Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tear-Down of the Murder-Suicide House

Podcast. Click on link to hear the audio file.

They tore down the murder-suicide house yesterday.

A doctor and his wife lived there. He grew older, unable to practice medicine, so he sold his clinic. She suffered from Alzheimer’s. He took care of her. He developed cancer. Knowing the end was near for him, and that his wife could not take care of herself, he sealed up the doors of the three-car garage, fired up the old Cadillac and took that last glorious land-yacht cruise down Eternity Highway. I wonder what tunes they were playing on the 8-track…

I was surprised at how quickly the heavy machinery was able to level a large, two-story ranch house almost 4,000 square feet in size. It was a tear-down. It reminded me of the tear-downs near my apartment here in upstate New York. Last spring bulldozers, backhoes, and other machinery including a woodchipper came in and razed three small houses and a large tree. They built a Walgreen’s in their place.

It was rather ironic that the murder-suicide house was being demolished just as my dad and I were walking down to the base of the hill to the edge of the property where my parents' and the murder-suicide house yard conjoined – ironic because my parents had encouraged me to buy the house and property when it came on the market. My parents wanted me to live near them again.

The pale yellow wooden siding lay in a heap. I wondered what they would do with the tan bricks and if they salvaged the fixtures first. Was it a two-stage process? Did they dismantle the interior first? Then did they come in with the heavy equipment? Piles of dirt, sheetrock, wood, and tangle metal lay in piles on the ground. My memories hovered just above them - memories of riding my bicycle down what used to be a blacktop road, watching the new construction. Once upon a time, their house was new construction.

I remember when the house was built. It was sometime in the late sixties when I was in grade school and my friend Lisa lived near the murder-suicide-to-be house. We would access it through my backyard, almost a full acre of park-like lawn, trees, and flowers. My parents had fallen in love with the lot, even though they were not as thrilled with the house, which they complained was too small, cramped, and had no storage. Our house was a 2,500 square foot well-built French Provencial-inflected one-story ranch in a very nice part of Norman, a quiet college town 17 miles south of Oklahoma City.

Norman has always been a place of teardowns. First, they were farms. In fact, the murder-suicide house was built on a small farm. I still remember the fields where they planted cotton and sorghum. It really wasn’t so long ago. The early tear-downs were all about sprawl. Now, the tear-downs are about running out of room.

Since the early farm tear-downs, Norman’s population has more than tripled, and the economy, which used to be reliant on the state university and the state mental hospital, has diversified. In fact, with its proximity to a good telecommunications infrastructure, I-35, and a regional hub airport, many people live in the middle of the continent, but their businesses radiate out across the United States. Central Oklahoma is convenient, and with the exception of spectacular tornadoes, the weather is mild.

But, Norman has a space problem, even though it’s in the heart of Oklahoma, on flat prairie. To the south and west is the South Canadian River, and with its mile-wide streambed (it’s a braided stream that has changed courses many times), which creates a natural limit. It was the river that Nicole Kidman crossed in Far and Away, the film version of the Oklahoma Land Rush. Even though it still floods, people want to live as close to it as possible. There are trees there (along with water moccasins and mosquitoes).

As a result, the land is worth considerably more than the surface structures. Usually, the houses are much older, but this one was in really bad shape and the lot was very unique. Did the new owner even know it had been the site of a murder-suicide?

The house had stood vacant for a few years until it sold. I guess that’s not too unusual. When my neighbor, Lil, died in her home at age 93, the house was unoccupied for at two years. I supposed it had to go through probate court. Who knows. It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s a case that no one knows quite what to do. My parents have a summer hunting lodge in Vermont that has been unoccupied for about that amount of time.

Again, it’s the same situation. The house holds more memories. It is an alternative self, a supposedly time-impervious body that can be remodeled and refurbished easily. It is a body into which certain things are emplaced. The house’s body engages one’s emotions perhaps more intensely than even photographs - the ghosts are spatially liberated. They run through the halls, the back yard, and they bring with them vibrant, super-saturated visions of the way things were, or the way you remember them to have been, which can be actually quite different.

Seeing the tear-down in progress is an uncomfortable experience. You find your mind moving forward and backward at the same time, embroidering something that you’re not quite sure what to do with. To say the tear-down becomes a metaphor is true enough, but it is more than that.

The tear-down is a real place, that has two spatial dimensions -- before and after. The “before” is a body. Once torn down, the body is non-material, but a body all the same. It has an architectural signature it leaves behind -- and it will probably never be erased, as long as people thought the place had significance. Think of the Aztec and Incan structures that were razed to make way for the ornate cathedrals of the Spanish invaders. The architectural signature is still there.

The “after” has a spatial dimension which intertwines with human destiny. The spatial realities are that it becomes a space upon which to create or project fictive memories and to construct a scenario of “what might have been.” In the cases where there were true human tragedies that required the teardown (the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center, a place of a murder-suicide), the ghosts of happier times are even more poignantly highlighted.

Before the tear-down, the houses went through a time of extreme neglect. In fact, one can almost see the tear-downs in the making in the exurbs or revitalized suburbs. Ironically, many of the tear-downs were, in their heyday, upscale and symbols of realized (or at least partially realized) dreams. Then, they hit upon years of declining fortunes -- either due to age and Alzheimers, or abandonment. The doctor’s spacious yellow ranch house whose yard adjoined my parents’ used to be a rather imposing presence.

Then, after years of neglect culminating ultimately in tragedy, the yellow two-story became shabby. Prosperity skulked off in tatters.

The teardown made way for constructed selves, and the spatial narrative of the American Dream.