As I begin writing this post, it’s been about 3.5 hours since the implosion of the Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital in Buffalo. Videos and images have begun to circulate in my social media sphere, including my own, which I somewhat ironically captioned “Cheaper than a football game.” The truth is I don’t know how to react to it. The degree to which this event is a positive sign of development seems more than offset by the potential environmental hazards of demolishing a building built in 1911 by way of explosives. The asbestos now in a prolonged state of suspension above the residential neighborhoods northwest of Gates Circle, including Elmwood Village, Black Rock, and Riverside, is on a lot of people’s minds, for the moment. The short duration of our collective exposure to the carcinogen, though, will likely settle our nerves in a day or two. What this fine layer of dust, with traces of who knows what other materials, will do to the water table, or how it could impact the local habitats and the freshwater ecologies of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, are likely to be left unexplored. I, much like everyone else who seems to care, don’t have the time, the resources, or the know-how to conduct such a study.
The only potentially useful response I’m capable of is a reading of my own experience and of the recordings made and shared by members of the community, and the reactions of other onlookers.
I chose to take a series of rapid-shutter photographs in order to preserve the event as a sequence of still images. The still-image quality is higher than that of the video I can record with my phone (a Moto-X, 2nd Gen.), but the most notable distinction is the absence of the incredible sound of the explosives going off, and the mix of verbal responses from the gathered crowds. These photos only show the crowd in the parking lot behind a gas station just East of the corner of W. Delevan and Delaware Ave. and the demolition process.
As I walked back to my car, thankfully not through the clouds of dust, a woman who spoke broken English came out of her home, looking frightened, asking, “What is happening?” She said she had a number of children inside, and it was clear the series of ground-shaking explosions a block away caught her totally by surprise, and the throngs of people and emergency vehicles outside her home did little to assuage her shock and fear. I tried to explain it was a planned demolition of a local building, and that people had come out to watch, but I had to settle on telling her that it was OK, there was nothing to worry about (which would be the official reading of the situation, but maybe not one that stands up to scrutiny). I realized after I walked away I could easily have shown her my photo sequence, but who knows if that would have eased her anxiety. I’m not sure what efforts were made to notify local residents of the implosion, but whatever they were, this person and her family fell through the cracks.
Now that more and more videos are coming out, I’m noticing a mixture of approaches. This first video is a rather somber, beautiful documentation of the event. It’s worth it to resist scrubbing to the “action,” and instead sit with the knowledge that peaceful image you see for the first few minutes will suddenly and without warning be utterly destroyed in the most efficient, cost-effective way we know.
The camera operator remains silent, except for a sigh, registering as impatience (the implosion took place about 22 minutes behind schedule) and a series of awe-inspired gasps as the building collapses. The voice sounds like that of an older man, perhaps confirmed by the username “roger herkelmann.” This is the only video uploaded by that user, whose history is mostly comprised of “likes” given to videos pertaining to bluegrass music. The space in which it is shot sounds like an empty building: the drip of a leaking faucet resonates through the room. roger herkelmann’s approach is that of a patient documentary, and the direction of the shot, facing east in the early morning, allows for an evocative contrast between the duration natural beauty and the fleeting nature of human culture, in which a century-old building can be reduced to ash in about 15 seconds.
Other, more casual videos showcase a series of reactions from onlookers. Many react with celebratory cheers. What we’re celebrating, though, is unclear. This may have been elicited from the crowd experience. Where I was, some young men started a Buffalo Bills-inspired “Hey-ay, Hey-ay” cheer, followed by the customary “Let’s go, Buffalo!” But rather than simply reduce this reaction to a frat-boy’s confusion (any crowd being a football-watching crowd, in the bro-imaginary), I would argue that it is also tinged with the ideals of “Buffalove.” This movement, a youthful embrace of gentrifying economic development which mostly ignores the question of severe poverty in one of the poorest cities in America, is especially noticeable in the neighborhoods adjacent to Gates Circle: Elmwood Village, Riverside, and Black Rock. The demolition of Millard Fillmore Hospital–which is to be replaced with a shopping center–is a sign of this process moving toward the East Side, where property values are low, and residents are poor, and therefore, easily displaced. “Let’s go, Buffalo.” Right.
Some onlookers express a kind of wistful melancholy. I feel less confident in my speculations on this front. Perhaps they see their city changing in ways they don’t understand, or don’t like. Maybe they see that near-instantaneous destruction of what took months to build as a reminder of how hard it is to create something, and how easy it is to destroy it. Maybe they knew people that had worked in the hospital, or been treated there, or had done so themselves. I can’t be sure. But it stands in marked contrast to the celebration taking place elsewhere. The woman in the following video asks, “Why are they cheering?” Her friend responds, “Because it’s monumental.” To which, one might reply, “So was 9/11.” It impossible to watch a building fold in on itself–in a way that is simultaneously violent and gentle–without thinking of 9/11. And it similarly impossible to avoid thinking of the fates of 9/11’s first responders when you see firemen and police walking amidst the clouds of dust. These associations are certainly legitimate reasons for sadness.
This video showcases a wide range of reactions, from the celebration and sadness noted above, to fear and humor. The immediate association one onlooker has with an artifact of popular culture–The Myst, starring Tom Jane, as she notes–demonstrates the degree to which we are completely enmeshed in a system of external signifiers, that these shared points of reference have become the only way we can process a cloud of potentially poisonous materials immediately bearing down on us.
I don’t point out any of these reactions from an enlightened, condescending point of view. I found out late last night that the implosion was taking place, and grew excited over the prospect of the spectacle. I wasn’t there to document a monumental occasion, or to gather evidence for a scathing review Buffalo politics. I mostly wanted a fireworks show. But in reviewing my own documentation, and that of others, it’s clear that the question of materiality, which drives my work on Low Frequency Press, along with that of Hostile Books, has implications outside of the academic setting in which these publishing projects were initiated. This work is encouraging me into a greater awareness of the material aspects of our reality, to attempt to consider the cultural context of building and demolition of all kinds, and what these activities mean, economically, environmentally, culturally, psychologically. Whether or not that awareness bears itself out into some meaningful difference in the world will be hard to assess, but at least there will be some record of the work itself.