Friday, January 11, 2008

Renovate or detonate

There's a property coming up for auction just down the road from my house. It is beautiful, solid and symmetrical, with a front garden filled with different types of roses, planted in two neat squares. The house is also decrepit: some rooms have no walls; the kitchen is a bench and some ugliness; a person would get lost in the grass in the backyard. It is an elegant dump.

Out the front hangs a sign: Renovate or Detonate. I hate that sign when I walk past in the morning on my way to work and I hate it when I walk past in the afternoon, coming home. In part, I'm worried that the detonate choice will lead to another pastel stuccoed starter mansion with a concreted backyard. But also, it seems so disrespectful and so flip. I wouldn't take on a renovation myself but that word detonate suggests to me a thoughtless blowing up, an enjoyment in destruction, an event that wipes something unwanted from our existence. It's a house, I know, not a senient being but it's also a symbol of a time (unspecified, possibly 'ye olde' or maybe 'the olden days') and a place and presumably many people's lives.

The other evening I chatted to an old gardener who lives just across the road from the house for sale. He was working on his dahlias in his front garden and we got to talking about flowers and then the neighbourhood. When I told him where I lived he said "Up in the money" (well, things have changed in that regard); his street was where the working class families lived. When we wipe away these old buildings for something pseudo-posh, no doubt jerry built and just like every other new house in the suburb, we're wiping away the acknowledgement that difference matters, and we're wiping away the memory that not every suburb and not every family has a history of wealth, of just reward for being a winner.

I think there's been a lot of sadness and fear in that house - a small family once lived there, and when I look at the interiors my heart goes cold knowing a baby was kept there with the curtains always shut. And there's been a lot of disregard - at one time there was a sharehouse of louts who spent every evening on the front verandah, music too loud and drinking huge numbers of UDLs. It's not like a church, a focus of peace or sanctity or devotion. But I believe someone was proud they could afford to offer their family that home, and someone was proud they built it with such skill (80 years on and the lines are still straight).

Even if it can't be kept, I don't want the house to be detonated. I want its history acknowledged, its beautiful bits recycled into new homes and re-woven into the fabric of the town. I want its roses to be loved and restored. I want it to be acknowledged as something valuable, not only because it's on a large block fifteen minutes walk into town, in 'highly sought after ***', but because it's a reminder of a history and a way of life that is fast disappearing.

Dutch, at Sweet Juniper, takes the most incredible photos of urban decay in Detroit. Some are beautiful but mostly they're surreal in their shapes and colours and the depiction of materials and memories left to rot. He mentioned how often people comment on the sadness of the images, and wondered why. I've thought and thought about this question in terms of the huge swathes of abandonment in inner city Detroit and in terms of the isolated examples that dot my own suburb. And I still don't know.

Maybe it just reminds me that one day my family and my life will hold no relevance or interest for anyone at all and the last vestiges of our love will be smacked down by heavy machinery.

Maybe I don't like waste, and a disused house is a wasted resource.

Maybe it's the social forces that lead to a house or an area being left behind: poverty, violence, fear and bigotry; and a lack of support and resources by institutions who fail to deal with people with sympathy and in good faith.

Maybe I'm just foolishly sentimental and weeping for an abandoned house is like cooing over puppies and babies (which I do, all the timee).

Maybe I just don't like change.

But whatever it is, this house gets me. I wish I had the money to save it (I just can't see it being restored by anyone else). The auction is on the 20th of January and I get back from Canberra on the 26th - I know settlement's never so quick but I worry it will half hacked away when I return. When the inevitable happens I think I'm going to have to find a new path to work. I'm also going to ask for those roses.

And in other news ...

Today I saw a doctor riding to work at the hospital on a unicycle, stethoscope around his neck and briefcase in hand. That's not something you see everyday.


Dutch said...

that was lovely.

Janet said...

mmm, that got to me, we've looked at a lot of "renovate or detonate" houses and, although we're renovate types, I'm always astounded at people saying breezily, oh it's a knockdown.

One of my favourite children's books has a house in it that gets too big. (Sharon Keep your Hair on) Her husband, Mason Jason carefully dismantles what they don't need and takes it away in his ute. Presumably to use somewhere else.