Wednesday, February 22, 2006

If walls could talk...

I have a long history of personifying things. If I see a leftover toy on a shelf after Christmas, I think about how sad that toy must be that it didn't find a new home for the holidays. When a pumpkin is left at the farm stand after Halloween, I think of how sad it must be that it didn't get turned into a Jack O'Lantern. And I used to think that my teddy bear, Byron, was traumatized by the nights I didn't spend with him.

This trend toward personification is most evident to me when I look at old buildings, specifically houses and schools. To me, there is almost nothing sadder than an old, abandoned school, which used to spend its days filled with children and laughter and learning and now sits empty through no fault of its own. I imagine that school wondering where all its kids went and whether it did anything to make them go away. When a school gets reclaimed as a charter school, I rejoice a little because it has been put back to its original use.

We used to vacation on Mount Desert Island in Maine every year, and I bought a book there called Lost Bar Harbor. It had pictures of many of the grand old homes that served as summer retreats for some of the country's most wealthy people back in the earlier parts of the 20th century. Most of these homes are no longer standing (hence the term "lost"), sometimes due to the fact that they were just crumbling and had to be taken down and sometimes due to the fact that a great fire destroyed much of the island in 1947. Whatever the reason, it actually made me ache inside to think that these once magnificent homes were no more.

Here in Bethlehem, we have many old buildings that I can just personify the heck out of. Most of those that I am currently focusing my energy on (because, you know, I don't have enough going on in my world right now) are the mansions of South Bethlehem and Fountain Hill. If you drive along Delaware Avenue (and the surrounding streets) in Bethlehem, you will pass a variety of apartment buildings and professional offices in what were clearly some of the areas finest homes in the time that Bethlehem Steel prospered and all those Steel executives needed a place to live. I even lived in a building that had once been a single-family home. My landlord had lovingly restored the building and turned it into six apartments, one of which was occupied by my wonderful friend Sarah and I as we left college and set out into the real world. However, even as happy as I was to live in this beautiful space, I couldn't help but be sad for the house because it had once been a showplace for a family's life, and now it was six apartments filled with people who didn't even know each other. Other houses in the neighborhood, also once family homes, are filled with doctors' offices and laboratory space, instead of families and friends and love and laughter. Although it is wonderful that these beautiful buildings are still standing, it is sad that they won't ever return to their former glory. And I imagine that they feel sad too.

Next time you drive past such a place, be it a school that is no longer used or a big, old house turned into apartments, keep your ears open and see if it's talking to you. Is it happy, or does it miss the old days? At the very least, have some respect and feel a little bit of awe at what it used to represent. Even if it can't ever go back there, it was important at one time...and I hope it remembers that.


amandamonkey said...

Hey M, I'm with ya. I just sold my place on the southside last month. It survived the 60s without the downstairs wood being painted over and the 70s with no drop ceiling. Now I think, 'are the new people going to take care of it the way it wants to be taken care of? I mean, it's older than all of us!'.

I need to learn to let go.

Kat said...

I do the same thing and it doesn't help matters that I live in an extremely historical town. There's one part of town that has become the slums and to drive through and see the gorgeous homes with bars on their windows and their victorian inspired eaves drooping makes me think they are crying.

NME said...

On the way to St. Lukes I was commenting to my Dad about how beautiful the homes in the area were - and how it was amazing to imagine them all as gigantic single family homes rather than carved into apartments.

PreppyGirl said...

I totally do this too. (I think after Toy Story came out we all started to wonder about our toys!)

I live in a town that also once thrived and has since fallen into a sad state. I hate seeing empty buildings where just 5 miles away a super walmart is going up. Sad.

patrice said...

I totally know what you mean and I do that too. I was just in bethlehem (at the brew works) last week and I was just in awe of the houses. the fact that it was/is a steel town is just fascinating to me. I often try to imagine what it must have been like in steel's heyday. I have driven through lots of small towns like that in PA (on the way to bloomsburg where a friend went to college) that were steel or mining towns and they are just so run down now.

between that and the sad valentine's hearts that no one bought, I can barely stand my depression. and I'm not joking.

Amy W. said...

One of the many things that I love about my city is the way so many developers have embraced the old buildings & instead of tearing them down to build something new have turned them into something else. Especially with the churches and schools - very cool lofts and dining in the old churches and schools.

I think if it comes down to tearing something down, effectively killing the building forever, a change of use is better. But that's just my two cents.

M.Thom said...


Look at you with your Blogger account! Now I can stalk you and all your chatty librarians too!

PS - I do still want a Cherry Ames purse but am short on cash until next week...expect a check sometime soon. I will e-mail you about the book I would like you to use.