The Lifecycle of Place

Chinatown Washington DC 2012May 30, 2013, Washington, DC: Have you ever lived in a city or town that is no longer alive? Are there places you remember from childhood or somewhere along the way that have simply ceased to exist? Can a place die and fade away completely or will always experience rebirth, in some form?

I don’t remember many of Jane Jacobs’ remarks about death in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; I mostly remember the life part — her thoughts on what it takes for blocks and streets to breathe expansively. But a few articles I read this week made me consider whether it’s possible for someplace to just vanish. One was this lovely op-ed piece in the New York Times just before the Memorial Day weekend in which the writer reflected on what her summer traditions in Seaside Park might look like now in wake of both her grandfather’s passing and Hurricane Sandy. “Place is not meant to be eulogized,” wrote Carmen Petaccio. “I don’t want to think that my place may have to be.” Another was New York Times Magazine’s recent article “Death and Life of Chicago” about the city’s foreclosure crisis and what can happen to people in a city’s downtrodden periphery when its ritzy core is on the upswing. In the words of author Ben Austen, “The way many of them see it, they’re being sacrificed so that the city can be reborn.”

I’ve talked to others who’ve struck a similar tone. American University professor Easten Law shared his outlook on DC’s Chinatown, explaining, “Although it’s slightly depressing, my view of this beautiful arch is that it’s almost a headstone in some ways to the Chinese community that once was very, very vibrant in DC.” Former Navy Yard resident Reshena Johnson told me the neighborhood she once called home now makes her cry, saying, “It was like my whole childhood was obliterated… I’ll always be proud of my hometown, but it just doesn’t exist like it did.” Likewise, panelist Nina Seavey told those of us in the audience at the Our City Film Festival, “I’m from St. Louis, a city that died. Gentrification allows the city to continue to breathe and there’s nothing more depressing that a city that has suffocated.”

What do you think? Have you seen someplace meaningful to you vanish or suffocate? What happened and what has since become of it? Have any of these places you’ve known failed to experience a rebirth? And if they’ve been replaced by someplace new, does that make you feel any better?

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