California State Parks Among Nation's Most Endangered Historic Places

Budget cuts can be as damaging as bulldozers to pieces of American history, a preservation group said Tuesday in issuing a new list of endangered places that includes the jammed, noisy streets of New York's Lower East Side and the peaceful parkland of California.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation on Tuesday put the New York neighborhood and the California parks on its list of this year's most endangered places, along with an old brick schoolhouse in Kansas that launched one of the most important legal cases in U.S. history: Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 desegregation ruling from the Supreme Court.

"Preservation efforts have really moved beyond individual buildings to neighborhoods, communities, and context," said Richard Moe, president of the group.

"Most people think the threat only comes from the wrecking ball, but that's not always true," Moe said. "It can be underfunding of a resource, it can be neglect, it can be inappropriate development."

Decades ago, the overcrowded tenement buildings of the Lower East Side were considered a blight on city life, even though they were the first home for generations of new Americans arriving at Ellis Island.

Now, preservationists think the danger lies in new luxury high-rises sprouting up in the once downtrodden area. The National Trust is trying to have the area declared a landmark district, which could mean restrictions on building height and density.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission surveyed 2,300 buildings in the area last year and it is now trying to determine which buildings — and which parts of the neighborhood — should be given landmark status.

Charity Hospital and its New Orleans neighborhood, where 200 buildings could be demolished to make way for a new Louisiana State University hospital, was also listed.

Carolyn Bennett, head of the Foundation for a Historical Louisiana, said the designation would draw national attention to the state's decision to mothball Charity following Hurricane Katrina.

In Topeka, Kansas, the broken windows and overgrown foliage of Sumner Elementary School offer little evidence that it was the impetus for perhaps the most important legal decision in U.S. race history.

The father of Linda Brown sued after she was refused admittance in 1950 to the school only seven blocks from her home. The NAACP eventually took her case to the Supreme Court and the court struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine that had allowed decades of post-slavery segregation.

The school has been vacant since 1996, and is now owned by the city. Local officials have sought a developer to renovate it, but that effort has stalled. The National Trust is hoping the building could be transformed to housing, a community center, or a library.

That small neglected piece of history is dwarfed in size by one of the other places on the list, the California park system, with almost 300 parks, dozens of which have historic designations.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled back this month on a plan to close some of those sites in an effort to solve the state's budget problems. Preservationists welcome the decision, but say the ongoing financial struggles are still dangerous to parklands that have already been starved of about $1 billion in deferred maintenance over the years.

Schwarzenegger's turnabout "is a very hopeful sign, but it's not yet accomplished so we still think these parks are potentially still at risk," Moe said.

The other sites that made the group's 2008 list of endangered places are: Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia, Pa.; Great Falls Portage in Great Falls, Mont.; Hangar One, Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, Calif.; Michigan Avenue Streetwall in Chicago; Peace Bridge neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y.; The Statler Hilton Hotel in Dallas; and the museums and gardens of Vizcaya in Miami and Bonnet House in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private, nonprofit group founded in 1949.