What Does it Mean to Preserve the RKO Keith’s Theater?

Nowadays most people pass this long-shuttered building at the northern end of Main Street without even noticing it. Yet the name RKO Keith’s still never fails to evoke bright-eyed memories from all those who lived here during its heyday. You can glance through the records of the place and see the kind of famous events and people that you never imagine would have visited our neighborhood. More than any other landmark, the RKO Keith’s stood for the Flushing that existed before this current one.

But the building’s recent history has been pretty absurd. The 85-year-old theater was designated as a protected city landmark all the way back in 1983, but it closed three years later and was sold to notorious developer Tommy Huang, who planned to make it into a major shopping center. In 1997, Huang was arrested and later plead guilty to illegally gutting the landmarked lobby and dumping thousands of gallons of oil into the basement. The building has changed hands many times since, but it still sits there, hulking and run-down in the heart of downtown.

Recently the site was sold again, for $30 million to Jerry Karlik’s JK Equities, who will try to renovate the lobby and then build a 17-story mixed-use apartment tower over it. The vocal neighborhood activists we have here in Flushing are skeptical about execution, as always, but it seems that most of them are on board with the plan. The site has certainly been an eyesore in an important part of town for a very long time. If it gets built, at the very least it’ll clean up the place some. And as for the preservation of the lobby, I guess the striking Moorish grandeur of yesteryear might stir up some wistful kind of happiness.

But it’s funny to think about what is being preserved here. There’s a difference between the function of a building and the form, right? If we preserve the function of certain structures – if there are analogues for those that exist today, even if they look and feel differently – then why is it essential that the physical buildings themselves be preserved? Maybe it’s because I was born in a country where buildings have been built and razed and rebuilt for thousands of years, but function seems a little more important than form.

In New York, a much less ancient place, we have historic preservation of structures that seem to fulfill no functions whatsoever. Or the physical forms are preserved and adapted to some wholly unrelated use. The factories and manufacturing plants of industry, which stood for economic empowerment and mobility, are now loft apartments. The tenements for poor immigrants are now really expensive tenements for young professionals. However, the previous functions that were so necessary and very much worth preserving – working-class job centers and housing – are nowhere to be found in the urban core.

RKO Keith’s used to be a cultural center of Flushing. Today, there are no such central places. If you want to preserve what made RKO Keith as important and as beloved as it was, then maybe you should think about its function rather than its physical appearance.

After all, it’s strange that nowadays we associate the interests of humble communities with preserving the traditional, built character of a neighborhood. People are adaptable, and poor people are better at it than most. This is especially apparent in Flushing, where different waves of residents take turns weathering great upheaval and undergoing dramatic cultural changes all within a few generations. But the insistence on the continual value of certain urban forms – even when their functions and the people who use them have irrevocably changed – well, I guess that’s one way to divert the conversation.