Beautiful Absence: The Aesthetics of Dark Heritage

Lidice today

Lidice today

The former Czech village of Lidice is today a peaceful countryside, a neatly cropped rolling field punctuated by a postcard-cute babbling brook and a scatter of trees.  The massive lawn rolls over some nearly imperceptible depressions and a couple of neatly landscaped foundations, but only a few benches and sidewalks disrupt the bucolic landscape.  Nestled in a modest rural setting seemingly far from nearby Prague, the space is a quiet and even peaceful place of reflection that is far-removed from its quite unpleasant heritage.

Like many dark heritage sites, the horrific narrative of mass murders and the complete razing of Lidice in 1942 contrast with an aesthetically pleasant contemporary space.  Lidice perhaps magnifies the role of imagination because it has exceptionally sparse material remains in the midst of a pleasant countryside; nevertheless,the imaginative experience of comprehending inexpressible barbarism in the midst of settled contemporary landscapes is common to many dark heritage sites.  Lidice illuminates the ways contemporary landscape aesthetics and material absences profoundly shape dark heritage experiences.

Lidice in 1941

Lidice in 1941

In 1942 Lidice was a small village of about 503 residents that had been part of Nazi Germany’s Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia since 1939.  On May 27, 1942 the German Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich’s car was attacked in Prague by a pair of soldiers who had been trained expressly for the attack. Heydrich was an organizer of Kristallnacht, the attacks against Jews throughout Germany and Austria in 1938, and in 1942 he presided over the Wannsee Conference, which outlined the Nazis’ “practical execution of the final solution” to eliminate Jews.  Beyond his role as one of the most prominent architects of the Holocaust, Heydrich’s brutal efforts to “Germanize the Czech vermin” included widespread executions and the arrest of between 4000 and 5000 Czechs who were sent to the Mauthausen-Geusen concentration camp.

The remains of Reinhard Heydrich's car in which he was attacked in Prague

The remains of Reinhard Heydrich’s car in which he was attacked in Prague

The Czech government in exile trained two men for the 1942 attempt on Heydrich’s life, which was known as Operation Anthropoid.  A bomb lobbed at Heydrich’s car on May 27th wounded him severely, and he died of an infection on June 4th.  A curfew was declared on the afternoon Heydrich was attacked, and a series of reprisals began as the Nazis launched a massive manhunt for the killers.  Hitler personally ordered any village harboring Heydrich’s killers be leveled entirely, with all adult men killed, women transported to concentration camps, and “suitable” children placed with German families.

Lidice was falsely suspected of hiding the killers (who were eventually killed in Prague June 18th), and the Nazis encircled the village on the morning of June 10th.  A Nazi film crew documented the devastating attack, which began by marching the village’s men to a barn wall with mattresses leaned against it; by afternoon 173 men had been shot, and another eight who were not yet home were located and killed soon afterward.  Of the women, 184 were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp; seven children were handed over to SS families for “Germanization,” and 81 children were gassed to death at Magirus.  Eventually 340 people were killed, and 143 women survived the war along with 17 children.

German soldiers during the dismantling of Lidice.

German soldiers during the dismantling of Lidice.

The Nazis rarely transformed a landscape so completely.  The Germans immediately set the village afire, and in an effort to wipe the village from existence and memory alike they uprooted the trees, seized livestock and killed pets, dug up about 400 caskets from the cemetery, exploded the structures’ remains, and bulldozed the village.  Jessica Rapson’s excellent dissertation examining the Lidice landscape and similar “topographies of suffering” indicates that “it took over a year to complete ordered alterations to the topography of the land, which was to be covered with soil imported from Germany.” The entire village’s rubble was re-distributed, filling in Lidice’s familiar pond and redirecting the stream that ran through it.  The remaining ground surface was reshaped with 84,000 square meters of imported soil that was meant to become arable fields.  By one account about 100 laborers in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service, or RAD) spent 20,000 hours on the Lidice effacement.

The foundations of the barn where Lidice's men were shot.

The foundations of the barn where Lidice’s men were shot.

