Sometimes, a new coat of paint isn't enough
If you can't paint your house a perfectly sensible color, what else can't you do?
One aspect of living in the "New World" that remains easy to underappreciate is just how lightly we are attached to the past. We certainly have landmark structures that are protected from any kind of change -- nobody would dare think of tearing down the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance -- but by and large, Americans are comfortable with tearing down the old and replacing with the new.
■ Perhaps that makes us unsentimental. Perhaps that means we're so commercial in mindset that we would sell our memories to make a buck. Perhaps we just don't build things to last forever.
■ Evidence can be found for each of those arguments: Even our most sentimental national pastime, baseball, takes place almost entirely in post-war parks, and the majority wouldn't be old enough to legally drink a beer. Once-legendary places like Tribune Tower are gutted and converted to condominiums nearly as casually as one might replace the tires on a car. And some buildings are set for demolition just a decade after "complete" renovations.
■ But this lack of attachment keeps a lot of things fresh in America's urban and suburban life. Perhaps even restless. And when faced with the alternative, it might not look bad at all. See, for instance, the case of the British homeowner who painted his house a subdued lilac color -- only to find out he was in violation of strict rules on maintaining the "traditional" look of the building. The "tradition" in question dated merely to 1902. But it is apparently considered significant enough that the local government authorities exercised the power to intervene -- just as they can across a giant swath of the community.
■ A sufficient appreciation for private property rights requires that planning and zoning ought to take a light touch. Traditions have a place, to be sure, but so does dynamism -- and anchoring the choices of the present to what well may have been the deeply arbitrary choices of the past can be a dangerous game to play. As the urbanist commentator Nolan Gray noted, "The most beloved neighborhood in your city is secretly a bunch of kit-built houses, mailed out by the 1920s version of Amazon, constructed by amateurs using cheap materials." (But really: Sears sold houses as kits, and what was intended to provide shelter on the cheap back then makes for a peculiar subject of "preservation" efforts today.)
■ Communities have the right to set reasonable standards and to keep neighbors from imposing irresponsibly on others -- you aren't allowed to dispose of radioactive waste in your front yard, of course. But it's daffy to become so attached to the past that "tradition" mandates the prohibition of a fresh coat of a gentle hue of paint on an otherwise ordinary house in a largely unremarkable area. It's not overturning the Magna Carta.