I was surprised to learn recently that Sears Tower was being renamed. What an obsession we Americans have for renaming buildings that have achieved historic and superlative status. Does anyone think folks are going to call it anything other than Sears Tower?
It started me wondering about our monuments and institutions. Old churches and libraries crumble and fall apart. In many cases they weren’t well built in the first place. Government buildings move to neighborhoods in the city’s “outer ring”, leaving giant American Gothic hunks to rot downtown. America eats its old. But it doesn’t let them get much past young to begin with.
Yet it makes some sense. We aren’t Europe, where many 1,000 year old churches and town buildings are still going strong. It isn’t merely a case of lust for the tourist trade, either, as folks often say. Europeans preserve the past: it is a matter of tradition. Just as it takes many generations to create stable towns, and many more to cultivate and refine their institutions, it also takes a force of nature to destroy them, as the earthquake did in central Italy last week. The Europeans don’t do it themselves. On the contrary, they built our civilization.
We not only eat our young and old, but we do it with a certain gusto. The newspaper businesses are crumbling as surely as old, dry-rotted, inner city schools. We fail to see the “localism”—ironically much touted and championed by aging hipsters nationwide—disappearing before our eyes and being replaced by a “national” media that we stare at, slack-jawed, day after day.
In Seattle, the best of the two newspapers evaporated last month. That’s because no local newspapers are viable. We’ve finally become a nation, united under AOL, Google, Yahoo, and the TV tube. It’s pretty disgusting, but so are a lot of things in the process of being made, such as legislation and sausage. We’re finally becoming Europe, where they have mostly national newspapers and magazines, and only occasionally truly local ones—the opposite of our past and recent present.
What we lack are the steeples. Mammon rules our cities, and is making some small progress even in Europe. However, give us a few more centuries and I believe we’ll be about where Europe is today in terms of culture, refinement and preservation of our heritage. Indeed, we might even get there sooner as far as our private gardens go. Just ask The Garden Conservancy. They need perhaps only 100 more years to become truly established.