One of the odder things about me is that I’m almost an animist when it comes to houses. It’s not that I actually believe they are alive, but I think things like: every house deserves to have someone who loves it. They can’t maintain themselves, after all, and if they’re doing their best to be good houses, surely we owe it to them to care for them. I am horrified by abandoned houses, and have been known to keep track of them, hoping that if I wait long enough, or drive by often enough, I will find that someone has begun rehab. I have special favorite abandoned houses, for which I hope especially hard. I have to actually talk myself out of buying some of them (they sell for next to nothing), just to fix them up — not as an investment, and not to live in, but because someone ought to.
It’s odd, I know. And I have no idea where it came from. Home repair did not figure in my childhood: I imagine someone must have done work on my parents’ house at some point, but I have no memory of it. As far as I can recall, it might as well have been done by elves. And yet, for some reason, here I am.
So I found two stories by Jim at Sweet Juniper almost unbearably tragic. I’d never read Sweet Juniper before; I found it via Bitch Ph.D., who linked to this post about the Detroit bailout. It was so thoughtful and so beautifully written that I read some more posts, which is how I hit on these two, about an abandoned school in Detroit. Here’s the school:
Isn’t that a wonderful school? Look how solid and well-constructed it is. Look at its nice architectural details, and its great big windows. Look how, well, schooly it is. Doesn’t it look as though someone ought to have taken care of it? Doesn’t it look as though it was holding up its end of the bargain, doing its very best to be a really great school?
It’s worth clicking through to see all of Jim’s photos showing how we held up our end. It’s hard to pick just one, but here’s the school’s auditorium:
“The story I discovered here no longer belongs to the kids, but to those men with minds bent only towards metal. They came in and took everything of worth. They left textbooks, workbooks, chalkboards, maps. Long gone are the lockers, the pipes, the chairs and desks, the electrical wiring, the pencil sharpeners, the metal bookshelves, the aluminum window panes. Perhaps the most shocking of all was finding the once-lovely central auditorium stripped of its antique seating, the chair bases and backs littering the floor like dragon scales, the metal that held the seats together long ago melted down to feed the world’s ravenous appetite for steel. It was impossible for me to cross this room without the clatter echoing through the halls like footsteps of an invading army, even though I was quite alone. (…)
Where I live, men like these are a force of nature, like piranhas in the Amazon; like locusts on the plains; like vultures circling above you as you try to make your way across the sands.”
It’s also worth clicking through to this post to see the neighborhood surrounding this school. Jim has posted an aerial view of it from 1961, showing a normal neighborhood full of houses, and a current satellite photo showing the school surrounded by fields for blocks and blocks.
In Boston, where I grew up, there are neighborhoods where a lot of the houses have come down. But it’s rare to find whole vacant blocks. The houses in these neighborhoods are more like teeth that have lost their neighbors: two or three lonely houses poking up where a whole row ought to be. Not whole neighborhoods reverting to prairie.
This is desolation.