An Alaskan in Alabama (continued…)

May continued…
Bulldozing history: A colleague had warned me that Alabamans tend not to preserve the past, at least not the buildings or other material objects that stand as testament to that history. The subject came up when I’d mentioned the single old fraternity house near the massive stadium: a two-story brick structure standing apart from the vast new fraternities that are constructed to look old, but are obviously contemporary. I wondered aloud to my colleague what had happened to the old fraternity’s fellows. “Bulldozed,” he replied. When I mentioned how strange it was not to try to preserve a sense of that past, my colleague noted that the call of the new is more compelling to many Alabamans and, in particular, to the university: ever seeking to expand.

This conversation came back to me recently when I saw a newspaper report that just the next day the K____ House was to be demolished. I’d seen the House on walks on campus: a two-story plus blue and white Victorian, a pleasant reminder of a different world, and I mentioned it in an earlier post about the history of this place. I didn’t know much about its history, except that it was connected to the early days of women at the university, as some of the first female students and faculty members had lived there some time after 1893: the first year women attended. Some months back, I’d heard a discussion about the House and plans to move the building or find another use for it beyond its then-current status as the home of Alabama Heritage magazine. But, it seemed, those plans had come to naught, for as quiet of summer began, with most of the students and many of the faculty out of town, the university decided to demolish the House.

I wanted to see if the newspaper report could really be true, so the next day, early, I walked to the university and past the high fence around the House, which was still standing, though workers were coming in and out, and I could hear the sounds of work inside. I walked around the fence and found an opening: I moved towards the House. I stood looking at it, seeing the interior staircase, already partially demolished, through the place where the front door, now off its hinges, once stood. I talked to a few women, watching the scene with dismay, and one of them introduced me to a young man from the local preservation society. The man, along with a colleague, was carrying out the few items they had been allowed salvage with the help of the construction workers. As they gathered the items underneath a tree, they told me a bit about the House’s history, noting that along with the association with the university’s first women students/faculty, the building also had an association with B___ Hospital, formerly the Alabama State Hospital for the Insane. One of the men told me that Hospital patients constructed the building, which was intended for one of the hospital administrators. The building not only embodied these histories, but was unique in its connection to both the past of the university and that of the nearby Hospital.

Despite this, the university had decided to demolish the House to make way, it seemed, for…well, I heard conflicting reports: some people said a tiny park, though there is green space a plenty in all directions; another person said a dining hall, though there is a large one only about a block away. It didn’t make any sense. I peeked inside the House for a moment to see if the building was moldering, ruined, but no: it was both gracious and sturdy, and the room I saw had a beautiful wooden mantle, the room illuminated by light streaming through tall windows. No sense at all to this.

Many years ago, as a child, I went to see a musical—probably the first musical I ever saw. It dealt with the history of the Alaskan town in which I grew up: the native people, the sourdoughs, the homesteaders, the waves of oil and gas and fisheries workers. I remember that there was a song sung in the early parts of the show as a cheerful paean to progress; in fact, that was its chorus: the lyrics spoke of the entertainment, technology, riches, and “progress, oh, yes, progress” to come. The song was jaunty, full of promise, with all the villagers joining in this praise of the future and all it would bring.
Late in the show, the song returns, but in a very different key. Now, the song is a dirge: the town is broken, the sense of community destroyed: “progress, oh, yes, progress.” I think of that song often: I remember only a few of its words, but I do remember how it made me feel and its argument about the embrace of new ideas, of innovations, of all the dazzling goods and technology so often dangled in front of us by advertisers, by scientists, by politicians: the love of the new. But I also think of that song in its second form: its sad refrain throbbing through the tiny auditorium, the slumped shoulders of the performers as they sang. And the song, in both its versions, seemed prescient: in the years during which I grew up, we got our first traffic light and a second movie theatre, competing with the tiny one in town; there was one fast food restaurant, and then another, the courthouse grew and crime grew, and people started to lock their doors and no one ever picked up hitchhikers.

When I was a child, I remember visiting the older part of the town, which was located near the bluff; this part of the town was now severed from the other parts by the road that cut through the town. It was pushed aside by the stores and the gas stations: ready to fuel people up to keep them moving further, further, away from town. The old town had a tiny library next to a fire station with only one door; in its back was the town jail, with room for only one prisoner, and down the street was the old Russian church, with the tiny chapel behind it. This town had been left behind for the town I grew up in some blocks away, and this newer town would be left behind too, or just paved over in just a few short years. Not that many years later, people tell me I wouldn’t recognize the town I grew up in any more—it’s changed so much. I’m sure there are many advantages to the new town with its multiple traffic lights, its malls and its roads, all paved now, and not dirt like the little ones we’d drive on off the main road: full of puddles in the spring, deep bowls of brown malt under your wheels. I’m glad I don’t have to go back to have my memories teased, reworked, but I’d like to think that there’s a little of the towns, the old one and the new, still there if I ever did return.

Sadly, there’s no return to the K___ House: there’s no there there. It endured more than a century of tornadoes and thunderstorms, glaring heat and endless rains. It saw the campus slowly open to women, and then to African American students and faculty, as well as conflicts over gay rights and environmental issues. Through those long years of fighting for rights, of agitating for freedom, through the university’s expansion from hundreds to thousands of students, it has stood. And now, not through storm, not through riot, not through neglect, it is gone, destroyed: progress, oh, yes, progress.

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