The Sound of Her Fury
Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s bracing defense of the places she loves
By Dwight Young | From Preservation | July/August 2008
Chances are, your summer vacation reading list leans heavily toward espionage thrillers and/or fantasy romances—but this year, I want you to try something a bit grittier. I want you to read a book called The Place You Love Is Gone, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, because it'll make you mad.
We've all experienced the surprise of finding a wonderful spot where we didn't expect it. Pierson writes about the opposite: the shock of discovering that a treasured place has vanished. To illustrate this devastating impact, she describes what has happened in three locations that are—or were—special to her: Akron, Ohio, where she grew up; Hoboken, N.J., where she lived as a young adult; and upstate New York, where she now makes her home.
Far from being merely a nostalgic reminiscence, this is a denunciation of what Pierson calls our ability—and, more damning, our willingness—to "pulverize … into unrecognizability" the places that we should fight hardest to protect. The first section of the book, in which the author recalls her childhood haunts in Akron and reflects on what has become of them, is the most affecting. Here's her wry summation: "The hometown of my youth is now recognizable only in the places they haven't got to yet, though I hear plans are afoot."
The tone of the book is unapologetically direct. Consider this revelation of the nature of progress: "Your job is to sit still and take it, and don't question where it comes from," Pierson writes. "Change is always called 'progress' so you can't oppose it." Or this brief pulpit-pounder: "They change everything … and they didn't even ask if they could."
Pierson's outrage is what makes her commentary so refreshing. What makes it meaningful is that the outrage is so right.
I read most of the book while sitting at a table on a sidewalk in a part of New Orleans called the Faubourg Marigny. The air was cool and heavy with the scent of flowers I couldn't identify, the street was lined with the little shotgun houses—some restored, some not—that I love, and I couldn't think of another place in the world where I'd rather be. Then it hit me: It's a miracle that the Marigny is still here, and we should all be grateful for it—but the survival of this one place shouldn't be so unusual as to seem miraculous, and it isn't nearly enough.
To paraphrase writers from Heraclitus to Joan Didion, ours is a culture in which the only constant is the speed with which everything changes. We live with the knowledge that every feature of the physical world we knew in our youth—from individual houses and schools to entire neighborhoods and landscapes—will probably disappear, or at least be altered out of recognition, by the time we reach old age. This knowledge is what compels me to make a quick reconnaissance of familiar places every time I revisit a community that I've known long and well. In New Orleans, that means the storefront café that serves the best oysters, or the building with "Uneeda Biscuit" painted on its side. These places may not qualify for inclusion in any official landmarks roster, but they're important markers on the pathway to who I am. I check to make sure they still stand and steel myself against the day when they won't.
Maybe we've been too nice for too long. Whether we recognize it or not, some places are so important that losing them would subject us to a lifetime of what Pierson calls "permanent mourning and unhappy accommodation." If outrage is what it takes to keep that from happening, we all ought to follow her example and get mad as hell.
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