Even as national politics threaten to destroy our rights to self-defense, our earnings -- through taxation and inflation -- our privacy, the last vestiges of so-called “federalism”, and our rights to engage in peaceful private contract with others, local politics continue to fester and do their own nasty work. And they shouldn’t go overlooked. In fact, by lifting the curtain to them, one can offer the rest of the nation – and the world – lessons about freedom.
So let’s focus on Denver, Colorado, where, as Christian Britchsgi reports for Reason, restaurateur Tom Messina has run a popular downtown diner for twenty years. And for many of those years, he’s planned on selling the property as part of his retirement formula…
Messina's plan had always been to finance his retirement by selling his restaurant. That dream looked like it would become a reality earlier this year when Alberta Company offered him $4.8 million for his property, which the Colorado-based developer plans to turn into an 8-story apartment building complete with shops on the ground floor.
But, get this, now that he’s ready to let the sun set on his work and engage in his sale, local busybodies won’t let him.
When Alberta Company applied for what is known as a Certificate of Non-Historic Status, which would allow the building to be demolished and redeveloped, five community members assisted by the local preservationist nonprofit Historic Denver filed an application to designate Messina's restaurant a historic landmark. If granted, this landmark status would prevent the building's redevelopment into apartments, drastically reducing the value of Messina's property.
The irrelevant list of arguments this group offered included the fact that the building was built in that grand year of architectural wonder, 1967, as part of a chain called “White Spot”, and that it’s an example of Googie Architecture in need of preservation. The petitioners also laid their push to have the government threaten Messina on the fact that the site is eligible to be placed on the oh-so-constitutional and not-stuffy-at-all National Register of Historic Places. And they offered the irrelevant factoid that the site is listed in the Historic Denver Guidebook.
All of which are merely attempts to excuse having the government threaten Mr. Messina if he engages in a peaceful transaction of money for his property.
In a July 16 report, city planning staff recommended that Messina's building be given landmark status. The following week, the city's Landmark Preservation Commission, at a public hearing where Messina pleaded with them to leave his property alone, voted unanimously to recommend landmarking the restaurant. The landmark application now goes to the city council, which will make a final determination.
So Messina waits, and wonders, and various people nibble around the edges, offering so-called “compromises” wherein a smaller number of apartments would be “allowed” by the politicians while the restaurant would remain, but Messina notes that this would decrease the value, and harm him financially.
It’s also not up to people who don’t own the property and have never taken any risk to manage and maintain the property to tell Mr. Messina what to peacefully do with it.
This kind of busybodyism is rampant in the US – all over the world, for that matter, as the United Nations “designates” things like Hadrian’s Wall in the UK and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico “World Heritage Sites” and taxpayers are forced to fund the “preservation” of the places.
In New Hampshire, the government a few years ago designated a stone wall as “historic” (what is it about stone walls that gets these coercive folks so animated?), and Bedford, one of the wealthiest towns in the state, applied for state “historic aid” to preserve… a barn.
In reality, the use of the government designation of “historic” and funding for said “historic” sites often is a way to curry favor with local politicians and neighboring landowners who like to use the power of the government to prop up their own property values.
But fundamental ethics and economics inform us that if people want to preserve something they personally like, or want to prop up their own property values by forcing others to either fund a state purchase, or by having the government block the sale of a parcel of land, those people should stop using force, and, instead, show their values by spending their own money and time on buying the property and maintaining it themselves.
What these “historic landmark” designations represent is conceit – the temporal and existential conceit that one’s time on earth is so special, it should be preserved beyond one’s own capacity to do so himself. It is the political manifestation of an almost impossible to avoid tendency among humans to cherish things in one’s own experience, to the exclusion of what comes later.
Just as many of our parents heard our favorite music and cracked, “That’s not ‘real’ music!”, just as many of us look back at certain television shows and the era when they were first broadcast a “golden age”, while younger people sired on the likes of “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” (sans that last, disappointing, season, sorry) look at what we think is good and scoff, we must recognize the subjective nature of what we think is important for preservation.
And we must strive to make sure that we leave room for growth. Growth requires us to recognize that certain things fade away. Others last longer. But the only way we can truly tell if people of new generations value something is if they are willing to use their own money to preserve or utilize it. Hypothetically, we could have so many people intent on preserving “historic places” in the world that no new buildings could ever be constructed.
Heck. I write novels. In order to survive, bookstores can’t keep my physical books on the shelves forever. They keep them up only as long as the participants in the free market show they’re interested in buying them. And if they did keep them on the shelves forever, there’d be no room for new writers with great ideas.
I touch on this very subject in an upcoming novel, with an exchange between two characters in Boston who are talking about the possibility that the government might shell out money to refurbish Fenway Park because it’s an "historic" site.
The more liberty-minded character explains that everything that happens is historic, “Heck, the chewing gum I spit on the sidewalk of Kenmore Square marks a moment in time, but it means nothing to someone else… I love punk rock, and saw lots of history-shaping bands at the club The Rat, but if the owner wanted to sell the place, it’s not ethical for me to get the government to take money from others in order to ‘preserve’ it. If people want it to continue, let them show how they care.”
Which is a message for Denver and all other locales where busybodies want to reflect their preferences by pushing others around.
If history is to be valued, force is not a way to show it.