"When a house is demolished, more than the home is lost": On North America's demolition derby

Smashed up. Image: Getty.

In 2013 alone, more than 500 houses were demolished in Nashville, Tennessee, a sharp increase from previous years. And hundreds of additional teardowns are expected in a city that’s projected to add a million residents over the next two decades.

Nashville is hardly the only North American city to experience a recent wave of teardowns. In Vancouver, a housing and real estate expert reports that the city issued more than 1,000 demolition permits in 2013. She points out that most of the demolitions are of single-family homes, and each sends “more than 50 tonnes of waste to landfills”.

While preservationists have long decried the loss of historic fabric and cultural capital through teardowns, the environmental costs of demolition are increasingly coming to the fore.

The negative environmental consequences of teardowns are manifest. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), demolition and construction now account for 25 per cent of the solid waste that ends up in US landfills each year. Further, when a building comes down and its materials are hauled off to the dump, all the energy embedded in them is also lost. This consists of all that was expended in the original production and transportation of the materials, as well as the manpower used to assemble the building.

As CMAP explains, “Examining embodied energy helps to get at the true costs of teardowns and links it to issues of air pollution and climate change (from the transport of materials and labor), natural resource depletion (forests, metals, gravel) and the environmental consequences of extracting materials.”

Often, a more environmentally friendly, quaint home is “replaced by a very expensive, much larger house, which is frequently left vacant”. Meanwhile, in the most desirable cities, in their tony suburbs, and in popular resorts, investors park their assets in “McMansions” that are sporadically occupied.

Additionally, bigger houses necessarily encroach upon open space. Not only does expansion entail the uprooting of mature plantings – which benefit air quality – but it also eliminates trees that can provide shade and minimize energy required to cool buildings in warmer months.

In the wake of the US housing crisis, many McMansions remain unoccupied. Image: Michael McCullough/flickr, CC BY-NC.

Urban facelifts erase more than crumbling buildings

In city neighborhoods, opponents of demolition will often cite the loss of historic character.

Advocates for development, on the other hand, frequently argue that demolition rids cities of decrepit, obsolete houses, paving the way for multi-unit developments. In this sense, cities can become more efficient with their limited space, avoiding suburban sprawl while alleviating the long, traffic-snarled commutes of those who travel to the city.

In many cities, however, new construction on the sites of torn-down houses is aimed at attracting relatively affluent young or middle-aged professionals – the demographic that appreciates urban amenities like shops, restaurants and museums.

Time was that a “walking world” – that is, an environment in which services and amenities are available within walking distance of one’s home – was possible for all city-dwellers, regardless of class. Today, in many urban areas, housing in the dense central core is the purview of the rich, and the less affluent are pushed to the outskirts.

As a result, formerly diverse neighborhoods become economically monolithic. Longtime residents scatter as home values – and taxes – are driven up by new construction.


Teardowns also have negative cultural implications.

All houses tell a story: they’re evidence of how earlier generations thought about domestic life and designed spaces to reflect their daily needs. When we demolish them, we lose those crucial traces of the past.

Of course, older houses often cannot satisfy contemporary demands for amenities, and were frequently built on a smaller scale. Modestly scaled houses from the 19th and early 20th centuries – which represent a wide range of architectural styles – are sometimes built out or renovated. But often developers and homeowners opt to (as a “For Sale” sign in my neighbourhood recently put it) “scrape the lot.”

For whatever reason, high square footage has become a prerequisite for new homes in the United States, where the average size of a house built since 2003 is more than double that in England. The United States Census Bureau reports that between 1973 and 2008 the average square footage of new houses soared from 1,660 to 2,519, only dipping after the Great Recession.

Small houses aren’t alone in falling victim to the wrecking ball. The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the demolition of mansions in desirable LA neighborhoods that had sold for as much as $35m.

Actress Jennifer Aniston has taken a stand against her mega mansion-inhabiting peers, arguing that, “The very idea that a building of 90,000 square feet can be called a home seems at the least a significant distortion of building code.”

Even in less supercharged real estate markets, large and well-built homes fall victim to rising land prices that make them more valuable as dirt.

One example is Georgia’s Glenridge Hall, an historic Tudor Revival mansion, which The Georgia Trust, a statewide historic preservation organization, designated a “place in peril” earlier this year.

Featured in films and providing some of the setting for the first season of The Vampire Diaries, Glenridge Hall had been preserved, until recently, by descendants of the original owner. But the architecture and planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company – darlings of the New Urbanism movement, which advocates for the revival of traditional town planning and walkable mixed-use developments – demolished the building to make way for a new mixed residential and commercial “English Village”.

Richmond, Virginia’s Agecroft Hall is built in the Tudor style. Image: Phoebe Reid/flickr, CC BY.

As I pointed out in my recent book, the builders of Tudor mansions like Glenridge Hall in the 1920s and 1930s attached a great deal of significance to the historic feel of their homes: in famous Tudors like the Virginia House and Agecroft Hall, they went so far as to import materials from actual English Tudors.

Unfortunately, for today’s wealthy builders and buyers, the past carries little cachet. For many, older homes are considered an obstacle rather than a badge of distinction. And when these radical presentists are given free rein to tear down the remains of the past, we all lose.The Conversation

Kevin D Murphy is Andrew W Mellon chair in the humanities and professor and chair of history of art at Vanderbilt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.