The effect of standing in a place where tragedy has occurred and viscerally registering its history cannot be matched with words or images.”>
Last year, the home where Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy lived in Newtown, CT.a pale yellow 3,000 square foot house on two grassy acrescrumpled under the claw of a backhoe.
A survey had gone out to residents of Newtown asking what should be done with the remaining charitable donations to the city, and, more than a year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School where Lanza murdered 23 was taken down, the demolition of his family home was among the write-in answers.
InCleveland, the home where three women were kidnapped, raped and tortured was demolished in 2013. In Los Angeles, OJ Simpsons Rockingham mansion and the home where Sharon Tate was murdered were both leveled. As was the Amish schoolhouse in bucolic Nickel Mines, PA, where five girls were killed by a shooter.
Sites of tragedy are leveled in the spirit of protection.Children shouldnt be forced to learn and grow within a location of trauma.Landowners shouldnt be burdened with a nearby home that drives down real estate values. Communities shouldnt tempt the perversion of victims memories into ghost-tales and lurid tourism.
But the high-profile erasure of a few tragic sites must not set an automatic precedent for communities across the nation. The conversation around the fate of such buildings can be among a communitys most powerful tools as they begin a discussion on the daunting topic of prevention.
There are still more options for such locations than preservation or demolition. We can remember crimes by transforming the places where they occurred. Smaller-scale crimes arent considered historic in a conventional sense, but they can point to the bigger problems that serve as catalysts, and in renovating them as centers that address those problems they can truly honor victims. In Brownsville, the lot behind the building eventually became a community garden, named Tres Angeles, in honor of the children who had died. There, families received support and nutrition, and began a movement that has spawned hundreds of new gardeners across the city.
Once the building was leveled, Brownsville residents began to visit the site, as they had in the days following the murders. Some drove by slowly, their windows rolled down, and then continued on.Others parked, ducked beneath the caution tape, and took the heavy bricks home. Its a piece of history, one man toldme.
When tragedy is fresh, and the nations attention is trained on a crisis, we begin to have meaningful conversations about reform. But real change is often painfully slow. By the time it takes root, attention has shifted to the next act of bloodshed. Then cities like Brownsville, or Newtown, or Nickel Mines or Orlando, are left to negotiate the landscape that remains, both physical and psychic. In Orlando, the owner of Pulse has said she will reopen the club, initially founded to honor her late brother who had died of HIV/AIDS, as a place of safety and joy for the LGBTQ+ community. She named it Pulse to keep the heartbeat alive.
As for Brownsville,the building on East Tyler Street is gone, and with its demise all of the possibilities for its use have also evaporated. But those 13 years of conversation, and the prospect of taking those ideas for new programs and creating them in other spaces, remains. With those ideas, and the remnants of the building scattered through the citys homes, Brownsville moves forward without forgetting where its been.