance.  In relation to the National Register of Historic Places Criteria for Evaluation, the building is far from architecturally significant, it is not related to any significant historical events or people (at least no more than any other record store or performance venue), and it is unlikely to yield any important archaeological findings anytime soon.  It can’t even claim to be the “original” Amoeba Music—locations in Berkeley and San Francisco opened earlier.

State and local criteria for historic significance may be more flexible than the National Register, but these preservation efforts tend to be focused on, for lack of a better word, “dead” sites, places that are no longer in regular use, or whose regular use does not contribute to their historic significance.  This system is largely effective for preserving important buildings, or sites of historic events, but should we also have a mechanism for protecting parts of our culture that are actively contributing to daily life?

One of the protected businesses in Barcelona. (Photo by  flickr user Jaume Ventura  via Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of the protected businesses in Barcelona. (Photo by flickr user Jaume Ventura via Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The day after the news about Amoeba first broke, NPR ran a story about the London borough of Wandsworth, which has extended legal protections to 120 local pubs, requiring government approval for any redevelopment.  Citing an intangible community-building value in pubs, the borough Council has essentially determined that the cultural value of certain pubs outweighs increased property values.  A similar program in Barcelona goes even further, restricting changes in decor, signage, and furnishing for a wider range of small businesses—over 200 locations in total.  A similar paradigm in a Los Angeles context may recognize Amoeba as one of the last of its kind, and therefore worthy of some sort of protection.

While it may seem strange to mandate the continued operation of an individual business in an ostensibly capitalist economy, the overall impact of these regulations in Wandsworth and Barcelona may not be too far off from traditional historical designations.  In a landmark 1978 case, the Supreme Court upheld a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission decision that prevented the redevelopment of Grand Central Terminal.  The owners of Grand Central Terminal at the time, Penn Central Transportation, had proposed building a new office building on top of the station, but multiple plans were rejected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which Penn Central contended was a violation of its right to develop the property.  However, the majority opinion found, in part, that the Commission was warranted in their actions because the designation of the building as a landmark did not prevent the continued operation of the building as it was at the time, and therefore did not interfere with reasonable investment expectations.  I’m not a lawyer, but it would seem that the efforts in London and Barcelona are consistent with the spirit of that ruling.

Grand Central Terminal (photo by  Ingfbruno , via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Grand Central Terminal (photo by Ingfbruno, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Any case for the preservation of Amoeba Music is perhaps more complicated than any of these other examples, not least because of the implications that it was Amoeba who made the decision to sell the building to developers in the first place.  Regardless of the eventual outcome, the fate of Amoeba has started a worthwhile conversation on how we value commerce as culture in our society, and it brings up important questions.  Is our commercial culture worthy of protection?  How do we decide what should protected, and who makes those decisions?  And how do we preserve important cultural institutions without turning them into theme parks?  None of these questions have simple answers, but I hope we will continue to have the conversations that try to find those answers.

Header image by Gary Minnaert via Wikimedia Commons