Tuesday, July 30, 2013


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

(chorus 1)
This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Cuyahoga, gone

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.




Shybiker said...

God, I love your writing. Not only is the prose so lucid and beautiful, you address subjects of great interest to me.

Perhaps because I'm sensitive and old, I share your poignant love of old places and things. My Ohio is New York but the principle is the same.

Keep preachin', sister.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you so much for the close read. I am happy to know this hit home (as it were). There's a danger to being "old" but maybe one can guard against unwarranted nostalgia in way one can't against creaky bones. But warranted nostalgia . . . now, there's something to voice. It's your past, your place, and its loss is real and really hurts. Don't get me started on New York! That, too, recedes for me. Though it still lives for the young. They'll get where we are someday too.

SalParadise said...

I have done plenty of new ones over the years, but now almost all my work as an architect is preservation of old historic buildings. Its good work. Really its a tonic for the soul. I walk through and see the building getting such skilled care from craftspeople,the rot cut out and carried away and the good bones are still there and then a whole new future is in front of it once again.
But that isn't stopping the developers leveling forests and precious old farmland and making it into housing tracts. What will ever stop that?

I just returned from a vacation in Newport where I took a tour of the historic colonial era buildings. Amazing to see these houses over 300 years old , former homes of sea captains still in use. Beautiful tiny streets, saving land. And the residents proud of the city, even if everyone knows its a tourist trap. Coming back on 95 through Bridgeport, was like driving though a hellscape of flyover bridges and abandoned industrial sites. Makes you wonder how people are capable of both. At some point, don't the people who live in those disasters have a say? Who could ever want THAT?

I think I know where you and I are on all this, but its a savage world out there, a desperate and sick society and humanity is far from choosing to do the right thing, but the hopeful thing is, people certainly are capable of doing it. We can see that.

I really like the last two sentences of your essay. They ring true and hopeful. Fight the good fight Melissa, because I think in this battle the pen is mightier than the T square

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Sal, I appreciate hearing your perspective: the boots-on-the-ground side of the story.

As an architect, maybe you can help me locate the moment where suddenly we just didn't give a s**t anymore: when buildings were no longer built to last, or to embody a message of striving and communal uplift, but to be slapped up as quickly as possible and the notion of lasting was the last thing on anyone's mind.

The fifties?

The detail and the handiwork in any building from the 19th and early 20th century is a thing to behold. The schools, the municipal buildings, the early skyscrapers, the mansions, even the department stores--you just want to stand there and *worship* them.

On the other hand, as you point out, the work of recent developers (including the era when schools started to look like meat-processing plants--a telling aspect) makes you want to flee, or avert your gaze.

Interesting. This sort of stuff--and it's always the work of developers, i.e., a corporate body, not an individual--makes us personally *angry*. Just as being in the presence of beauty built to last makes us *joyful*.

I come to the conclusion that they don't care. Emotion, thought, pride--you can't fix a dollar amount to these. Ergo, in the world of today, they are worthless.

SalParadise said...

You have Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and the Chicago school..a beautiful organic modern American Architecture...but then WW2 ushers in the " International Style" , as in Mies Van Der Rohe and kills it. Levitt Town and the interstate highway system under Eisenhower are the coffin. Frank Lloyd wright dies in 1959 and that's the last gasp.

And its not that we don't have the good architects to do good buildings.We do. But we don't have the good clients. There is not much clientele for that great architecture, and a huge clientele for particle board and vinyl siding at Home Depot. That's why writers like you are more important to the issue than architects like me

Lachesha said...

You are truly gifted. Thank you for sharing.

Brad Kuhn said...

Another good one. Your writing style suits me perfectly, and I identify with your subject matter.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Sal, your point is well taken: the problem is the clients. The Greed Is Good era sure changed things, didn't it? I remember as a teen having a conversation with my best friend, whose father owned a local chain of grocery stores. They were, frankly, eyesores. Godawful design of the cheapest sort. I asked if her father didn't believe he owed anything to the communities in which his stores were built; a giveback to the eyes and minds of those who would have to gaze on these structures for a long time. "Of course not!" she replied, aghast. "His only responsibility is to make profits for the family. Why should he waste *his* money on nicer buildings?"

All of built lower Manhattan and much of Chicago took some profits out of the pockets of industrialists, but left behind enduring monuments. It seems impossible that anyone could see that as less than a brilliant investment.

Unknown said...

You must have heard of and/or read "the Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner by now, right? Truly the perfect fiction companion to your "The Perfect Vehicle," I believe, though I only began reading it an hour ago.

Shybiker said...

Oh my God, Melissa. I just heard about John Ryan's death yesterday. How tragic.

I feel sorry for you. I know you were friends with John (as well as writing about him in your last book). My sympathy to you and all of his friends. What a sad loss.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you. "My god"--I can only hope. I just posted some too-tired, too-much-wine, I-am-hurting words about this terrible turn of events. I knew it was too soon. But it is also too late.

-blessed b9, Catalyst4Christ said...

Preserve thy purity, dear!