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I bet Jeff Byles spends his spare time down in Red Hook haunting Civil Warera warehouses and contemplating the skeletal remains of a boat that's been rotting in the water for at least a dozen years. I bet he even has a little squat out there, a room in an abandoned roofless brick house where you can see the sky when you look through the top-floor windows. He's obsessed with ruins. How else to explain someone writing an homage to the world of dynamite-loving, sledgehammer-happy gonzos who rip down stadiums and skyscrapers and lots and lots of houses?
In Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, Byles (a Voice contributor) presents very different chapters in city planning and, by extension, city demolition: Haussmann's plans for Paris, the what-were-we-thinking story of Penn Station, the Berlin Wall's demise, and of course the destruction of the twin towers. And while there are many stories of an apathetic citizenry, Byles also detects a growing number of people willing to fight to save buildings slated to blow, even unlikely structures like the gas tanks known as the Maspeth Holders, the demise of which was big news in Brooklyn when they were demolished one summer morning. It's a strange but satisfying amalgam of stories, a primer for anyone who cares about urban histories and how, in ignoring architecture, we actively participate in its destruction. Sad, maybe, but as the early chapters often demonstrate, explosive-laden smackdowns can be good fun.
There are, first of all, the early wreckers themselves, men who might have played cigar-chomping extras in pre-Code movies. Byles loves their Runyon-esque languageplucky with an inordinate fear of contractions. "If it cannot be managed with the air guns," said demolition legend Jacob Volk of a 22-story building he brought down in 1910, "we shall use dynamite." Volk, who claimed to have invented the wrecking ball, resented the work of beaux arts types like Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt, who had the temerity to put up buildings meant to last. In the end, though, solidity was no match for Volk, who, according to Byles, "kept a blackjack on his desk, a totem of rough-and-tumble days. Beside it stood a whiskey bottle. A wrecker's wrecker, Volk was."
Byles follows the demolition lineage right up to the Loizeaux family, owners of Controlled Demolition Incorporated, which has blown up everything from the Seattle Kingdome to the remains of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The only stable force in Rubble's smash-bang universe, the Loizeaux have been in business since 1947. And befitting our era, they are Christian wreckers who "never juice up a blasting cap without a nod to the great Unbuilder in the sky. 'I give the good lord a lot of the credit,' [founder Jack Loizeaux] would say. 'He's turned the gravity on.' " The Loizeaux might argue that religion accounts for their success, but publicity helps too: In times of implosion, the family members make regular guest appearances on CNN.
But the Loizeaux seem so bland next to Volk: Are today's wreckers so pedestrian, so lacking in derring-do that they can't conjure a few colorful bons mots or maybe play piano on the stage of a concert hall just before its demise, as Harry Avirom did when his company tore down New York's Center Theatre in 1954?
No, it seems the impresarios of destruction are no longer the wreckers themselves but the property owners who demand a spectacle. Take Steve Wynn, Las Vegas grandee, who milked the 1993 demolition of the Dunes casino for every bit of press it could garner his new Bellagio hotel, which was to be built on the same site. A quarter-million people swarmed to Las Vegas to watch the special-effects fireworks meant to make the implosion itself look more glam than a mere collapse. Even the Dunes sign was transformed into "a flamethrower . . . [that] burst into a shower of sparks and hurled toward the hotel," Byles writes.
The same year that Wynn was hot-wiring the Dunes, Detroit was looking for solutions to its years-long race to demolish houses faster than people were abandoning them. Byles describes roaming bands of amateur wreckers who took down houses with a nihilistic zeal while Detroit's ombudsman suggested that the city actually shrink its boundaries and leave destroyed neighborhoods to the elements, a practice that became common in Europe after World War II. Byles sourly quips, "If it's good enough for Dresden, it's good enough for Detroit."
By Rubble's end, the pleasure of ruins no longer seems so irresistible; analogies to voyeurism and murder are never far. At the demise of the St. Louis Arena, one spectator remarked, "I don't think it could be any sadder to watch someone executed. To have so many memories erased in seconds. In just seconds."
Angela Starita is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Jeff Byles's reads at the Center for Architecture November 22.