Saturday, April 15, 2006
Clock Tower Apartments Fire in Cortland, NY
While we were in Syracuse, I was watching the news in my fancy hotel room and there was a story about a huge fire in an old (built in 1820) historic building in Cortland. The building was really old and a historic landmark and included a clock tower. It had at least 3 businesses in the bottom and about 30 students lived in apartments upstairs. Everything was destroyed but no one was killed.
I didn't really notice what city they were talking about on the news but then yesterday we rolled into Cortland and saw a burnt out, collapsed wreckage of a building and I realized that it must have been here.
We decided to stay in Cortland for the night. We walked around Main St. for a little bit and got delicious Lebanese food. We got a motel room at this place that really hasn't been changed at all since the 1960s probably. They had framed letters from their most famous guests (obscure congressmen from the late 1960s and early 1970s thanking the proprietor of the motel and saying how wonderful their sleep was). The old lady that showed us to our room started talking about the big fire: "It's a real tragedy. The clock tower building was just a real landmark in the community. And those students, they lost everything - All of their clothes, their computers, their term papers- everything." While Courtney went to get cash to pay for the motel I walked up to Main Street in search of the Salvation Army thrift store. I didn't find it so I decided to join the crowds and watch the demolition which was really about to begin at that point.
There were crowds of people on each of four corners, standing behind yellow caution tape as firefighters continued hosing down the wreckage and as some demolition machines circled around trying to decide how to begin the process of tearing down the entire structure.
It was like a real community event and everyone came out to watch the old building being torn down. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, even though Cortland isn't exactly a small town. Every time that someone came out of the tavern we were all standing in front of, they said hi to someone outside. "It's a shame that they couldn't save at least part of it." I stood there, watching the building being torn apart. I heard someone talking about how the owners decided to just have it levelled because restoring it at all would have been millions of dollars - and they had to do something quick, because the wreckage was blocking the state highway that goes through town and causing all kinds of delays and trouble.
There was a kid (about 4 years old) with his mom standing behind me, also watching the demolition. The kid kept saying, "We've just got to see them take down the part with all the glass. I know what they're doing, they're trying to figure out where to start... (as the machines paced back and forth). We have to say bye to the building ok?"
There were people on their cellphones frantically calling friends and telling them "They're tearing it down right now, get down here!"
The fact that the whole town seemed to be out to watch the demolition made me think about how important buildings can be to the identity of towns and communities. The building has been around for over 100 years and was one of the most prominent features of the downtown landscape. Now that's gone. No matter what they put up in its place, it won't be the same. It's weird to think about the way that physical features in urban areas can affect communities and the way that people interact with each other and the landscape.
before the fire.