Saturday, February 23, 2008

Empty playgrounds, empty lots

Empty playgrounds, Empty lots

Royal Oak, Michigan has been known for years as "the city of trees." However, it would be just as appropriate to call it the "city of change." Whether you like it or not, the city is changing. In the past couple of years we've seen a transformation of the downtown skyline, storefronts have been replaced with corporate names and long-time family named businesses that paved the way for today's retail boom have closed for good. It's sad for us to lose great buildings, businesses and people, but a new twist on an old phrase is how "the future is not what it used to be."

In the past several years, Royal Oak has also closed schools with four more slated to close or be demolished after this school year; Longfellow, Mark Twain, Northwood and Whittier. When Clara Barton Junior High was demolished back in the 1980's, I remember feeling that a piece of my youth was permanently removed from the city when I watched the trucks haul the rubble away. After Benjamin Franklin Elementary School was torn down a few summers ago, the soaring smoke stack, which could be seen for blocks, also toppled into a giant pile of bricks, glass and steel. Today as I look around, many of our old playgrounds are nowhere to be found.

These once unyielding foundations and larger than life structures full of children become vacant lots as the acreage is sectioned off or divided. Within a few years of a school being gone, it's surprisingly easy for people in a neighborhood to forget it once stood. Some say the schools were just buildings and embrace the direction our city is moving since we no longer have the population to support them. But for some, it's hard knowing all that remains of these schools are a few artifacts, photos and our collective memories.

It's sad that I can't go back to Barton and dig my cleats into what was once home plate. I miss being able to wander around the field at Franklin touching the metal poles of the swing set. On my last visit to the school I laughed as I bent down to look inside the gigantic cement barrels I last crawled through in 1977, realizing they were in fact too small for me and my friends to run away and live in like I once imagined we could. The older I get the more I see how such dissimilar and unrelated things I grew up with now all have something in common; they're gone.

Remembering what once was, is just as important as knowing what will be. If we want to embrace the future, we cannot live in the past, nor can we forget it. Yet despite all the changes in our city, the one thing that remains untouched that nobody can ever sell or take away is its history.

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