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Opinion: Buildings belong to all of us

Claire Nowak-Boyd in front of the now-demolished Park Avenue Hotel in Detroit

Claire Nowak-Boyd


"We know the name of the architect of Grand Central Station, but who swept the floors?" – Studs Terkel
 
When I heard this quote on a StoryCorps podcast, I spent a moment hovering on the brink of crying in my car. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES! This is why old buildings matter, because they belong to all of us. Because you can point to it and say I lived there, I worked there, I went to school there. It is built, physical proof that you exist, that your life story is true. I thought about a man in his early 20s I know who lives on the North Side of St. Louis. He has moved a lot, and many of the buildings he has lived in have been torn down. A mutual friend remarked, "It's like the carpet of his life is rolling up behind him."
 
This is why I sometimes lose sleep over the demolition of a humble house. This is why my favorite building is an abandoned two-story storefront in St. Louis. This is why we need to seek out and honor the stories of buildings' lives and what they meant to people, not just which catalog the architect Dead Q. Whiteguy ordered the terracotta from (though believe me, I will read the hell out of an old terracotta catalog). This is why it’s important to talk about the neighborhoods we lost for freeways, and to fight for the ones we are still losing to sketchy banks, toxic speculators, and mega-scale development that never seems to pan out quite as promised.
 
The Guardian Building matters because it is so superlatively beautiful, but also because it was built by many sets of hands, and also because so many people have worked there and walked through the doors. The Guardian Building also matters because we all love it, visit it, show it off, take it as a proud symbol of our identity as Detroiters. We photograph it and run our fingers over the carved stone. Standing in the Guardian Building's lobby fills me with emotion, but I am moved just as strongly (if in a different way) by standing in the front yard of the burnt house that was my mother's childhood home.
 
Places matter, and they matter because of all of their people.
 
Claire Nowak is an urban planner and preservation advocate who lives in Detroit. Follow her on Twitter @grendadine.
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