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It's Our Turn: History lost forever

People around the world watched in shock Monday as Notre Dame, an 850-year-old gothic cathedral, burned in Paris.

At least I know I did. I visited Notre Dame back in the 80s at the end of a five-week backpacking tour of Europe. I'm not sure why, but I don't think I ever went inside the cathedral. But I certainly admired and photographed the outside. The flying buttresses of the building have always fascinated me.

Notre Dame is nearly as much a symbol of Paris and France as the Eiffel Tower. So this is certain to be a huge blow to the French. Some people stood and wept as one of the major symbols of their city burned. One journalist compared the sight of the cathedral burning for Parisians to the sight of the Twin Towers burning for people in New York. Certainly there are some major differences in that the Twin Towers resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, but both landmarks were symbols of the cities they represented.

Some people in this county may wonder why so much fuss is made about an old cathedral. That's because in a country like the United States, which has a fairly short history, we tend to focus more on the new than on the old. Sure, we have some museums and a few older buildings, but for the most part we don't like to live in the past. If we do stop to admire something old for a few moments, it is often while at the same time just being happy we have advanced to where we are now. For the most part, we care about progress, not history.

And so, we are always striving for new things, whether it happens to be cars, homes, roads, phones, computers, ideas or philosophies. Anything old is seen as worthless, old-fashioned, and not worth maintaining.

As a result, when a building gets old, down it comes to make room for one that's new and better. Investing in and preserving older buildings is often seen as a waste of money. Just look at the example of the former Pillsbury mansion on Lake Minnetonka in the Twin Cities. The historic mansion — which would have been 100 years old this year — was at one time listed as one of the most expensive properties available in Minnesota. The problem was, no one wanted to purchase or invest in it, not even when the price was slashed in half. So it was eventually demolished and the land divided into five homesites.

Everywhere there are examples of this sort of loss, although on a smaller scale. Every city has lost older, historic homes and buildings as they are demolished to make way for modern buildings that are perceived to be better and cheaper.

Here in Alexandria, we are not immune to this new versus old bias. The Bella Cucina building on Broadway, although not really historic, is an interesting old building which should be preserved and used. Instead it will be demolished to make way for bigger and "better."

This bias also extends to the natural world. Rarely does a construction project involve preserving large trees. Most often they are cut down and smaller, newer trees are planted in their place. Just a few years ago, one of the oldest and largest trees in Alexandria was cut down for a new housing project. In that situation — as is often the case — it wasn't even necessary, it was just an excuse to get rid of something that was seen as useless and in the way.

We often even extend that idea to people. In our society, being young is seen as the ideal and getting old is to be dreaded. Where in many cultures older people are seen as a fountain of wisdom and experience, here they are usually seen as old fashioned, out of touch, and in need of being replaced with younger people with new ideas.

Notre Dame was built way back in the 12th and 13th centuries. The roof timbers that burned were from huge trees in an ancient French forest. It will probably be impossible to restore the building just the way it was. And yet, because the French care about history, they will probably find a way. And because they value the past, someday you and I will be able to visit Notre Dame and see it looking just as it did before the fire. Then we'll go right back to our obsession with the new.

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"It's Our Turn" is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.