I’ve written before about ruins in Detroit as that city confronts the challenges of urban abandonment. Today I want to revisit ruins, and once again I’ll try to restrain myself from talking too much about Ruskin, the picturesque, and the patina of decay. Because how we deal with ruins in our communities is a very practical question, as the city of Detroit shows. When do you choose abandonment over rehabilitation? What does it say about your sense of past, and future, when you choose to revere or ignore ruined buildings? What stories do you tell when historic buildings are maintained, and what do you tell when they break down? And finally, how do you build a new society, or continue to develop an existing one, in the context of previous narratives of abandonment and decay?
I first started thinking about ruins when I visited my friend Alex in St. Louis last month. She was interning for Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, a redevelopment organization that uses preservation and community history as the foundation of its community-building efforts. She will be with me in future posts to tell you more about ONSLRG and St. Louis, so I’m going to stick to the topic at hand. Here are some pictures of the Old North neighborhood of St. Louis to get you in the mood:
Empty lots, bombed-out buildings, crumbling bricks…doesn’t it seem like this neighborhood is completely abandoned? Maybe St. Louis needs to be right-sized through a sort of benevolent urban renewal of sustainability and urban shrinkage. What would be so bad about simply letting the neighborhood go back to nature and become, say, a national park, like Boston’s formerly industrial harbor islands? People have abandoned communities as long as people have had communities, whether because of natural or man-made disaster. What’s so wrong with giving up?
But check it out again.
Look at all that incredible architecture, the lovingly restored homes and storefronts. And aren’t the meadows beautiful, a breath of fresh air in a city? And how about the fact that empty lots make for lush, incredible urban gardens that build community and improve the health and the environment of the community. And Urban Studio Cafe, a gooey-butter cake oasis that was named a “best practice” by Partners for Livable Communities? All of these assets, some of them a direct result of the legacy of abandonment in Old North, create a neighborhood full of potential. Maybe they can find creative ways to live with their ruins and abandoned spaces, to let them tell a story about the dark times in our nation?
One place I visited recently that seemed to use this tactic — though perhaps as a matter of necessity on a small jungle island with few resources and fewer massive bulldozers — is St. John’s Virgin Islands National Park. Most of the island of St. John is a US National Park, and that makes it an incredible place to explore. Like the rest of the Caribbean islands, St. John was originally a slave and sugaring colony, first owned by the Danes and now a US territory (if you understand how that works please share…all I know is that they don’t get Federal safety net funds and they don’t pay taxes, but they got ARRA stimulus money and send a non-voting member to Congress). There is still a rum distillery on St. Croix, one of the other 3 USVIs. Anyhow, my point is that on St. John are massive ruins of old sugaring plantations. There were once 15 on the island, but when the slaves were freed the operations stopped (I guess the white people realized that working tirelessly in jungle heat and mosquitoes while massive vats of molasses bubbled all over you was HARD) the plantations were promptly abandoned. They weren’t rebuilt and turned into museums or adaptive reuse projects (or modern-day farms and romantic estates like old cotton plantations in the south), and they weren’t bulldozed for housing or sprawl, because they’re in the middle of a national park and — a jungle. So we visit them now in their state of decay, with simple diagrams to show us what we’re standing in. But rather than ancient history (which I’ll come to in a minute), we’re standing in ruins only centuries old, ruins directly related to structures of power and wealth that exist today. It’s an incredible reality check in the middle of what is mostly designed to now be a tourist paradise (side note: when did we decide that the tropics were paradise? Didn’t they kill unsuspecting travelers with dehydration, disease, etc. only years ago?) Check these ruins out.
Ok so finally, I can’t talk about ruins without talking about Rome. Here’s a shot of the Basilicas Amelia and Julia, in the Roman forum, to get you in the mood.
So, Rome’s circumstances vis-a-vi ruins might be a bit, ahem, extreme, but I think they still bear thinking about. Because the city has been continuously inhabited for so long, and because history — and a very long view of it — have always been at least a part of their culture, Rome has been living with its ruins for centuries. This great article in the NYTimes talks about how Rome has effectively been ignoring preservation of important historical sites in the city center in order to build great new architectural masterpieces in the suburbs. So this is more than a story about ruins and historic preservation and the value of heritage and tourism and Rome-as-Disneyland and all the rest. It’s a desperate account of how preservation and heritage MUST be engaged in order to maintain the city center as a viable place to live, work, play, and yes, visit. Just like in St. Louis, the question is not “Do we maintain our historic buildings?”, it’s “how can we preserve our way of life and the city we love?”