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The story of historic preservation in Georgia, as in the nation, is one of the rebirth of neighborhoods and downtowns. In the almost fifty years since the Historic Savannah Foundation began reclaiming that city's historic downtown neighborhoods, historic preservation has increasingly been used in Georgia as the basis for community development. This direction was encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, which promoted the preservation of the nation's history as "a living part of community life and development" and offered the support and assistance of the federal government toward this end. Increasingly, Georgians have set out not just to preserve history but also to use the places associated with history to serve contemporary needs. They have found that historic places foster community development by providing economic benefits and healthy and interesting places in which to live and work.
Although very early preservation interest tended to concentrate on individual landmarks associated with famous people, citizens nationwide soon became concerned about more than the architectural characteristics of an individual historic building. The National Register of Historic Places, created by NHPA, included a category of historic property called "historic district," and the criteria that were developed enabled these places to be identified and evaluated. This process fostered an interest in environmental planning that led to an interest in older neighborhoods and downtown areas.
The Historic Savannah Foundation was founded after the loss of a major community landmark and threats to another in the mid-1950s. But the organization soon was engaged in the business of saving the neighborhoods that make up the Savannah historic district. Other Georgia cities, too, began to work in their downtown districts, which included older residential neighborhoods and commercial streets. After the Columbus historic district was surveyed and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, the new Historic Columbus Foundation worked to attract residents back to the downtown residential area. So, too, did Macon, where the intown historic district continues to be a desirable place to live. In Augusta federal tax credits of the 1980s were instrumental in the rehabilitation of housing in the Pinched Gut historic district, later called Olde Town, where many rental or income-producing properties could take advantage of the income tax credits. Smaller cities like Thomasville and Athens also established preservation organizations and began rehabilitating residential areas using the tools of historic district zoning, revolving funds, grants for rehabilitation, and such financial incentives as income tax credits and tax freezes for rehabilitated areas.
The earliest work affected neighborhoods that had originally been developed as what today would be called "upscale" places, where the residents were largely upper middle class. However, as the historic preservation movement broadened to include historic places associated with increasingly diverse populations, a greater variety of neighborhoods was included. Among the earliest efforts was Savannah's oldest still-intact African American neighborhood, the Beach Institute area. A neighborhood organization was formed in the 1980s to survey its historic places and to save the King Tisdell Cottage by moving it from an urban renewal neighborhood, where other historic buildings were being demolished, to the Beach Institute area. A major community landmark, the Beach Institute Building of 1867, which gave the neighborhood its name, was rehabilitated into a community center. The Victorian district adjacent to the original landmark historic district became the focus of an innovative housing program for the largely African American population of this neighborhood, and the city has continued to expand housing programs into a number of historic neighborhoods.
Macon has been a national leader in affordable housing rehabilitation from its first efforts in Pleasant Hill, one of the state's largest African American historic districts. The Macon Heritage Foundation, using tax credits, federal funds, and state historic preservation and housing assistance programs, began the revival project with a row of shotgun houses in the late 1980s. The work has continued into many other neighborhoods of mixed-use buildings and moderate-income residences, such as Huguenin Heights and Tatnall Square. Perhaps influenced by the success of these efforts, the city housing authority is replacing older public housing with single-family and town-house apartments on a reinstalled street grid more compatible with the surrounding Bealls Hill neighborhood.
In Athens's Hancock corridor and Thomasville's Stevens Street historic district, local preservation organizations, stimulated by a national program called Christmas in April, have begun volunteer clean-up/fix-up weekends to help homeowners who may not have adequate financial or organizational resources for needed home repairs and maintenance. Significant to many of these efforts are the partnerships with other housing and public programs as well as many local businesses and student organizations, which result in continuing action.
Despite its image of modern high-rise buildings and sprawling suburbs, Atlanta has supported one of the state's strongest neighborhood movements. Beginning in the early 1970s, Inman Park, Druid Hills, and Ansley Park have attracted preservation-minded citizens to their older houses and landscaped streets and parks in the wake of the destruction of older areas by such massive transportation projects as the interstate highway system and rapid rail development. Ensuing neighborhood activism and the response of city government through the neighborhood-planning unit structure helped support a diversity of residential-area preservation projects throughout the city. In the neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and later preached, the Historic District Development Corporation (HDDC) has been a leader in creating affordable housing and mixed-income development. In addition to the usual challenges of a deteriorated housing stock, the HDDC worked through the standards and regulations imposed on national landmark districts as well as the requirements of local historic zoning. Coordination with many partners, including federal, state, and local government programs, and support from local banks and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have been the key to success.
