Kind of Urban Mortality
are beautiful. Moss growing in hieroglyphs across old stone.
The mirage of the rest of a fallen archway soaring in the
mindís eye into the air with full sunlight streaming through
it. The quiet. They feel so very much older than other old
places because the passage of time is completely visible.
It hasnít been plastered over, frozen or hidden behind modern
Ruins are beautiful in that way that a good war movie or a
breathtakingly sad poem is beautiful. They give us a little
gut glimpse into things bigger than ourselves, help us feel
just how small our lives are in the grand scheme, bring the
big picture into focus for a few minutes.
There arenít a lot of ruins in this country. Mostly thatís
because, with a few exceptions, people havenít been building
with materials that last hundreds or thousands of years for
all that long here.
I also have to wonder, though, how much of our cultureís obsession
with growth and newness has to do with it.
At some point you have to choose to have a ruin. You donít
generally stumble one day upon a picturesque, clearly ancient
ruin that everyone would agree is something to preserve. Along
the way, it spent a long time as a decrepit and merely kind-of-old
building, perpetually susceptible to demolition, vandalism,
or even restoration.
Gary, Ind., has got its share of grand vacant buildings. Itís
one of those cities that has been struggling to stay above
water since deindustrialization. There just isnít the cash
flowing in to take care of all the landmarks that went up
in the days of steel.
Rather than just throw in the towel, the cityís community
development department has recently proposed something radical
for one of these buildings, a long-empty, gothic-style Methodist
They want to make it an ďurban ruin garden.Ē
The idea is to reinforce the faÁade and the sanctuary for
safety, demolish the rest, and landscape the lot. It wouldnít
be free, but it would be a hell of a lot cheaper than restoration
would be, and it would allow Garyís residentsóand the rest
of usóa chance to keep appreciating the gorgeous architecture
for a long time to come.
Itís a brilliant idea.
And a very uncomfortable one. Itís a lot like admitting failure.
It is, to some extent, admitting failure. Historic
buildings should pretty much always be restored and reused
if possible. They are valuable and irreplaceable. In most
cases, the state of our environment and our economy mean that
we could never rebuild anything nearly as sturdy, let alone
as grand. Adaptive reuse maintains a strong built environment,
a unique sense of place, and a connection with the past. Going
about your daily business and crossing a sill worn smooth
by hundreds of years of people stepping through it is a more
subtle and more hopeful experience than contemplating a ruin,
but itís of the same type.
And yet, the reality is there are limited resources available
to do this work. Nearly every city has buildings of great
value that have decayed so far that some dutiful (or in some
cases, overeager) codes inspector has ordered them taken down.
Maybe a few of those (clearly only stone or brick ones) would
have been better off as ruins: partially demolished, shored
up for safety and left with their stories exposed to the passersby.
I think I would spend a lot of time there if I had one around.
Maybe learning to admit failure could be freeing, could even
make us more successful going forward.
The Shrinking Cities movement thinks so. In a way. Itís not
so much about admitting failure exactly, but about redefining
population decline to not necessarily be a failure. Cities
that adopt this outlook, which started in East Germany after
the fall of the Berlin Wall, are focusing their efforts on
renewing small vibrant urban centers and central neighborhoods,
while actually returning some of their most abandoned areas
to parkland. They are shrinking back oversized infrastructure,
like water systems, to match their new populations, and converting
multiunit buildings to single or two-family houses.
For places like Youngstown, Ohio, or Detroit, this attitude
may be lifesaving. Weíre not that hard-up (yet) in most of
the Capital Region, but some of our neighbors in the western
part of the state are. And a clear-eyed appraisal of the facts
is something every city can learn from.
Again, itís an uncomfortable idea. Growth is so thoroughly
equated with success itís hard to shake the idea loose from
our reptile brains sometimes. I believe strongly in the urban
renaissance, in smart growth, in the complete unsustainability
of suburbia. I feel the same way about a partially empty city
as a preservationist feels about an abandoned church. I donít
want to let it go.
Itís not really letting them go, of course. Unlike a particular
building, cities regenerate themselves over and over, shifting
their patterns constantly. Something thoughtful like the Shrinking
Cities model beats default inward-creeping suburbanization
on every measureófiscal, practical, preservationist.
Perhaps someday, postĖpeak oil, I will take a walk through
a greenbelt surrounding a sustainable, dense, bustling city
and spend some meditative moments with the local highway ruins.
It would make me feel old and small, but in a good way.