Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Legacy We Leave

"A society is defined not only by what it creates, but by what it
refuses to destroy." -- John Sawhill

A stately old church in a small city nearby was demolished over the past few weeks to make way for a large grocery store.  Its story was a sad one -- the church had stood as a landmark in the city for many years.  Local groups fought to keep it standing, but appeals to the developer to save the church, and legal maneuvers to prevent its demolition all failed.  Once again, greed trumped respect for history and beauty, and now the City of Watervliet will have a mega-grocery store in its midst to bring profits to the developer and the grocery chain, and a lovely piece of its architecture has been destroyed in the process.

A recent article in our local newspaper, the TIMES UNION, brought back painful memories of the building of the Empire State Plaza in Albany during the 1960's and 1970's.  Then-governor Nelson Rockefeller envisioned a large government center of modern office buildings in downtown Albany.  To bring his vision to fruition, almost 100 acres of homes, shops and churches were razed through eminent domain.  Entire neighborhoods were displaced with no thought to the lives affected by this demolition of homes and history. 

My own church, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, was a casualty of this heartless demolition.  I loved our old church, with its beautiful old stained glass windows; I was baptized in the church and confirmed in the midst of the controversy over its possible destruction.  I remember our minister, Rev. Nelson Parke, speaking to the congregation of a suggestion he had made to keep the church intact.  His vision was of a peaceful little sanctuary in the midst of this governmental plaza -- our lovely old church, surrounded by a small area of grass and trees, with benches for state workers to sit on and relax during their lunch hours.  I thought this was a beautiful idea, and was devastated when Rev. Parke's suggestion was ignored and we were forced to build a new church elsewhere in the city.  Rev. Parke died unexpectedly of a heart attack during this time, and in my young mind, I always blamed his death on the stress from fighting against the demolition of our beloved church.

The Empire State Plaza has stood boldly now since the late 1970's -- its cold marble and modern architecture a stark contrast to the city from which it rises.  There are those who see great beauty in its gleaming facade, but I am not one of them.  The TIMES UNION article states, "for those who remember the thriving neighborhood that vanished, the Plaza is far from the bold statement of progress that boosters over the years have made it out to be."  A former resident of the neighborhood comments, "We look at that, and we see a cold, sterile environment that's really a monument to arrogance.  I think it was arrogant for a political leader to displace so many people, to uproot their lives to change their culture in the space of a few years, to destroy all the relationships that had been built up over half a century."  I agree.

And I am reminded of the above quote by John Sawhill.  It seems our society will be judged as one that is quick to destroy our environment, our architecture, and our history for the sake of greed and power.  Our legacy is a sad one indeed.




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