The high cost of new construction

On certain crisp winter mornings, I can still feel the crunch of the snow as I walk from the warmth of Wednesday morning Mass to the warmth of the brick-walled school, the only light the final moonbeams in the air. On certain crisp winter mornings, the radiators burr and hiss as we re-enter the school and set aside snow-laden gloves, hats, coats, and return to our rooms.

In my mind’s eye, I walk through its halls — how many days I spent inside those pine-paneled walls, that stately school that saw students for over a hundred years, that survived a fire to its top floor, that saw the change from old Alpena to new, from horse to car, wood to brick, logging to cement.

On a hot July afternoon, I watched those walls come down, in less than a day to become a pile of bricks, soon to be carried away or taken by those hoping to keep a relic of St. Anne’s School.

The old junior high, the old railroad depot, the Carter home, the Culligan Block, the Masonic block — St. Anne’s school isn’t the only building that has faced the wrecking ball, to become land to be rebuilt upon, sold, or paved over, the cost of new construction less than repairing and preserving the old.

What is the true cost of this new construction? When an old building is torn down, what do we lose? No longer part of our city’s visual fabric, no longer a physical marker of memory, of history, of place. If memories are grounded by place, what happens when those places are gone?

Joseph Mitchell, the journalist for the New Yorker who chronicled the city and its swath of characters throughout the 1940s and 50’s, was known to spend his days walking the city, getting to know every side street, character, and building.

“Ever since I came here, I have been fascinated by the ornamentation of the older buildings of the city,” writes Mitchell in a posthumously-published article. “Sometimes it is almost hidden under layers of paint that took generations to accumulate and sometimes it is all beaten and banged and mutilated, but there it is. There are some remarkably silly-looking things among these ornaments, but they are silly-looking things that have lasted for a hundred years or more in the dirtiest and most corrosive air in the world, the equivalent of a thousand years in an olive grove in Greece, and there is something triumphant about them–they have triumphed over time and ice and frost and heat and humidity and wind and rain and brutally abrupt temperature fluctuations and rust and pigeon droppings and smoke and soot and sulfuric acid, not to speak of the perpetual nail-loosening and timber-weakening and stone-cracking and mortar-crumbling vibration from the traffic down below. Furthermore, they have triumphed over profound changes in architectural styles.”

Buildings that have lasted generations, that have lasted a hundred years or more. Withstanding heat and freeze and thaw, withstanding industry and dirt and smog, withstanding architectural fads and facades. But there they are. How many eyes have looked up at those fronts, how many lives have walked in and out? How many first jobs and first dates and good days and bad days and average days have taken place in these historic buildings?

When these buildings are gone, what do we lose?

“Culture” can be defined by what beliefs, practices, values, and collective memories a group of people share. How strongly our memories, as individuals and as a community, are tied to place — and how strongly the memory of a community is physically shown in its historic places. Under layers of paint, banged, mutilated, changed — but there. Each layer speaks of the changes the community has faced.

Mitchell closes his passage on the city’s old buildings: “I revere them. To me, they are sacred objects.”

Sacred objects, worthy of reverence and respect and preservation, sacred because of the history that they show and the memories that they ground. If we do not revere them, what does that say about who we are? If we do not preserve them, treasuring them as sacred objects, what does that say about who we will become?

Anne Gentry graduated from Brown University with a degree in comparative literature and has studied in Italy and South Australia. She is currently executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority.