I can’t count the things I love about Ohio, or this corner of Ohio: it is literally a part of me. I revisit memories by going to the places at which they occurred; when those places are no longer there, I turn away, anger and sorrow admixed. The McDonald’s at Wallhaven in Akron was an exciting place to a small girl—there was something about the glad futurism of its soaring yellow arches, and the taste of those French fries, that was unspeakably exciting. They tore it down several years ago (its look of naïve hope not up to the stresses of twenty-first-century commerce) and its replacement looks aggressively vulgar to me. But the early sixties original must have assaulted the sensibilities and memories of some older Akronite. I wonder what had been on that spot that he missed? And so it goes. The history of us is not only what we leave behind in the hopes that it be appreciated, understood, preserved. The history of us is equally what we have the will to destroy. We seesaw back and forth between these opposing points, in an effort to go forward from the ground on which we stand. It is the manner in which we destroy, and for what reasons, that is the issue that affects us, civically, aesthetically, and finally emotionally.
Dear to me, too, is the great river that cut its valley through what appears to be the center of my being. The preservation of the valley is one of the rare triumphs of a higher impulse battling the unheeding pressures of greed—and it was a pitched fight, not to be won without the valiant perseverance and apolitical stance of perhaps one of the last congressmen to maintain a residence outside of someone’s pocket. The victory gave the river the chance to prove itself an analogue to the movement of human history itself: falling down, getting back up, coming close to being a goner, but rising again when given the chance. Finally standing not untouched by what it has been through, but bearing the marks so we can see them, and see preserved that accumulation of history (geologic, aboriginal, commercial, illustrative of the ongoing mutations of our desires) all simultaneously present.
It was in 1969 that an oil slick caused the river itself to burn, giving the world a parable, richly ironic, that sounded last call at the bar at which we’d apparently stayed too late. It gave the band R.E.M. a metaphor for all the losses we can visit on ourselves, and the predecessors we’d rudely elbowed out of the way on our headlong rush to a future we hadn’t thought through very well:
Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like
Let's try to fill it in, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red
This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir
Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir
Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you
And although the river is and forever will be buried to those prehistoric peoples (who by the way were not aware they did not have a “history”) we in turn buried, it is by grace of preservationists not now buried--but easily might have been--to those of us of European descent who “borrowed” it from them. And we all only ever borrow: that is perhaps the single greatest lesson of preservation.
For we make terrible mistakes when we build unthinkingly, especially when money rather than dreams of civic virtue call the shots. It is now, it was so when the great lanes of the Montrose shopping metropolis were being laid over the farms, and it was so in the great age of industrialization written of by Booth Tarkington in his 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons:
A new spirit of citizenship had already sharply defined itself. It was idealistic, and its ideals were expressed in the new kind of young men in business downtown. They were optimists--optimists to the point of belligerence--their motto being “Boost! Don’t Knock!” And they were hustlers, believing in hustling and in honesty because both paid. They loved their city and worked for it with a plutonic energy which was always ardently vocal. They were viciously governed, but they sometimes went so far to struggle for better government on account of the helpful effect of good government on the price of real estate and “betterment” generally; the politicians could not go too far with them, and knew it. The idealists planned and strove and shouted that their city should become a better, better, and better city and what they meant, when they used the word “better,” was “more prosperous,” and the core of their idealism was this: “The more prosperous my beloved city, the more prosperous beloved I!” They had one supreme theory: that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.
The novel, of course, captures one particular moment between hands in the continual shuffle of cards that define the end of one era and the beginning of another; indeed, there would be no such thing that we could define as “era” without replacement, though “progression” is a kinder model. In progression, there is a building upon and respect paid to precedent; there is no wholesale slaughter as there is with when corporations become people, or at least kings. When progress serves only these entities, rather than people, there is no respect for remnants of the commoners’ past. In Tarkington’s representation, Eugene Morgan, an inventor tinkering with the newfangled horseless carriage (and the ironic thrust of the book, written only some twenty years after its advent, is that its readers were well aware of the permanent changes wrought by the invention), says, “There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”
The truth of this is self-evident. Yet the truth of the rightness of saving the documents of “the old times” also feels self-evident. A friend who lives in a 1937 apartment building in New York’s Westchester County reported that when they lost, to disease, a magnificent copper beech that had stood since before the Civil War, they held a wassailing memorial on the site at which residents gathered to sing “Auld Lang Syne”; several wept. The physical remnants of the past which have been there longer than us seem to offer a sort of immortality; when they die, whether of natural causes or unnatural bulldozers, they imply that we, too, might be buried without memorial, unimportant and forgettable.
The impulse to preserve is thus, at base, emotional. Not in a childish or unconsidered way, but in a true and high sense. To live is to feel. To feel is to desire justice. We impoverish ourselves when we destroy the traces of our footsteps on the way to these “new times.”
As long as a coat still has enough threads left to show what it was, it’s still a coat (in my book: I have been known to wear shabby clothes from the thrift store, and for the sense that there were other lives than mine also lived in them, they are my favorites). Progress requires loss; life demands it, too. When we speak of what we should save, even remembering in anger what we have lost, we should first speak not a lament for what is gone; but rather, a hosanna for what is still here.