The Beauty of Decay
When I was going to community college in Tacoma back in 2008, the Luzon Building was still standing on the corner of Pacific Avenue and South 13th Street, long-abandoned.
I remember that it caught my eye every time I rode in on the bus into downtown. It was a beautiful late-19th-century brick building, and you could tell that it had known several lives since it was erected. It had that kind of face. I also remembered that there was a small tree growing out of one of the windows. A spark of nature in what I believed—at the time—to be a very loud, smelly, artificial jungle of concrete and steel.
The Luzon wouldn’t have much longer to stand, however, as the owners of the property had let it fall into to disrepair from which it could never recover. It was demolished in 2009. All that remains of it today is a single, ruined brick wall in a weed-ridden gravel pit next to paid parking. I assume local historians demanded that some memorial be left to the building, as unflattering as it is.
But even with the building gone, there’s a haunting magic to spaces like the remains of the Luzon—there are bricks still there that were around to see the last decade of the 19th century, witnessing (and housing) multiple generations, conversations, cultural cycles and technological evolutions thereafter.
I grew up in rural Pierce County. I’m accustomed seeing old, man-made structures returning to nature after years of human neglect. They may not be as grand and historical as something like the Luzon, but in my hometown, there were usually old barns, sheds, trailers, pre-fab dwellings…slowly being eaten alive by fir needles, cones, moss, English ivy and Himalayan blackberry. It crossed my mind, time and again: who built this? Who lived there?
But more nagging of my curiosity was the wonder of: what happened?
In a previous entry, I wrote about my childhood home, which was a hoarder house. I’d be doing the memory of the place a disservice if I didn’t talk about the good of it, along with the bad. It was on a hill, surrounded by trees and untamed overgrowth. My dad called it ‘the treehouse’, because looking out the back windows, it felt like we were literally up in the trees. The house, itself, was unfinished until years after I moved out. We had a ‘basement’, which was the lower floor of the house with exposed, pink fiberglass insulation and wood framing, and gaping access to the crawlspace. It was freezing in the winter, and comfortably cool in the summer. It was a raw, quiet place where one could go to think and get away from the chaos that existed upstairs. It smelled like cold, wet soil and had windows that looked out to the overgrown backyard. The place was lit up with yellow-green light off the leaves on a clear summer day.
I’m likely drawn to old, decrepit structures because—in a way—it’s something I associate with home. A place that isn’t perfect—untidy, maybe even ill—but at the same time, there was some room for quiet, thought and reason. A place that had beauty, even if it was a little untamed and intimidating at times. A place that clings to the good memories as much as it can through dust, mold, peeling paint and water-swollen floorboards.
A place that was and is a story.