Scene of the Crime

‘Is There Any Such Thing as an Evil Building?’ Why We Should Think Twice Before Razing Houses of Horror

The effect of standing in a place where tragedy has occurred and viscerally registering its history cannot be matched with words or images.

Last year, the home where Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy lived in Newtown, CT.—a pale yellow 3,000 square foot house on two grassy acres—crumpled under the claw of a backhoe.

A survey had gone out to residents of Newtown asking what should be done with the remaining charitable donations to the city, and, more than a year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School where Lanza murdered 23 was taken down, the demolition of his family home was among the write-in answers.

In Cleveland, the home where three women were kidnapped, raped and tortured was demolished in 2013. In Los Angeles, OJ Simpson’s Rockingham mansion and the home where Sharon Tate was murdered were both leveled. As was the Amish schoolhouse in bucolic Nickel Mines, PA, where five girls were killed by a shooter.

Sites of tragedy are leveled in the spirit of protection. Children shouldn’t be forced to learn and grow within a location of trauma. Landowners shouldn’t be burdened with a nearby home that drives down real estate values. Communities shouldn’t tempt the perversion of victims’ memories into ghost-tales and lurid tourism.

But the high-profile erasure of a few tragic sites must not set an automatic precedent for communities across the nation. The conversation around the fate of such buildings can be among a community’s most powerful tools as they begin a discussion on the daunting topic of prevention.

As I wrote this piece, yet another mass shooting occurred in Orlando, the biggest in the country’s history. A map popped up on my laptop with a smattering of red dots—the 177 locations across the U.S. where four or more people had been shot in a single incident up until that point this year. How would these landscapes of violence be mediated?

Eight years ago I wouldn’t have asked that question, but since 2008, I’ve been studying a single locus of tragedy—one that has finally been razed.

In Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in America, a young couple killed their three children in 2003 in an aging two-story apartment building. A satisfying explanation for the murders—drugs, poverty, mental illness—eluded the community, but the building was a wound that had continued to fester, and its destruction seemed to many a fitting way to heal. (The aftermath of these murders is the subject of my book, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City, published earlier this year.)

Due to bureaucracy and the historic status of the building, due to it age, it continued to deteriorate until May 16th, when a wrecking crew arrived and a massive backhoe chipped away at the bricks that had been fired 90 years ago next to the Rio Grande. Onlookers were caked in a dust cloud when the structure finally buckled and fell to the street. Thirteen years had passed since the crime, and the father of the children waited on death row to be executed.

I arrived in Brownsville five years after the murders, but just as the debate over what to do with the building came underway. Initially, there wasn’t much dissent, just one loud voice that disagreed with demolishing historic buildings. Mark Clark, a preservationist who had peeled back layers of asbestos and plaster from a former brothel, dry goods store and travel agency, to reveal the graceful brick archways of his art gallery, asked this simple question: “Is there any such thing as an evil building?”

Why, he wondered, was the city holding an inanimate object to account for a human crime?

As the years wore on, this conversation, while subtle and often taking place in homes and city offices, grew more robust. Different plans emerged. What if, instead of razing the unattractive but structurally sound building, it could be transformed into an office space for social service organizations, the kinds of groups that could have benefitted the struggling couple before they committed the act that defined them? When that plan was scrapped, another idea emerged: the city’s Wellness Coalition would renovate the space and create a headquarters for its community gardening and health programs. The memory of the crime was powerful enough to drive demolition. These visionaries wondered whether, instead of erasing the nexus of that power, it could be harnessed for the common good.

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Ultimately, these arguments failed to gain popular support. But the debate itself was transformative. It forced people to consider how we react to such tragedies, and whether, once time has passed and the healing has begun, we can set about addressing the root causes of such crimes. The presence of the building over these last 13 years drove an ever more nuanced conversation around an event that initially prompted distancing descriptions like “monster” and “evil.”

The flip-side of demolition is preservation: some tragic sites are catalogued to prompt this kind of deep reflection, a conversation between present and past. Whether at concentration camps like Auschwitz or the slave castles in Ghana, histories of violence are sometimes viewed as worth revisiting precisely because they disturb us deeply. The effect of standing in such a place and viscerally registering its history cannot be matched with words or images. Through this experience, we register not only the darkest manifestations of humanity, but also question whether our contemporary conditions leave us primed for such events to repeat. The next step—moving forward to change those conditions—is the only hope to reduce the sites of tragedy, the red dots on next year’s map.

There are still more options for such locations than preservation or demolition. We can remember crimes by transforming the places where they occurred. Smaller-scale crimes aren’t considered historic in a conventional sense, but they can point to the bigger problems that serve as catalysts, and in renovating them as centers that address those problems they can truly honor victims. In Brownsville, the lot behind the building eventually became a community garden, named Tres Angeles, in honor of the children who had died. There, families received support and nutrition, and began a movement that has spawned hundreds of new gardeners across the city.

Once the building was leveled, Brownsville residents began to visit the site, as they had in the days following the murders. Some drove by slowly, their windows rolled down, and then continued on. Others parked, ducked beneath the caution tape, and took the heavy bricks home. “It’s a piece of history,” one man told me.

When tragedy is fresh, and the nation’s attention is trained on a crisis, we begin to have meaningful conversations about reform. But real change is often painfully slow. By the time it takes root, attention has shifted to the next act of bloodshed. Then cities like Brownsville, or Newtown, or Nickel Mines or Orlando, are left to negotiate the landscape that remains, both physical and psychic. In Orlando, the owner of Pulse has said she will reopen the club, initially founded to honor her late brother who had died of HIV/AIDS, as a place of safety and joy for the LGBTQ+ community. She named it Pulse to “keep the heartbeat alive.”

As for Brownsville, the building on East Tyler Street is gone, and with its demise all of the possibilities for its use have also evaporated. But those 13 years of conversation, and the prospect of taking those ideas for new programs and creating them in other spaces, remains. With those ideas, and the remnants of the building scattered through the city’s homes, Brownsville moves forward without forgetting where it’s been.