Lidice was subject to international memorialization almost instantly (e.g., a Joliet, Illinois community was re-named Lidice in July, 1942 in a ceremony at which Wendell Wilkie spoke).  At war’s end it remained empty, paying mute testimony to an especially barbaric episode in a war with no shortage of terror.  In June, 1945 the New York Times’ Edward D. Ball visited Lidice and found “a gently sloping wheat field, polka-dotted by a million blood-red poppies.” Ball reported that a “freshly-painted sign” indicating “Here used to stand the village of Lidice” stood in the middle of a field, and “workers from neighboring villages have cleared away a plot twenty-five feet square in the center of the stubble field as a simple memorial to Lidice’s dead.”  A two-foot high crucifix had been placed in the field, with a placard indicating that “Here lie the bodies of Lidice’s victims, murdered June 10, 1942, by the German invaders.”

The burial place for the men who were murdered by German soldiers.

The burial place for the men who were murdered by German soldiers.

Many of the postwar visitors to Lidice confirmed that the landscape had been largely allowed to return to nature, with modest memorials and no material remains of the village.  Czech Jew Joseph Wechsberg had been in the United States in 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, but he returned to visit Lidice in 1945 expecting “heaps of rubble like those we had seen in Normandy and Germany.  Instead, there were fields, carefully plowed and cultivated, trees and a few shrubs, and sheeps grazing.”  In June, 1945 Seaghan Maynes visited Lidice and likewise reported that “in the hot sun, a flock of sheep watched by a shepherd and his dog, grazed in the field which was once the main street.”  Maynes observed that “nothing is left bigger than a brick but in the middle of the cornfield a shrine has been erected in memory of Lidice and its dead.”  Five years after the massacre, the Associated Press’ James M. Long indicated that “nothing remains save a huge timber cross” alongside “a few grass-covered foundation stones of a church and untold memories.”

The Children's Memorial at Lidice.

The Children’s Memorial at Lidice.

A rose garden was added alongside the site of the village in 1955, and a memorial was completed in 1962.  The museum and memorial complex is a somewhat overdone monument, which Jessica Rapson suggests reflects the space’s role as a stage for post-1948 Communist government events.  Nevertheless, a visitor in 1962 described Lidice as “a green park on a sloping hillside.”  In the early 1990s one of the site’s most intensively visited memorials was installed when a statuary group of 82 bronze figures of children was placed overlooking the village site.  The group memorializes the Lidice children who were murdered in exhaust gas trucks at Chełmno in 1942.

The foundations of the schoolhouse.

Foundations at Lidice.

Memorials were proposed almost instantly in the shadow of a reconstructed Lidice, but Edward Ball indicated that the “ruins of the old Lidice will remain untouched as a cemetery for the bones of the innocent martyrs and the ashes of their homes.”  After the war the foundations of the Horak farmhouse were excavated, exposing the remains of the structure where Lidice’s men were shot.  The farmhouse foundations and those of the church and schoolhouse are the sole remnants of the village’s architecture, isolated traces of the massacre on a carefully manicured landscape.

These material traces are very modest presences on an otherwise vacant village landscape whose materiality and heritage must be evoked imaginatively.  Preserved concentration camps have their own distinctive absences, of course.  For instance, in his analysis of tourism at Auschwitz, Derek Dalton suggests that arriving at the camp is akin to “entering a surreal empty film set” in which “the dead inhabit every inch of this place, so it is no wonder that we anticipate seeing them here.”  Dalton suggests that a visit to Auschwitz starts with a historic film whose aesthetic representations of the Holocaust are familiar to any visitor, but the film’s purpose is to evoke the corporeal presence that is now lost in the preserved camp (and Lidice likewise begins with a short movie).

The church doors are today preserved in the Lidice Museum

The doors to the St. Martin’s Church are today preserved in the Lidice Museum

James Edward Young’s study of holocaust memorials argues that for first-time visitors, Auschwitz and Majdanek can “come as a shock: not because of the bloody horror these places convey, but because of their unexpected even unseemly beauty.”  Indeed, much the same reaction seems true for Lidice, but it lacks the preserved material culture of the two camps: “Guard towers, barbed wire, barracks and crematoria—mythologized elsewhere—here stand palpably intact.”  Eduard Stehlik concludes that “nowadays, the place where old Lidice was looks more like a well-manicured park than a place of bestial crime.”  Nevertheless, even concentration camps often have spaces of lush vegetation that are mediated interpretations of the camp landscapes.