Since many older neighborhoods were often mixed-use areas with interspersed or adjacent commercial buildings, preservation organizations and local governments sought programs and investors who would keep these older commercial areas viable. Broughton Street in Savannah, Broad Street in Augusta, several downtown streets in the center of Macon and Athens, Madison's town square, Tifton's central business district, Rome's Broad Street, and Broadway in Columbus are typical of older downtown areas that affect the quality of intown living in older neighborhoods. Tax incentives, first federal and subsequently state-based, began to be used for buildings in these downtown areas. Federal tax credits were particularly important in stimulating major commercial area projects in Macon, Columbus, and Augusta, and in smaller cities like Rome and Thomasville, whose downtown programs have won national awards. Programs like the Georgia Main Street Program and Better Hometown not only have helped smaller communities but also have influenced the process in larger cities.
The earliest interest in historic districts grew from appreciation of their visual qualities— interesting and significant historic architecture set among established trees and mature vegetation and arranged along shady, pedestrian-friendly streets in a rhythmic progression of structures and spaces. Often this continuity of building and setting is punctuated by significant historic landmark structures, such as churches, schools, and public buildings. As the movement to preserve these places has progressed through the late twentieth century into the present, there has been greater recognition of the economic and social value of their preservation. Historic preservation has become more environmentally oriented and an important part of building successful communities.
The 1989 statewide historic preservation conference, jointly sponsored by the Historic Preservation Division, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, chose as its theme "Successful Communities." Conference sessions provided not only how-to information but also speakers of national note who brought new analyses and recognition of the role of historic preservation in building successful communities. This direction has continued with the statewide conference in Macon in 2002,"Georgia at the Crossroads: Growth Strategies and Solutions," featuring nationally prominent speakers in the fields of affordable housing in historic neighborhoods and community development through historic preservation. A recently established program of the Georgia Trust is the Neighborhood Reinvestment Initiative, a program of technical and financial assistance to historic neighborhoods throughout the state, which can complement the many Main Street programs in these cities. The results of this growing and more self-conscious community-oriented interest can be seen in communities large and small, across the state, from Savannah to Flowery Branch, Valdosta to Rome.
As with residential neighborhoods, downtowns are benefiting from new partnerships. For example, in Athens a new alliance of downtown stakeholders began meeting on a regular basis in 2001 to share information and develop a better understanding of the different perspectives and areas of interest of each organization. In Monticello cooperation between the city and county has created a scenic byway that has aided downtown development. In Atlanta's Fairlie Poplar district a broad-based task force has worked through a variety of issues, including that of a safe and secure environment, and has established a business improvement district funded by a self-imposed special tax.
In Georgia's communities success has seldom come from a single development but rather has grown from a series of projects and programs over a number of years. What sustained these efforts has been a process that includes a sequence of historic preservation strategies and a complex system of public and private partnerships. These partnerships are motivated by recognition of and appreciation for the historic and natural resources that make them distinct. In some cases it is the threatened loss of a beloved landmark that sparks the preservation of a downtown or historic residential area, while in others it is the gradual deterioration of buildings and places that threatens the quality of life and often leads people to move out to more newly developed areas.
In all of Georgia's larger cities, historic districts have been recognized in downtown areas and surrounding neighborhoods, beginning with Savannah in the 1950s. Local organizations assisted by the state historic preservation office (Historic Preservation Division) and encouraged by the statewide preservation organization (Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation) established the value and significance of their historic resources through surveys, National Register listings, and local designations. Since 1980, local governments have been authorized by the state to designate historic properties by ordinance and establish historic preservation commissions to protect them (Georgia Historic Preservation Act).
As of 2001 Georgia had approximately 100 such commissions. State law also requires that all local comprehensive plans include a historic preservation component. Once they are recognized through planning and designation, the protection and preservation of resources and the use of these resources to enhance economic and community development have become a long process of consultation and technical assistance. Public money and financial incentives have been significant, but creative solutions, such as the Main Street program, and revolving funds and conservation easements that require public and private sector partners to work together make the difference.
Successful communities, research has shown, convey a sense of pride and a vision of quality that are often based on the natural and historic resources that make them distinct places. Preserving a strong "sense of place" becomes the basis for an economically viable community through the preservation and reuse of local historic buildings, contextual in-fill buildings, pedestrian-oriented development, and greenspace in the town's central business district and residential areas. Communities where historic preservation has become an integral part of the community development process can be found throughout Georgia.