Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Razing the Past?

One of the dorms on campus is in the process of being demolished. The take-down is making way for a new set of apartment-style dorms for students. The old twin buildings embody their time period: they remind me of the housing projects in Chicago, such as the infamous Cabrini-Green. These projects were built in the 60's and 50's as an answer to the expanding population of the larger cities, a city planning phase commonly known as urban renewal.

I don't know what the original purpose of the buildings was before the university pressed them into service as dorms. I don't really know anything about the structure. I can only reflect on it as an observing outsider.

Within the past month, the southern tower is slowly being disassembled. Contrary to news-covered implosions, the take down of this building is slow and methodical. Over a period of weeks, the building is slowly pulled down and the rubble carted away. Every day, I end up driving past it, only to see a little more of the interior structure exposed, or the ragged end of the building (like the victim of a giant shark bite) moving two or three windows further in than I remember from yesterday.

Mostly, it's really cool. The amount of engineering know-how to take down a building must be almost as complex as putting one up. They've managed to proceed so far without even closing the streets, which lay less than 50 yards from the 15-18 story building.

But the strangest thoughts began to creep into my head. The more I looked at the building, the more I thought about all the history that will "die" with the building. No doubt countless memories echoed in those rooms. Partying. Studying. Hook-ups. Break ups. Tears. Laughter. Anger. Sickness. Possibly even death.

Does the destruction of the building constitute the removal of the memories? Probably not, since they still live on in the minds of the occupants. But I can't help feeling like the memories will slowly dissipate, now that the place that housed them will vanish into dust. People may remember when they kissed someone in this room, got raped in that room, or got the terrible phone call in this other room, but they'll no longer be able to visit the physical site and point to the window.

To say nothing of all the events that no one remembers. All the times when nothing happened. When everything was just completely normal. Those events, already lost to history because no one remembers them, will vanish entirely when the situate place also vanishes.

Here's what I think: our minds are designed to forget. When things stop occurring, our brains filter them out as no longer relevant. Obviously, this doesn't apply to trauma. Those events our brains keep at the top, ready to be acted on.

But for things which are not traumatic (in the most violent sense of the word), our brain tries to forget. Even things like heartache, or lost loved ones; if there is no reminder, then the memories will fade. Days will pass, weeks will march on, and sooner or later actually *thinking* about the loss is the strange circumstance worthy of notice.

Again, this is how it works for me. I never would have thought that some things in my life would stop hurting. I would never have believed that I wouldn't be focused on them every minute till the end of days. But I have. First I got busy, which forced me to think about other things. Then I stayed busy. Now it passes me by like a face on the sidewalk; it might look familiar, but I don't even think about it past the double-take.

So it will be for the dorm. In time, people will forget what was there before. The existence of the buildings and the sum of all memories and encounters will be reduced to a photograph on the wall of the city museum. Next to the pictures of all the old farm houses and barns that once dotted the area.

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