Perhaps a visitor’s fundamental experience of Lidice or nearly any site of trauma is visuality that becomes a platform through which we imagine the other senses that formerly filled such places; for instance, Lidice was once filled with the sounds of terror, gunfire, and explosions, and a distinctive smell of firearms and flesh once sat along the little hillside.  Lidice challenges the visitor imagination, because unlike concentration camps with the material symbols of terror the pictures of the Czech village before the war and in the wake of the Nazis’ attack seem to have no visible connection to the contemporary space.  Yet Lidice’s pure absence may in some way amplify that imagination of trauma, and few people arrive at Lidice without knowing the site’s history; the countryside absence is not simply experienced as a walk across any pastoral landscape.  Amidst the open rolling lawns, the emptiness of Lidice may actually underscore the astounding psychosis of hatred that was played out by the Nazis’ obsessive reconstruction of the prosaic village landscape.  In 1948 Joseph Wechsberg had reached the same conclusion when he concluded that the Nazis’ “efforts to alter the whole landscape after the annihilation of Lidice is perhaps more terrifying than the tragedy itself.”

A house number from Lidice

A house number from Lidice

Perhaps the peaceful Czech countryside belies the depth of terror that occurred here in 1942, but it may be that no images of the holocaust or material traces of terror can be true to the experience of the dead.  Instead, the absence of the village and its residents may be the most powerful dimension of the experience.  A visitor assessing Lidice on Trip Advisor indicated that the site is distinguished by “the feeling of emptiness. Part of the memorial area is an empty field left as after the Nazi precise wipe action. You know there was a life, houses, people and today, there is an empty space, something obviously missing.”  The vacant hillside is perhaps counter-intuitive in its spare aesthetic and the disarmingly beautiful Czech countryside, but that absence may respect that we can only imagine the inexpressibility of pure horror.

 

References

Edward D. Ball

1945  Blood Red Poppies in Wheat Field Cover Site of Exterminated Lidice: Sheep Graze on Site A Crucifix Over Plot Women Seized, Men Shot. New York Times 2 June 1945: 7.

 

John Bradley

1972 Lidice: Sacrificial Village.  Ballantine Books, New York.

 

Andrew Charlesworth and Michael Addis

2002 Memorialization and the Ecological Landscapes of Holocaust Sites: The cases of Plaszow and Auschwitz-BirkenauLandscape Research 27(3):229-251. (subscription access)

 

Derek Dalton

2009 Encountering Auschwitz: A Personal Rumination on the Possibilities and Limitations of

Witnessing/Remembering Trauma in Memorial Space.  Law Text Culture, 13(1):187-225.

 

Yosef Gorny

2011 Jewish Press and the Holocaust, 1939-1945: Palestine, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  Cambridge University Press, New York.

 

Madelon de Keizer

2013 The Thread that Binds Together: Lidice, Oradour, Putten, and the Memory of World War II.  In Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe, eds. Eric Langenbacher, Bill Niven, and Ruth, pp.120-135.  Berghahn Books, New York.

 

James M. Long

1947 Where Lidice WasThe Evening Independent 16 June:1.

 

Seaghan Maynes

1945 Sheep Now Graze in Main Street of Lidice, Czech Shrine VillageThe Montreal Gazette 2 June:12.

 

New York Times

1942 Nazis Blot Out Czech Village; Kill All Men, Disperse Others.  New York Times 11 June 1942: 1-2.

1942 Lidice the Immortal. New York Times 12 June 1942: 20.

1942 Rebirth of Lidice Hailed by Leaders: Willkie in Speech and Roosevelt in Message Call Illinois Village a World Symbol.  New York Times 13 July 1942: 1.

1945 “Open Cathedral” at Lidice Planned: Tribute to Village Destroyed by Nazis.  New York Times 24 Sep 1945: 5.

 

Jessica Rapson

2012a Topographies of suffering: encountering the Holocaust in landscape, literature and memory.  Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London.

2012b Mobilising Lidice: Cosmopolitan Memory between Theory and Practice.  Culture, Theory and Critique 53(2):129-145. (subscription access)

2012c Emotional Memory Formation at Former Nazi Concentration Camp Sites.  In New Directions in Tourism Analysis: Emotion in Motion: Tourism, Affect and Transformation, David Picard and Mike Robinson, eds., pp.161-178.  Ashgate, Farnham UK.

 

Bohdanś Rymaszewski

2003 The Limits of Intervention in Museum and Conservation Practice at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum.  In Preserving for the Future: Material from an International Preservation Conference Oświęcim June -25, 2003, pp.24-34.  Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Oświęcim.

 

Richard Sharpley and Philip R. Stone (editors)

2009 Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism.  Channel View Publications, Bristol.

