Preserving the Past and Destroying the Future

The very nature of the Houston preservation ordinance stifles innovation, progress, and a better future. In essence, the preservation ordinance states that the architectural styles and land uses established a hundred years ago are good enough, and nobody should be legally allowed to improve upon them.

Imagine where Houston might be today if that attitude had been applied to Patillo Higgins. In the late nineteenth century, Higgins (a self-taught geologist) believed that oil existed in a salt dome near Beaumont, Texas. Both the public and geological experts thought that Higgins was crazy. But Higgins was free to prove his idea, and when Spindletop erupted, he started the Texas oil industry.

Like all innovators, Higgins challenged the past. He did not seek anyone’s permission to pursue a truth that they could not yet see. All he needed was the freedom to act on his own judgment and show that a better future was possible.

But what if the geologists of the time had lobbied the state legislature to stop Higgins? What if they had sought to “preserve the state’s heritage”? At the time, Texas was primarily a rural, agrarian state, and the biggest industry in East Texas was lumber. If geologists (or anyone) had been successful in stopping Higgins, both Houston and Texas would be very different today.

Had preservationists successfully stopped Higgins, they would have stopped progress and destroyed both the city’s and the state’s futures. This is precisely what preservationists are doing today.

It is impossible to predict the exact consequences of preservation. But we have already seen inflated real estate prices in the historic districts, and the economic impact will only grow as preservationists seek more extensive and onerous regulations. However, the most significant impact will not be economic. It will be social and political.

The preservation movement has demonstrated that a group of noisy activists can impose their values upon an entire neighborhood. Other groups will take note of this and seek to impose their values upon Houstonians. Indeed, we have already seen attempts to do this. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance is one example. The result will be a steady parade of activists marching to City Hall to demand more controls and regulations on individuals and businesses. And the result of that will be a growing level of divisiveness and acrimony as some groups seek to impose their values and others resist such impositions.

This is the future that awaits Houston because the city has rejected its true heritage in an ill-conceived effort to preserve the past.

You can learn more about Patillo Higgins and the nature of innovation in my book. The Innovator Versus the Collective. You can download Chapter 1 for free by clicking here.

Comments are closed.