Remember the time, not the building

First, kudos to Anne Gentry for a wonderfully thoughtful piece on the loss attendant in new construction (I’m a sucker for anyone quoting Joseph Mitchell. Or Jane Jacobs).

Second, I don’t know that there is an answer to the dilemma of a disappearing past. On the one hand, we see our past in old buildings (e.g., Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago, Woolworth in New York City). On the other hand, we also see our past in less-old buildings (e.g., Seagram Building or Lever House in New York City, Lincoln Houses complex in Detroit, Standard Oil Building in Chicago), built on the sites of other, older buildings. Which past is more valuable? Whose?

On the third hand (bear with me), landmarking is a quagmire. Which buildings to landmark, whether exterior or interior only or both, do you landmark the entire neighborhood? And, landmarking everything, which is the simplest and perhaps most romantic approach, risks turning the city–a living, growing thing–into a museum piece. Think Paris: all those gorgeous Baron von Hausmann buildings, no real new construction (other than the execrable Tour Montparnasse) until you get to the wastelands of the Banlieue. A place for tourists, but not for commerce.

Perhaps the answer (or, an answer) is to tie one’s memories not to a particular building (or ogee or portico) but to the physical site. Walking past the new Starbucks (for example) you can remember when it used to be a luncheonette with a Formica counter and those round, backless stools and a tuna melt that would make you weep with happiness.

The physical place, itself, remains. Think of it as Proust’s cup of tea. One’s remembrance of the building that used to be there becomes the madeleine crumbs floating on the surface. From there, the memories flood.