A neighborhood where you used to live is a gloomy night walk.
It can be fun in day, with popping in old haunts and sitting in parks and on benches where you whiled away those heady, halcyon days of yore when dreams seemed like promises made by an ever-expanding future. Ah, youth! Ah, those days of… like two years ago.
While days in an old neighborhood can be fun, nights among the old haunts make you feel like a ghost. The stores are closed. The shops won’t let you in. You notice how tired the cooks trudging the late-night taco dive look. It’s a cold, gloomy, lonely walk from the spot you dropped off the rental car to the nearest train station home.
You notice the changes, of course. Which places are new. Which ones stayed. Which long-empty storefronts have signs of movement inside or city-mandated paperwork slapped in the windows promising and detailing the work to come.
I smiled at one place seemingly filled with a future. Scaffolding surrounded the plain brick church. The sign painted over the white doorway still bandied terms like Iglesia and Dios.
It hadn’t been a church in years. I used to walk by and see oddest uses. A thrift sale some days. Grunts, whiffs, oofs and the drumbeat of Capoeira lessons other days. South American martial arts dance. A remnant of oddness in a neighborhood steeping like tea in incoming trend bars and white residents.
I walked past the church, smiling that whatever the future to come, it was bringing some of the past along with.
Then I looked back.
About five feet back into the lot, the entire building had been demolished. The façade, the history-bestowing, authenticity-granting façade triggering memories of Spanish-language church services and Capoiera grunts would remain.
I don’t know if there’s an official term for this, although Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin once called it a “façade-ectomy.” It’s not exactly a facelift. That would be slapping a new skin on an old body. This is slapping a new body on an old skin.
The new condominium building the signs on the scaffolding promise will be new and modern and ultra-trend-ritz while wearing the skinsuit of an old church with history, heritage and community connection.
There’s an old brain twister called the Ship of Theseus. As recorded by Plutarch, the city of Athens saved the famous boat, replacing every board and rope as it rotted. Eventually, every piece had been replaced. Was it still the Ship of Theseus?
Luckily for the riddling set, a neighborhood – even an old one a ghost like me haunts when dropping off a rental car – is a where, not a what. You could replace every building and brick and it would still be the same place. No need to lie by peeling off a building’s face. No need to pretend you’re something you’re not.
But they did it anyway.
Here is still here, even if the luxury fancy-rich condo replacing the old Spanish-language church hides behind a false face.