My city is gone

Memorial Elementary School

School buildings like these are becoming endangered in this country, as cities sacrifice local history in the name of “progress.”

When the Pretenders’ lyric “I went back to Ohio but my city was gone” floated over the airwaves in 1982, I was fresh out of college and had just moved from my Northeast Ohio hometown to California to seek my future.

Now that I’m older, I understand what Chrissie Hynde’s song was trying to tell me. For a long time, I wanted to go back to Ohio to live. But my city is gone.

In 2008, the passing of a property tax levy in my hometown funded the building of new schools, at the same time dooming several of the older schools. Since then, the short-sighted city planners have been bulldozing a big chunk of the city I grew up in.

I say short-sighted for good reason. Cities such as my hometown are suffering a brain drain of major proportions. Young people – college graduates with professional and technical skills – are abandoning their home turf in droves, heading out to promised lands such as Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas.

People like me who moved away long ago are now older and a little homesick. We discovered pastures further afield aren’t necessarily so green, after all.

Perhaps we’ve been considering a return to our childhood home. It could be a shot in the arm for those communities, because we’d be bringing with us our seasoned knowledge and professional and technical skills.

Except – if I ever make the decision to move “home,” I would like it to still be there.

In the next few weeks, yet another major landmark in the town I grew up in will be razed. (Memorial Elementary School to be demolished.)

Neighborhoods are made up of people, it’s true. But residents of a city live within a landscape they recognize as home, anchored with schools and businesses and that old tree on the corner that’s been there since your grandfather was a kid.

Communities grow up around these things that are as integral to the feeling of the place as the people are. They are as enduring as the same family names showing up on the school roster every generation. They are brick and mortar patriarchs and matriarchs, the architecture of home, literally and in our minds.

People cling to these images like they do their families. When those of us who leave want to come home, we expect these things to be there. Changed, perhaps: a new owner for this restaurant, or different family in that house. But the school we went to is still there, filled with another generation of children, and we all have something in common.

Our city.

When we come back, to live for good or to visit, it’s that sense that no matter how crazy the outside world becomes, some things never change. It’s familiar. It’s home.

One would think that my hometown would have learned that selling its soul in the name of progress is short-sighted and foolish. This is the same city that allowed the architectural wonder of the city founder’s palatial mansion to be torn down in 1965 to put up a shopping center – and now insists that downtown businesses design storefronts in the mansion’s image. I love my city, but it’s like shutting the door of the estate’s last remaining outbuildings after the horse ran away.

They literally paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

That was before my time. But the destruction of the high school that my grandpa, my mom, my uncles and aunts, my sister and I attended – that happened during my time. Another blow to my soul was the razing of my elementary school, a beautiful brick structure of great character, built in the art deco style of the 1920s.

These losses broke my heart in a way nothing ever has. I realize these things happen as we grow older. But the destruction of these landmarks that viscerally connect me to family and friends and the city I call home are like the city founder’s lost mansion: irretrievably gone.

When these things vanish, the character of our city is diminished. Gone is that indefinable thing that makes it different from the endless communities of tract homes and suburban sprawl stretching across the country, homogenizing everything in its path with mediocrity and dullness.

Once it’s paved over, maybe my hometown will finally shake free of the jokes about there being a bar and a church and a chicken restaurant on every corner of the city. But you know, it’s our little quirk, and it makes us different. It makes us memorable. And if you can’t laugh at yourself a bit, then there really is a problem.

Maybe, after all the homogenizing, there will be fewer “bad” neighborhoods. But those neighborhoods are home to someone who, if they have left, might come back – but only if there is actually a city to come home to.

Who wants to return to a place leveled by strip-mall sprawl and little boxes made of ticky tacky. And guess what? No one new is going to move in either. Why bother, if it’s all the same everywhere? Live somewhere with better weather – such as those “greener fields” that young people go to after college.

It’s true there are a lot of us who left to find success beyond our city limits. Maybe we found it and maybe we didn’t, but in the process, we expanded our horizons and grew as individuals and maybe picked up a few good ideas along the way. We came to realize the value of growing up in a place like my hometown. We might have returned with our knowledge and our talents and enthusiasm – but now we’re less likely to. Because, as the Pretenders sang, “our city is gone.”

Build new schools, tear down old ones with character – it’s all in the name of “progress,” right? But there are things larger than money – such as loyalty to the people who live in the community, who walk their dogs past those structures destined to be torn down, who will die a little bit inside when those things are gone.

Because that’s one less thing that makes them feel whole and right and part of this experience that is the town they love. The systematic destruction of a past that was good and true and honest  doesn’t fix the city. It breaks it.  It rips out authenticity by the roots and paves it over with false hopes and a thin veneer of prosperity that wears off quickly.

If you want to pump money into the neighborhoods, remodel them, don’t tear them down. Don’t tear out the heart of the city and break the hearts of the residents. Leave those structures that form the cornerstones of memory and the sense of feeling “at home.”

Use its history as a foundation for the future. Don’t tear it down. Don’t make it less unique. Make it more so. Believe in it. If you do, maybe we will, too.

Instead of jokes like, “Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?” – maybe people will actually come back to a place that has substance and texture and buildings made of brick, not stucco.

We will carry a torch for the city that made us who we are,  a place to be proud of – a city that’s not “gone.”