"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A look inside our old school is harrowing

What's to become of this? Our old school was once the object of our affection and abuzz with activity in Morris. Today it's blight. (B.W. photo)

I had the very rare opportunity to go inside our old abandoned school on Saturday. It wasn't something I really wanted to do. Some high school classmates of mine were in town, and one of them had the connections to arrange for this "urban explorer" experience.
I had tried talking them out of it, arguing that such a visit could only be miserable and troubling, such was the highly deteriorated condition of the old patchwork of buildings. But their curiosity was strong and couldn't be discouraged.
A friendly Morris police officer opened the door of the 1914 building for us. What we saw inside was even worse than what I expected. I'm not sure Indiana Jones would be up for a thorough exploration. Surely he would want to leave and implore city officials to apply the wrecking ball immediately if not sooner.
Come to think of it, how did the City of Morris come to own this mess? Why would they possibly want it? Whatever the answers, it's their problem now. The city's problems are everyone's problems who live here.
If you think this monstrous abandoned structure is demoralizing for the community, you're lucky you're just viewing it from the outside.
How to describe the inside? It's challenging. Perhaps a movie company could come here and film a vampire or slasher movie.
I became concerned that breathing the air might have health issues even for the short duration of our tour. Pigeons flap around inside the old auditorium. Goodness knows what other life forms might've wedged inside. Bats are nocturnal so we wouldn't have seen them. I'd bet they're "hanging around" though.
These life forms are surely accompanied by their excrement. It's hard to imagine conditions getting worse but I imagine they will as time goes by and the city just sits on its hands.
At the conclusion of our Saturday visit, as I breathed a sigh of relief and got to breathe the outside air again, I had to conclude that the demolition task was urgent, regardless of any financial realities facing the City of Morris.
Even if it takes some kind of one-time special assessment of the city's residents, it's absolutely necessary. I'd be happy to pay my share.
Would Riley Brothers be prevented from doing it? If so, that's too bad but it's necessary anyway. We'd have to contract from outside. Riley Brothers probably hasn't extricated itself from the consequences of its legal bump in the road.
Back when the community was weighing the new school referendum, there was much talk that Riley Brothers could simply take over the old school property, handle demolition and plan some sort of redevelopment of that sprawling property that includes the playgrounds and football field.
That might have been the best plan. But then the talk of "re-use" began swirling. Wasn't a committee set up for that? Yeah, that'll guarantee success: set up a committee.
The committee, which I suspect is defunct now, should have taken the "tour" we had on Saturday. It practically made me sick. I wouldn't want to live within two blocks of that crumbling old Titanic of a structure. At least the Titanic (ship) is under water - out of sight and out of mind. No bats or pigeons or God knows what else in the Titanic.
Various re-use proposals were bandied about. I recall "apartments for artists." And "business incubator." These were perfect suggestions from people who probably spent too much time in college classrooms. It was this ilk that I suspect spawned the later talk of a "green community."
I have written a previous post about how the green community is like "Harvey" in the 1950 movie of the same name - our "imaginary friend." Formal plans have been developed that have even won an award, and been on display at the Morris Public Library.
It's intriguing until you realize that it's no more real than Jimmy Stewart's big rabbit companion friend. I feel like shaking you all by the shoulders and saying "look, this property is empty and blighted and there's nothing more you can say about it at this time!"
The property must cost the city something to oversee - lawn mowing to be sure. And insurance?
The economy was humming back when the flurry of changes happened - leaving the old school (and football field) and building all the new stuff. People must have just assumed that the vacated property would be disposed in an appropriate manner.
The best-laid plan of mice and men can get screwed up, though. Now we have a monumental chunk of blight in the grand old residential core of Morris. That school and the surrounding grounds were once a joyous focal point of the Morris community.
I was in junior high when "split shifts" were implemented to accommodate the burgeoning baby boomer population of youth. Split shifts were a signal to the community that something had to be done. It wasn't even enough to have a detached elementary school like Longfellow on the west side of town (an office building today).
We boomers were overwhelming the available resources. But getting a new school referendum passed was more difficult then, than today. It was sort of like pulling teeth, but finally a proposal got pushed through and we got our new high school.
The new school was just for grades 10-12 at the start. There were still plenty of kids to fill the old school. Surely it was hard to envision the grand old school simply being abandoned.
Exterior photos of the old school were proudly displayed in Morris High School yearbooks up through the late 1960s. People from that time would faint if they could see what I saw Saturday.
As a pure matter of principle, it's profoundly sad to see the complete, miserable disintegration of buildings and property that once were the objects of pride and tender loving care.
I don't care how necessary the changes were. The old buildings are clearly beyond salvage now and if left to degrade much longer, will be an increasing embarrassment to Morris. All of this is just a stone's throw from the UMM campus. It's unacceptable.
I saw what appeared to be gang graffiti on a blackboard.
The grand old residential core of east Morris deserves better than this. The houses there, along with most of the houses in west Morris, are suffering by comparison to the new houses, many of the "starter mansion" kind (or "McMansion") that tend to be built on the eastern fringe.
Let's face it, a lot of our houses are getting old - the kind of houses our family lived in when first coming to Morris in the early 1960s. Cozy yes but not immune to the effects of passing time.
How often to you see any of these houses actually being razed and replaced by something new? Pretty rare I'd say.
Yes, people can live very comfortably in these old houses. We can only hope that the more modest old houses age more gracefully than our old edifice of a school.
I could be drastic and ask if we're seeing a slow abandonment of the core central parts of Morris. Remember parking meters? I do. Parking downtown was a valued and limited commodity at one time. Eventually it became impractical to charge for it anymore. The "big box" stores which see no advantage to a central location took care of that. Our version is Pamida (which was called Gibson's at the start and changed the whole retail landscape here).
Businesses realized it's no big deal for people to drive to the outskirts of town, or slightly beyond (or all the way to Alexandria), where they could conveniently park for free in expansive parking lots carved out of fields.
"Downtown" suddenly lost its magic.
Main street of Morris still looks nice but it's not abuzz with the kind of social activity it once was. The women would go shopping while their husbands went to the pool hall.
Now I have to wonder if even churchgoing is going to migrate to the outskirts, following the Wal-Mart model. There is a sign along County Road 5 going north from Morris, just beyond Dan Sayles' dog kennels, proclaiming that a new church is coming. A Lutheran church.
My God, I thought, Morris needs a new church like it needs a hole in the head. Morris seems to have too many churches now, and at least one (mine) is making desperation pleas of financial adversity.
I suppose a church just outside of town can harness the Wal-Mart principles, one of which is convenient parking (created out of those wide open spaces). No need to consider parallel parking along a curb.
The increasing proportion of seniors in our population makes the easy parking more attractive. As wonderful as our senior citizens center is in Morris, it is not parking-friendly. Just as we once trashed parking meters, we're moving away from a willingness to find parking in a typically urban setting.
It will be interesting to see if this new church attracts people who don't want to deal with the urban logistics. It would seem the existing churches in Morris are in no position to have members siphoned off. So I can't imagine what all the consequences will be, but there's a looming concern that a deterioration of the older parts of Morris might accelerate.
Stevens County government is of course bucking the trend by building the Mother of All Courthouses - a move I opposed all along. It certainly appears to be more than a renovation.
And what if the new jail had gotten the thumbs-up? One can only wonder. (And then we'd see signs in the vicinity saying "do not pick up hitchhikers.")
One thing is absolutely certain: the old school complex has to come down and very soon. Whatever it takes.
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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