In 2012, a commercial building on 207th street and Broadway in the New York neighborhood of Inwood burned to the ground. It was home to a pharmacy, a Bank of America, a Laundromat, a pharmacy, a law office, a yoga studio, and a pet store. I was twelve years old, and I did not mourn this building. It was just there one day, and then it was not. I remember walking past the gutted ruins and feeling like I was seeing something I wasn’t meant to look at. In 2017, a fire on Nagle Avenue, another thoroughfare in Inwood, destroyed seven storefronts. In other words, growing up in northern Manhattan I had seen a good number of fires. Fire is the most senseless kind of destruction; often an accident, and it requires us to watch something built by human innovation razed to the ground and reduced to ash. The thing that’s scariest? It’s nobody’s fault.
4941 Broadway after the fire in 2012. It has since been rebuilt. Image from DNAInfo.
When the Parisian landmark of Notre Dame’s spire burned down, I did not feel grief, loss, or anguish the way a lot of people did. I registered it as an object, destroyed. I had seen things burn down before, and the reality is that the building was old and ill equipped for damage. My mother’s church, Holy Trinity Inwood, is being torn down to make space for a condominium due to changes in the rezoning laws in northern Manhattan, and a churchgoer who attended that space for eighty years no longer has his place of worship. This is undoubtedly heartbreaking, but it’s what happens in neighborhoods in New York. Things get torn down. Things get replaced. People with money are largely the people who get to decide what stays and what goes, but I lived in Europe for a short period as a a child, and as a New Yorker living in a small city in western France I was perplexed by the fact that many things were just as they had been hundreds of years ago. I didn’t think you could live in a place like that. I thought that was what museums were for, and though museums are lovely places, I wouldn’t want to live in one.
In New York, the independent bookstore The Strand is currently fighting against having their building designated as a historic city landmark because once a building is declared a landmark, it can no longer change its paint color, blueprint, or building material without approval from a City Council commission. Their essential argument was that turning the building into a monument would destroy the bookstore’s purpose as a bookstore, and just make things more difficult for them. The Yale University library is modeled after a cathedral, presenting knowledge as sacred, and The Strand positioned itself firmly against that kind of division of knowledge. Designation as a historic landmark has saved many places in New York, but it takes away their functionality. Notre Dame was not thought of the way Holy Trinity Inwood was, a functional place where ordinary people gather torn down anyway, and Notre Dame’s symbolism is what allowed it to have millions of dollars thrown into its restoration.
Notre Dame’s interior after the fire. Image from Flipboard.
There is growing discord across the internet about what the cathedral burning means. Writers have reveled in pointing fingers that those upset by the destruction are not as upset about the burning of black churches in Louisiana, or a fire in a mosque in Jerusalem on the same day. I don’t know what exactly being “as upset,” means, but these posts speak to a kind of existential anxiety about tragedy. We cannot handle more than one at once, yet there are many people who have to. The social politics of this debate aren’t what I’m interested in discussing, though that anger is of its own importance – when I saw how much money was being poured into the cathedral’s restoration I could only think about how I pay $225 per session of physical therapy I would suffer greatly without because American healthcare will not provide for the country’s most vulnerable. But the way I saw online discourse play out really captured to me how afraid western civilization is of losing its symbols, how far removed the figurative idea from Notre Dame was from the reality that a building that old will not be able to withstand a fire. At this moment in history, the aesthetics of civilization are what we hold onto. The Strand resisted being turned into a symbol because its owner Nancy Wyden implied in an interview that a business in a changing city simply could not hold up to the kind of idealism placed on a sacred space like Notre Dame: “In an attempt to preserve history, you very well may end up destroying a piece of the city.”
Yet I have the privilege to imagine the end of the world and not feel it inside of me. I felt empathy for those who saw their faith in the burning building and felt a personal sense of loss, and at the same time empathy for those who wondered why the world stopped for a burning church when countries like Palestine, Venezuela, and Libya are on fire every day. I am not mourning Notre Dame, just as I did not mourn the building on 207th street. I am saddened by the suffering caused by both. But the world moves on and something will get built in their place. What I detected in all of this was the sense that nobody wanted to admit that there are fires everywhere. Once the building has burned, you can put out the fire, but the building is still gone.