Monday, August 11, 2008

Preserving our Heritage

Preservationists argue that we must save our heritage. But they fail to define what they mean by heritage. Consider this statement from the web site of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance:

Historic preservation is not about isolating the past in a time capsule. It is about managing change; integrating the old and new in ways that improve the quality of life in our community; and maintaining our individuality. Greater Houston Preservation Alliance remains committed to this vision. From Houston's founding by the Allen Brothers in 1836, Houstonians have a sense of pride in our unique history. By preserving our history, we maintain our city's individuality and attract more visitors in the process.
I agree that it’s good to manage change—we shouldn’t just start changing things willy-nilly. Change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing. A drug addict should change his behavior; a successful businessman probably shouldn’t. In either case, the change should be planned and directed toward an explicit goal.

But this ignores the question of who should choose and direct that change. In the context of the GHPA, we are talking about property—buildings of some historic significance. Even the term “historic significance” raises questions: Historic by whose standards? Historic in what context? Who should make that decision? How should that decision be enacted?

My first apartment in Houston is historic to me. The same is true of many other places around the city—my first Mexican restaurant, the Astrodome, Gabby’s BBQ. Does this give me a voice in the use of those properties? One of my first published articles was about the downtown tunnel system, so that certainly is historic to me. Do I have a voice in how the tunnel system is developed and changed?

I love old buildings. I’ve toured the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York, the underground city of Seattle, and Galveston’s many mansions. I’ve toured castles in England and old barns in Kansas. I find them fascinating and a great way to learn about history. I would be sad if they were torn down. But I don’t own them, and I have no voice in how the owner chooses to use his property. If I think I do, then I grant him the mutual right to have a voice in how I use my property. If I claim that I can violate his rights, then I cannot complain when he, or someone else, makes a similar claim against me.

More interesting is the use of the word “individuality”. The paragraph quoted above uses the word twice. The first time the meaning is ambiguous; the second time it is not. The second time the use is: “maintain our city’s individuality”.

The root of individuality is individual—a singular, particular person. Each individual has characteristics—both physical and intellectual— that are unique to him. Those characteristics are what define him as a unique human being.

A city consists of many individuals, each with their own characteristics and values. It consists of many areas, each with its own characteristics and values. Is Houston’s “individuality” the Montrose, River Oaks, the Galleria, the Heights, downtown, Memorial Park, NASA, or the Medical Center? Which defines Houston?

The truth is, each of these areas represent much different characteristics and values. Each has an “individual” character, but even within those areas there are many differences.

To apply the concept of individuality to a city is to obliterate these differences. And this is precisely what the GHPA wishes to do. They seek to destroy the difference between individuals and the community. They treat all individuals as part of a giant organism called society.

The organic theory of society is not new. Many have advanced the idea that each individual is simply a cell in the organism of society. Each cell must do its part to contribute to the whole, and those that don’t are expendable. This is nothing more than a crude form of collectivism.

Collectivism holds that the group is the standard of value, that the individual only matters to the extent that he contributes to the group. When an individual does not contribute to the group, he can be removed, much like a cancerous growth is removed.

But the real cancer is collectivism, and the morality that underlies it—altruism. Altruism literally means “otherism”—the welfare of others supersedes one’s own welfare. Which means, self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. Altruism is the morality that underlies the GHPA. They want us to preserve our history at the expense of the individuals who actually make history. They want us to preserve Sam Houston’s home, while destroying the principles for which he fought.:

The more neighborhoods that seek designation [Historic District Designation], the louder the message to City Hall that citizens want to protect the visual character of the places they live. This will help us to get more neighborhood-friendly building codes and ultimately to strengthen the preservation ordinance for the benefit of all Houstonians.

In other words, if enough Houstonians make enough noise, GHPA can get laws enacted that will control the use of properties deemed historic. And these laws can impact a property owner without his consent. This, they would have us believe, is beneficial to all Houstonians.

I agree that we must preserve our heritage. But I disagree that our heritage consists of log cabins, Victorian homes, or quirky things like the beer can house (which is one of those things that would be prevented with strict land use and/ preservation regulations). Our heritage, as Americans and particularly as Houstonians, is that of individual freedom—the right to pursue our values without interference from others, so long as we respect their mutual rights. If Houston has “individuality”, it is because it respects individualism—the rights of individuals.

This is what the GHPA seeks to destroy. They seek to preserve buildings at the expense of freedom. They seek to impose their values upon others by using government coercion. In the end, what they really advocate is not preservation, but to take us back in time, back to the days when America was ruled by a tyrannical king. And they want to be the modern king.

© J. Brian Phillips 2008

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