 

The Spokesman Review

1962 Survivors of Lidice RememberThe Spokesman Review 11 June:24

 

St. Petersburg Times

1967 Razed Lidice Lives AgainSt. Petersburg Times 20 January:10.

 

Eduard Stehlik

2004 Lidice: The Story of a Czech Village. The Lidice Memorial, Lidice.

2007 Memories of Lidice. The Lidice Memorial, Lidice.

 

Joseph Wechsberg

1948 The Love Letter that Destroyed LidiceThe Milwaukee Journal 24 June:20.

1999 Trifles Make Perfection: The Selected Essays of Joseph Wechsberg.  David Godine, Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

 

James Edward Young

1993 The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning.  Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Images

Reinhard Heydrich’s car after the 1942 assassination attempt image from German Federal Archive

Lidice 1941 image from Antonín Nešpor

Lidice 1942 post-destruction image from German Federal Archive

Images of Lidice by author

Kitsch and the Consumer Imagination: Shopping at Jungle Jim’s

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

The SS Minnow and its Lucky Charms band stand vigil over the vegetables.

Few grocery stores can rise above the status of a non-place, instead sinking into a grocery landscape of interchangeable aisles with the same stale decoration and identical products distinguished by a few pennies price difference.  Even fewer have secured the status of “destination,” a grocery we would travel to for an experience igniting our imagination.  An exception to the prosaic grocery is Cincinnati’s Jungle Jim’s International Market, an enormous grocery to which a host of committed foodies and run-of-the-mill shoppers flock for distinctive goods and staged shopping entertainment.  Jungle Jim’s is distinguished by its astounding 200,000 square-foot scale, a sprawling series of buildings containing a rich array of more than 150,000 international specialty foods.  The mere size of Jungle Jim’s alone, though, does not capture its fascinating kitsch aesthetic—a monorail, fountains with jungle animals, and a host of popular cultural symbols are scattered throughout the store.  The store’s astounding selection of hard-to-find goods and mysterious products certainly is key to the grocery’s growth since 1971.  Nevertheless, the store’s aesthetic turns shopping at Jungle Jim’s into a fascinating material and stylistic experience that is key to the grocery’s magnetism.  While that grocery trip might be reduced to a captivating leisure or the pursuit of an obscure chili, the Jungle Jim’s shopping experience provides a compelling lens on the distinctive social desires of its legion of foodie shoppers. Read the rest of this entry

Ashes Underfoot: Human Remains and Public Memorialization

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The 2011 launch of the Goddard flight carrying cremated remains into space (image from Celestis).

The remains of CJ Twomey have blazed an enormously rich path to eternal rest since his death in 2010.  Over 800 packets of CJ’s cremated remains have been scattered in an astounding range of places including baseball diamonds (e.g., Camden Yards and Fenway Park), historic sites (e.g., Notre Dame, Ground Zero, the Colosseum), tourist destinations (e.g., the Vegas Strip, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Central Park), sporting event sites (e.g., the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Tour de France climb Alpe d’Huez), and theme parks (e.g., Disney World, Disneyland Paris).  Next week some of CJ’s ashes will be sent into space aboard a rocket launched by a Houston firm that specializes in the delivery of human remains into earth orbit.  As his ashes now travel to space, CJ joins Timothy Leary, James Doohan, L. Gordon Cooper, and Gene Rodenberry, who also were placed to rest in orbit or returned to earth after suborbital flight (lunar deposits are expected to be available in the next two years, and all the burial options for humans are now available for pets as well).

CJ’s global and spatial scattering is perhaps distinguished by the scale of memorialization; a legion of people touched by his story have shepherded his remains to numerous resting places.  Nevertheless, one survey conservatively suggests that about 135,000 survivors scatter the ashes of their families and friends each year (another says one-third of cremated remains are scattered), and many of those remains are left in public spaces ranging from stadiums to theme parks.  Eternal rest now routinely reaches outside a stereotypical peaceful cemetery as the scripted funeral gradually disappears.  Cremation scattering extends memorialization to an increasingly rich range of symbolically meaningful public places, transforming burial rituals and memorial landscapes alike in a bereavement process that survivors control long after death.

Human cremated remains typically account for about 3.5% of body mass, which is normally between four and six pounds of coarse calcium phosphate dust.  Modest quantities of the ash will become part of surrounding soils and wash away within a few days under most conditions, and they pose no health hazards.  Nevertheless, many people seem reluctant to reconcile the literal presence of human remains in even trace form with public space, and we seem unwilling to concede that the Fenway Park warning track and Pirates of the Caribbean are memorial landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Dark Histories in Santa Claus Village

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle line in the midst of winter (image from Santatelevision).

