Thursday, June 16, 2011

The half life of the past

kw: family history

In the course of researching ancestors, I happened upon a wonderful archive of telephone book transcripts from the late 1800s, at the Midwest Historical and Genealogical Society. My ancestor, a land examiner named Joe Lindsey, seems to have carried on a side trade similar to house flipping, where he would live somewhere a year while fixing it up, then sell it and move on. Starting in 1885, he lived at these addresses in central and east Wichita, Kansas:
  • 110 W Lewis Street
  • 418 So Lawrence Lane
  • 212 Mathewson Street
  • 1033 Laura Avenue – the family lived here four years
  • 139 Ida Avenue – last residence in Wichita

I couldn't resist tracking down these addresses in Google Street View. Guess what? Three are entirely industrial now. Lawrence Lane is still residential, but all the houses are from the 1990s or later, judging by appearance alone. One whole side of Lawrence is taken up with the grounds of a church. The house numbers along this three-block street are in the 600-900 range, so the 400 block is entirely missing. The Mathewson Street location is partly industrialized. The only house standing on the 200 block is this one, at 204. It may be of the right period, but it is could be from the 1930s, built after older houses were torn down or burned down. Other houses across the street appear 1930-ish.

When I visited Malta Bend, Missouri, where my father grew up, although I found ten ancestors in the little graveyard, only one house that any of them lived in is still standing. My father told me that his old house burned down twice, his grandfather's house burned, and other older houses had all burned at one time or another.

I guess that in the course of one lifetime, about half the artifactual history around us vanishes, one way or another. Old neighborhoods are replaced with commercial or industrial complexes, or they are torn down and all new neighborhoods erected; things we own may burn in a fire or be ruined in a flood; we throw away stuff; people inherit heirlooms but don't appreciate them and send them to the Salvation Army store or throw them out. Considering how much "stuff" we bring into our homes every year, I guess it is good that most of it is done away with. Otherwise, we'd be buried in refuse (hoarders self-bury!).

I mourn the passing of old neighborhoods, though. A well-build house can last for many generations. But after 50-100 years, everything is so out of style, few people want to live there. A place gets neglected, then abandoned, maybe condemned, and if it doesn't burn down, it'll be torn down and replaced. A few "lucky" remaining structures may finally be put on a Register of Historic Homes. But, really, when I think back over the places I've lived, I can only think of one or two houses that really deserve preservation. The rest are, or were, middle-class ticky-tacky that may survive a few upgrades—replacement windows, upgraded kitchen and bathrooms, a few coats of paint, maybe new siding, and a new roof every ten or twenty years—but will eventually be cheaper to demolish than to refurbish. Sic transit gloria mundi!

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