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Another Kind of Urban Mortality


Ruins 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 conveniences.

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 church.

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.

óMiriam Axel-Lute

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