Santa Claus’ office and workshop sit along the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, and from his arctic headquarters Santa spends the year checking his list and entertaining visitors to Santa Claus Village.  Nestled in the Lapland woods, the village’s highlight is perhaps Santa Claus’ office, where Saint Nick and his elves hold forth for reviews of children’s behavior and photographs.  The Village’s attractions also include a post office, reindeer, a husky park, snowmobile trails, and shopping ranging from jewelry to log houses.  Not far away sits Santa Park, an underground labyrinth of caves including an elf school, gingerbread bakery, ice bar, and an Angry Birds Activity Area; for good measure, Santa’s “hidden command center” Joulukka sits in the heart of the forest in the same area.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Finnish holiday attractions as shallow consumer experiences, and a variety of scholars and ideologues routinely scorn places like Santa Claus Village and Disney World or reduce them to yet another post-modern self-delusion.  Much of contemporary tourism may be a search for pure diversionary pleasure in such places that embrace spectacle, celebrate patently inauthentic narratives, and offer unadulterated joy. In the midst of the Santa attractions’ imagination of the Yuletide, though, a quite concrete and even dark history exists in an especially fascinating relationship with the theatrical Christmas narrative woven in Santa Claus Village. Read the rest of this entry

Concealing the Unmentionable: Sight, Sense and the Public Restroom

The labyrinth entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The “labyrinth” entrance to the Cavanaugh hall bathroom

The cinder-block walls and windowless offices of IUPUI’s Cavanaugh Hall have aged rather gracelessly over more than four decades.  The utterly functional brutal modernist building will inevitably meet the wrecking ball someday, but in the meantime administrators extend the decaying structure’s life with a host of makeshift changes.  The most recent renovations have come to a series of women’s restrooms (men’s apparently will undergo similar changes soon), which are now appointed with new tile, another set of toilets, and a slightly different floor plan.  None of those changes has prompted more fevered discussion than the installation of a labyrinth entrance; that is, the new bathrooms have no doors.  The labyrinth design is intended to minimize germ transmission and make restrooms more secure spaces, and nothing is literally visible from the adjoining public hallway; nevertheless, the absence of doors and the sonic amplification provided by the tile have unleashed a host of anxieties that illuminate the unmentionable, underscore the divisions between public and private spaces, and highlight the limits of functional restroom design.

The definitive study of the washroom is perhaps still architect Alexander Kira’s 1966 masterpiece The Bathroom.  Based on extensive research between 1958 and 1966, Kira ambitiously approached the bathroom as an architectural, functional, ergonomic, and social space.  Kira pilloried architects’ sloppy bathroom designs and the century of architectural planning that viewed bathrooms as mere afterthoughts.  Kira instead ethnographically delved into the “bathroom experience” as a design issue with concrete social and psychological dimensions that needed to be placed at the heart of spatial planning.  Among other things, Kira systematically dissected such hither-to unexamined issues as the physics of urine trajectories, the space between urinals, the physiology of seated positioning, the cleaning ineffectiveness of toilet paper (a passage not for those apprehensive of cooties), and the anxieties created by the acoustics of elimination. Read the rest of this entry

Air Guitar as Global Diplomacy

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard (2012) and Markus "Black Raven" Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

Former Air Guitar World champions Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (2012) and Markus “Black Raven” Vainionpää (2000) tutor three audience members in air guitar (image Aleke Ollila).

There may be no more audacious pursuit of global justice than the Air Guitar World Championship’s aspiration to “promote world peace.  According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”  It is perhaps difficult to conceive of a host of global diplomats exaggerating the fluid moves of Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, yet last week a legion of the faithful gathered in Oulu, Finland for the 19th annual Air Guitar World Championship’s unique performance of self-aware camp, bold sincerity, naïve optimism, and playful theatre.  Air guitar is quite possibly among the most democratic if not egalitarian of all expressive arts.  Even the clumsiest person is capable of reproducing the familiar motions of guitar players, and it harbors an interesting politics of community that may not yield world peace, but it is a fascinating and idealistic starting point.

