Depression Era Brick

A friend from High School, Janie-Rice Brother, works as a historic preservationist in Kentucky.  She blogs about her work and related interests, and recently posted about a couple of rural Kentucky School Buildings here.  She passed along the article to a few of us who traveled to these schools as part of the Montgomery County High School Academic Team in the early to mid 90s.    She nods to those days in her essay, but spends much more time talking about the importance of these schools–as architectural achievements, as centers of communities in towns of only a few hundred (maybe a couple of thousand) with names like Tollesboro, Mt. Olivet, and Augusta.  Janie-Rice’s article ended wistfully, with a report that one of those schools–Deming High School in Mt. Olivet–had burned to the ground, leaving only behind pillars and steps:

I returned home that evening in a somber mood. I had failed, by virtue of timing, to chase down that memory. And a town had lost an incredible building home to so many memories – true, plans were to demolish the school anyway, but perhaps a creative idea for a new purpose for Deming School could yet have been found. We will never know now – and my resolve to pull off the road, camera at the ready, whenever I see something interesting – has been further strengthened.

For this Kentuckian in Diaspora, Janie-Rice’s memories brought to mind my own:  The small rural communities, the WPA architecture she details, the echoing hallways, classrooms with the “Ten Commandments” still posted above the chalkboards,  the curvy road that no longer winds as dangerously on the way to Fleming County.  Twenty-some-odd years later, with a vantage point from the suburbs, I can’t help but wonder what sort of sense to make of these memories. They were buildings that were old when we walked in them, belonging to a bygone era (The Depression, FDR,…did anyone tell you about when Eleanor Roosevelt came to Montgomery County to dedicate the WPA-built building in Camargo?).  Talking about them makes me feel like a sort of “Second-Generation Witness,” as one might say if we were discussing Ancient Christian Texts. I have no Great Depression story.  Eleanor was long dead by the time I walked the halls of those old schools. I can only tell you about how the brick had aged, the walls had cracked, the heating units clicked and clanged.

When I drive by a giant, well-maintained suburban school on my commute, or when I stop in a small town and see more franchised fast food places than anything else, I feel the vast distance between my suburban context and the communities of my memory, and other things come to mind. Questions of equity, opportunity, fairness, funding, culture and class are not far from my mind.  What best prepares kids for the future?  What future are we preparing them for?  To assimilate into a world of cubicles and spreadsheets?  To come back to build McMansions on the graves of WPA plaqued brick? Or do we imagine, all too romantically, a new generation of social entrepreneurs who re-imagine new ways of being community in these places?   Or do we fall into the crude stereotyping that imagines opiate and methamphetamine trade as the only entrepreneurship in town?

I don’t have any quick answers, but I do wonder about the ways we, as a culture continuing to march our way into a “not give a damn about social investment/just keep my taxes low” way of doing governance, school funding, criminal justice, mental health service, you name it–have let these communities, and so many like them, down.  Statistics and stories stand as stark reminders.

Janie-Rice is right.  With our permission–and in some ways, our cynical encouragement, these architectual-historical touchstones and the towns they have helped nurture, are disappearing, despite the stubbornness of Depression-era brick.  There’s much to preserve–and not only in terms of architecture. Community, Resistance, Reinvestment–these values, too, are worth rediscovering.

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