One drives by a ruin, such as an old, abandoned barn or a dilapidated factory, and experiences a mood.
You might spend a few seconds imagining the building intact, in the prime of its life, bustling with purpose, so long ago now. Or you might see in the quiet of ruin a kind of pact between the strivings of man and the implacable reassertion of nature – a truce in which remnants of spirit are permitted only a bit longer to stand.
One also wonders why nobody kept it up. What led people to neglect it? Surely, with routine attention, it would have continued to be useful. But instead, somebody let it fall into disrepair, gradually leaning, cracking, gaping, while vines insinuate themselves and pigeons roost in its shadow.
One asks who might want it now, in its current condition. Can it be recovered, restored, cleaned up, put back into circulation? Even if it were possible, who in the world has the patience, who has the time, who has the money? Often, it would be cheaper just to raze what’s left of the structure and start over.
Here at the university, we tore down a perfectly functional office building in order to replace it with a newer one – one that matched the architectural style of the rest of the campus. In a climate of economic hardship, other universities are cutting salaries, cutting programs, pinching pennies, but we clawed apart something just to build a better one. We call it progress.
Part of the lure of the American frontier was the chance to start over, to sell your farm, pack up your belongings, and head west. The frontier promised a new start, a fresh landscape on which to build and plow and graze. We could move on and never give a second thought to ruin. But today the frontier is officially disappeared, unless you count the moon. We drive by our ruins, rather than simply leaving them behind.
What then is to be done? A city with ruins signifies a kind of malaise, with daily reminders that the upward striving we associate with industrious and visionary men has dissipated, worn itself out, leaving nobody today to invest their own spirit in the place. Ruin speaks to our failing as a community.
So I say to myself, why doesn’t somebody fix it up, repurpose it, or demolish it completely so the space can be put to some use? That factory or barn would be a terrific chapel or ball gym or paintball field. Or, if you care about the past so much, return it to its former glory. That is the project of a spirited person.
The problem, as you might have guessed, is that I continue to drive on by, letting the mood be the only thing that persists of it. With a touch of sadness, I put it in the rear-view mirror. But I don’t lift a finger or cut a check or do much of anything about the ruin. So, there it remains.
Here then is my challenge for you this week. Take an inventory of the empty, deserted, dilapidated, neglected structures around town. Calculate how long they have stood there, accomplishing nothing. What do these relics say about this generation’s indifference? Can it truly be said of us that our blood still runs strong? That is a rhetorical question.
In one sense, therefore, any ruin is a reproach.