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

Your 2014 champion is Nanami ”Seven Seas” Nagura (image Aleksi Ollila)

It is tempting to reduce air guitar to shallow imitation of authentic musical performance, but air guitar is not really mimicking as much as it is its own performance.  Air guitar playing makes sense to audiences because it invokes physical and musical referents that nearly all of us know.  In some ways, this is much like Elvis performance artists, who are not “impersonators” as much as they interpret threads of popular musical consciousness.  Where Elvis performance artists do sing, air guitar may be distinguished by its celebration of the pleasure so many of us take in music we cannot hope to play and the optimistic democracy of air guitar.  The compelling fundamental attraction of air guitar is that it appears so simple and accessible to all of us with the faintest musical sentiments and a suppressed desire to strut about with Angus Young’s theatrical lack of self-consciousness. Read the rest of this entry

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Failed Ambition: Ruins, Gaze, and Public Housing

IMG_6226Much of our fascination with ruins—and perhaps some of our uneasiness—revolves around their stark testimony to failure, and perhaps no ruins aesthetically underscore the collapse of modernity more clearly than public housing.  Public housing was born from a distinctive marriage of modernist optimism and racist and classist ideologies aspiring to remake the American city (and with many global parallels).  Last week Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project went under the wrecking ball, another in a series of 20th-century housing projectsPruitt-Igoe, Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes—that are routinely stereotyped as the epitaph for modernity’s over-reaching ambition, xenophobic nostalgia, or the misplaced optimism of state-supported housing.  Regardless of their legacy, the ruins and razing of public housing raise interesting questions about gaze and how we see and imagine particular sorts of ruins.

IMG_6239Ruins fascinate us because they energize our imaginations, providing material evidence of lost experiences while simultaneously underscoring the passing of that heritage.  Those lost experiences assume meaning through an idiosyncratic mix of popular iconography, mass discourses, and personal spatial and material experiences that shape how we perceive places like Detroit (what Edward Said referred to as “imaginative geographies”).  Every ruin fuels a distinctive corner of our imagination and tells a distinct sort of story, and the narrative of public housing ruination is distinguished in modest but critical ways from the tales woven about industrial decline, dead malls, or eroding post-Soviet landscapes. Read the rest of this entry

The Feral City: The Convergence of Ruins and Nature

Open lots in Brush Park

Open lots in Brush Park

Detroit’s Brush Park was once one of the city’s finest Gilded Age neighborhoods, a 22-block community of mansions that included a host of high style Victorian homes within reach of downtown.  Referred to by one period observer as the “little Paris of the Midwest,” Brush Park was home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, when it began to gradually decline, transformed into boarding houses during the Depression and subsequently declining along with much of the postwar city.   Today, only about 80 of the neighborhood’s roughly 300 original structures remains standing.  Some rehabilitated homes stand alongside others that are decaying as forlorn testimony to the neighborhood’s former glory, and the remaining homes are magnets for artists, preservationists, and urbanites re-imagining the life of the city. Read the rest of this entry

The Optimism of Destruction: Demolition and the Future of the Historic City

The Claypool Hotel, circa 1904-1909 (image Indiana University)

The Claypool Hotel, circa 1904-1909 (image Indiana University)

In June, 1969 Edward Zebrowski held a massive party at Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel.  The lavish Claypool opened in 1903, distinguished by its gargantuan lobby and opulent meeting rooms and the novel luxury of a private bath in each of the 450 guest rooms.  Numerous conventions met at the Claypool, and in its strategic location blocks from the State Capitol the Claypool was home to both the Republican and Democratic parties and hosted a stream of politicians over three-quarters of the 20th century.  On June 23, 1967, though, 300 Claypool guests including the visiting Tacoma baseball team were forced out to the street by a fire, and by the time Edward Zebrowski had his party in 1969 the hotel faced the wrecking ball.

That wrecking ball was swung by Ed Zebrowski himself, who ushered his guests outside at midnight to watch the floodlit building meet its end.  Such theatrical demolition was Zebrowski’s hallmark:  in 1967 Zebrowski erected bleachers and had an organ player serenade the lunchtime crowd watching the dismantling of the 12-story Pythian building.  His firm dismantled much of the city’s aging architectural fabric over more than a decade of fascinating destructive spectacles, tearing down the Marion County Courthouse in 1962 (built in 1876), the Maennerchor Hall (1907) in 1974, and the Central State Hospital Department for Women (opened in 1888) in 1975.  When Zebrowski was finished, he left a large sign in many of the empty lots proclaiming “Zebrowski was here.” Read the rest of this entry

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