Decay Preserves and America

Red, Decay Preserves has, amazingly, made me see the world around me differently and think about things differently—prominently, disvalued or ignored or semi-ignored parts of our world, (see your second bullet point above). But let’s face it, encouraging people to leap from reconsidering the esthetic value of a decaying building to revaluing parts of our world that we usually reject or that are simply distant on our radar, is an analogy that is stretchy as spandex and tenuous as cobwebs. I fear that at best Decay Preserves are irrelevant to the people in struggling cities and neighborhoods. At worst, they may be seen as expressing a flippant disregard for some very real, very serious struggles.
Those benefits in your list, which we have relied on in promoting DPs, seem to be about personal transformation. They may address a psychological need in our culture, but they don't address more materially compelling needs: providing jobs, nurturing neighborhoods, providing food, protecting the 99% from the economic forces that benefit the 1%. The Party People finale (which did not mention percentages, by the way) brought home to me with tremendous force the needs of those communities where staying afloat is a deep challenge.
Although most of the play deals with the problematic history of the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, it ends with a hard look at the present and continuing devastation of neighborhoods, entire cities, and vast numbers of families by dynamics that America’s economies have repeatedly created since our earliest days as a nation: from speculation to monetary or interest-rate changes to fiscally driven overproduction in the late 1800s to the shutting down of entire American industries in the later mid-Twentieth Century to the real-estate and financial crash of 2008. My goodness, Red, can’t America do better than to repeatedly create vast wastelands where there were vital communities? Or to expect the people of those communities to thrive when our economics pulled the rug—jobs and opportunities—out from underneath them?
The last chant/song in the play raised this question for me in the most powerful way: Today's adult children of Panthers and Young Lords hammer out a rhythm with stamping feet and repeat a phrase, something like, “Family, Home, Food, Justice…Family, Home, Food, Justice.” In art, concrete particulars are almost always more powerful than abstracts. Ironically, though, the moments on stage that hit me the hardest have come when a story reaches a level of emotion that spreads out, like a subterranean sea, beneath and beyond the particulars of its subject. Somehow, that happened here. That abstract of those words slammed out a concrete and forceful demand: How do we help repair America where America is broken—where we are broken? And does Decay Preserves have any place in that work?

The Challenge Taken

Well, there are the benefits that got all of us interested in DPs? Here are a few you may recall:
• Preserving our past in the slow crumbling of its pieces: Rather than obliterating them or selecting some point in which to freeze them, as if we could suspend their decay, Decay Preserves let them decay in their own time. Ancient ruins—the Pyramids, or the ruins of Angkor Wat or Rome—are the great example. In Rome, they have such a regard for preserving decay that they will divert streets to either side of a ruin. (Skid once said that in this way, Decay Preserves make time visible, since decay is so much a function of time.)
• Making us reconsider what we think of the parts and people of our world that we might rather avoid. If you look at a piece of decay without making it mean something, it shows you a different face. I went and sat in a vacant lot the other day. Industrial refuse and weeds. A shack with graffiti. A sagging cyclone fence. A wrecked, rusting car and the half-covered skeleton of a boat leaning over on its side. I won’t tell you where it was, or you’ll lecture me on being safe. Maybe it was because it was a beautiful day in this late summer we’ve been having, but I was suddenly struck by the beauty of the place, if you could apply “beauty” to the quality that I felt there. And peace, Vita. I was in a Decay Preserve, even if I was the only one who recognized it as such. I can’t completely claim surprise at my epiphany of decay, since our movement was why I went there. But at that moment, I came into Decay Preserves in a way that I had not yet done. I think what I saw—the face that that ugly vacant lot revealed, was something like what you came to recognize in the Amick Building in your Greater Seattle Decay Tour posts. In my vacant lot, our dislike of decay (within limits) came to seem nothing more than a prejudice, a habitual way of seeing. If we can find a different way of seeing a decay preserve, then might we question other prejudices? Such as the value and rights of the homeless. Does that get closer to your target?
• Providing calming influences, places of mental retreat, of meditation, of removal from the incessant push of our commercial world and life. See preceding bullet. The more I think about it, the more I like this one, Vita.
• Finally, there is the Decay Preserves motto: “Why Decay Preserves? Because decay preserves”—because it preserves the greater life cycles by nourishing new lives and forms of use. This should all sound very familiar to you: These are the examples we’ve used from the start: From nurse logs in the forest sprouting ferns, mosses, mushrooms, and new trees to the Harmony Club in Selma, Alabama, which its owners have transformed (while preserving parts of it in decay) into their residence; to the great decaying buildings of Detroit and other declined industrial bases, which have inspired photographers and documentary filmmakers.
But because I know that you are at least as versed in these arguments as I am, I’m pretty sure that I have completely missed your point. (Although, just to preserve my self-respect, I ask that the record show that I know that this is a setup for us to get to your new concerns about the significance or lack thereof, of Decay Preserves.) So tell me, Vita, what other benefits and values do you have in mind?

The Gauntlet


Supporters of Decay Preserves, Karla (Red) Tucker and I are going to try something new in this blog: A debate conducted by blog posts between me and Red, the new co-directors of the Decay Preserves Initiative movement. The topic of the debate is, “What good do Decay Preserves accomplish?” I put this question or some form of it to Red after I saw a play, Party People, by the performance group UNIVERSES ( (You can see them discuss the play on this YouTube video post: The play compelled me to hold our project accountable to making a positive difference in America, for Americans. Well, at least in Washington for Washingtonians.

To test Decay Preserves with this challenge, Red and I will conduct a dialog in posts. More, we want you to contribute. So, please, dear readers, do send your thoughts about the Decay Preserves initiative project. We will respond to thoughtful comments that seem to call for a response.

Red, here lies the gauntlet: What good will Decay Preserves do?