Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Sanctity of Property

The urbanist Steve Mouzon recently took note of Memphis' effort to save the Tennessee Brewery and in noting, wrote an excellent 2 part (part 1, part 2) how-to guide to preservation, "Ground Rules to Save a Building from Demolition".  There are so many excellent ideas here that I recommend you read them and, if you care about preservation and your built environment, commit them to memory, which should be easy for Memphians because he illustrates them with a campaign vision for the Brewery.

But I must take issue with how he begins his list.  His very first rule.  I don't have a problem with what I consider it's real point -- make nice and be nice with the owners of the threatened property.  But I do have a great beef with its actual title,

Property Rights.

The phrase "property rights" has jumped out of the trollpit of online news comment sections and into the mouths of people trying to court favor, or avoid disfavor, with right-wing property owners (although I suspect those owners' speaking them behind closed doors are the medium between the trolls and the advocates).  And it's bullshit.

Making urbanists and preservationists accept "property rights" as a ground rule for their work is as bogus as telling equality activists they must accept the "sanctity of marriage" and pro-choice activists the "holiness of life" before they can begin their work  The problem is not that we don't.  The problem is these ground rules require an oath of loyalty because the opposition says we're disloyal, without requiring the opposition to do the same. And the opposition is no more loyal to an absolute concept of "property rights" than those fighting for the "sanctity of marriage" or "life" are to theirs.

Right-wing property owners will fight a stinky chicken farm opening next to their new clearcut residential development, or a Son of Bottoms Up Strip Club opening across from their new family-oriented strip mall, no less passionately than urbanists and preservationists will against development actions that destroy the built city's quality and value.  None of these fights are confiscatory and all are legal.

We should neither apologize for nor waive our right to legally fight a property owners' anti-social designs with their property.

Because sometimes we have to fight.  We should fight.

Which is why I have a real problem with what comes right after the Property Rights title:
"Don't waste your time on a 1960s-era cause… you know, petitions, standing in front of the bulldozers, and stuff like that. Those tactics might have once worked (and in a very few places) but if you want to make stuff work today, you need to realize that you don't own the property… and someone else does.
(What?  We don't realize that someone else owns the property? And can we drop the "1960's" as a dog-whistle call for "hippie")

Fighting goes a long way in advocacy circles, and a short way in long-term success.  But that short way can save stuff in the meantime, giving preservation advocates cover to find owners and developers who see what we see.  As a primary strategy it's not going to save our city, and we'll exhaust followers with crisis after crisis, but it is a tactical tool that we must keep in the bag because sometimes the owners, no matter how nice and ready for business we are,  don't want to be our friend and don't give a shit.

And these tactics have worked today with huge success in Overton Square, the University District and the Nineteenth Century Club (not to mention the greatest fight of them all -- to keep Interstate 40 from mowing down Overton Park).  We can't depend on it -- we must still find owners who care -- but these tactics are still part of urban triage.

So we should make no apologies for our passion.  Let's keep it sharp,  use it judiciously, and follow Mr. Mouzon's wise advice.