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Are vacant houses more than the abandonment they get defined by?

Richey Piiparinen  |  04/01/10 @ 9:00am

Right-sizing is an area Cleveland is getting good at with Re-imagining Cleveland as proof. Yet given the $25.5 million in neighborhood stabilization funds given to the city-with nearly 60% of it committed to demolitions-there is reason for concern that if we carelessly knock our past down it'll only make the future less clear. As it were, it is important, then, to look at our motivation behind wrecking our homes and workplaces, or rather: will we do it thoughtfully, because of strategy? Or will we do it hastily, because of the way vacancy can make us feel?

To elaborate, architecture can be seen as giving form to the way we like to feel inside: pensive, ordered, whole, etc. So, it follows that the breakdown of our buildings-our vacant structures-often reflect back into us what we'd rather not feel. For example, a street dotted with slanted houses complete with plywood windows doesn't exactly inspire, but rather can incite just the opposite, not unlike another cold, gray Cleveland day can serve to bring us down. Now, what to do? Bury them. Get rid of them. In fact use that old adage of coping that begins with "out of sight…" and ends with "out of mind".

But is vacancy really just what we perceive it to be? That is: ugly, dead, a source of only anxiety and a symbol of all that is wrong with not only the city, but with the country at-large. In many ways-especially given the real dangers of idled, vacant occupancies-the answer is: yes, quite often. But perhaps the beauty of Re-imagining Cleveland-and in general the core visions of such local urban designers as Terry Schwartz-is the implied suggestion that there rests in our so-called "miserable, dying city" an age-old truth that out of decline arises growth.

Yet given alot of the attention of such cutting-edge planning policies like Re-imagining focuses on the assets of vacant land once the house "has left", there's still questions on what to do with all these vacant houses before they are taken down. Like, for instance, determining if they should be. And in the case of shrinking cities here is where things get tricky, especially given that the house as "anti-architecture" can often elicit some pretty visceral responses to just get rid of the eyesore; an eyesore, mind you, that can serve to remind us about life's difficulties, and heartbreaks.

Now, historically speaking, these responses have been both informal and formal. As for the former, the purposeful explosion of the house on W. 83rd is a pretty clear example of getting rid of what isn't wanted. And while the exact motives of the arson can be debated in the realm of politics and/or financial incentives, the result of the destruction cannot. Still further, what just happened in Cleveland has been going on Detroit for years. You see, there is a thing called Devil's Night which consists of three-days of arsons in which upwards of 800 houses are burnt. What's more, Detroit has even dealt with another rather spontaneous form of demolition involving groups of random dudes with chainsaws.

Of course in response to the dangers that come with these informal handlings of vacancy-coupled with the logistical needs to right-size-formal policies of vacancy also exist. And while land-banking does show a certain degree of thoughtfulness that holds promise, we must make sure it doesn't turn into a process of supply-line demolition in which the race to the bottom means we can finally build up. For instance, in response to Devil's Night, officials have created Angel's Night in which hundreds of houses (over 700 in 2001) are torn down in a mere three days. And folks: that is alot of history and embodied meaning taken down like a house of cards in a short amount of time...

Now, what does this all mean? And what is the answer to the paradox that is the reality of a shrinking city? Or the fact that before Cleveland grows again it must first shrink-but not too much, as a city cannot simply erase itself and expect to come out the other end intact. Well, in truth, the answer isn't clear. But perhaps part of the solution means extending the hope the city is gaining from the space of its vacant land backwards, and onto the facades of that "ugly" vacant house and factory. In other words, perhaps it is necessary to return the respect to those places that made us who we were, so as to provide for yet another impetus to re-imagine who-as Clevelanders-we can be.

And as for methods, whether this is done through the development of various decision-making trees that must be followed before a land bank house gets torn down; or through the advocacy of deconstruction and re-use; or through extending the philosophy of such policies as Re-imagining a step back to that presence before the space is created-the intent remains the same: to encourage the thoughtful selection of our own demolition, because simply clearing our history will not lead us to finding out what it was we came from, and where it is we head...

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