The roof of a building at the corner of Pleasant Street and Mason Street collapsed yesterday. The public works director, fire chief and code enforcement officer assessed the structure and declared it unsafe. They called the company demolishing the southern burnt out building on Main Street and asked if they could use the excavator for a few minutes. The excavator drove up Main Street, demolished the building with the faulty roof, and then drove back down Main Street to finish its job there.
By lunchtime it was over.
Around that time the news director for NHPR sent me an email asking if I wanted to do a 45 second piece on the building collapse for the night’s newscast. He closed the email with, “Not a good sign for that tourist destination,” a reference to the story I did last week. In most circumstances it would be true, but he didn’t understand Berlin. I don’t understand Berlin either, but I am familiar enough with the city that my gut reaction to the situation was it was positive.
I first learned of the roof collapse on Twitter, from pictures posted by Katie Paine and others. The first thing I did was shoot off an email to city staff to ask if I’d missed a property scheduled for demolition. I even posted a note on Twitter congratulating Housing Coordinator Andre Caron for taking down another one. It wasn’t until I got an email back that I found out it wasn’t planned.
I told NHPR I would happily do the story, but I wasn’t going to take the angle it was a bad thing for the city. He was reacting as anyone would—it’s hard to imagine a building collapsing is a good thing—but I explained that things are different in Berlin.
That the city doesn’t have to pay to tear down the building is a good thing. That the city didn’t have to go through the RSA 155-B process is a good thing. That the city was able to reduce it’s excess properties by one is a good thing. From the point of view of the city, if all the vacant buildings could spontaneously give way without hurting anyone it would be a huge relief.
But think about that if you aren’t from Berlin. Think about that if you live in a city with too few properties. I have heard numerous complaints about how the southern part of the state ignores and denigrates the North Country. I don’t think that’s true; I think they simply don’t understand it.
When StoryCorps came to Berlin NHPR announced the dates it would be there and told people to sign up online. I did a story on the StoryCorps coming to the city for the Reporter, so I called NHPR to see how things were going. The woman I talked to said they weren’t getting a lot of people signing up and they didn’t understand why not. I told her they need a phone number in addition to the website because a lot of the people they were trying to reach aren’t on the Internet. When I saw her at the opening she thanked me for helping them connect with residents, something they hadn’t been effective at before.
Last night at city hall, as the election results were coming in, people were speaking in French. That is a wonderful piece of heritage I hope Berlin never loses, though it is doubtlessly difficult to preserve today. It is a facet of the community I notice all the time, and it’s something that makes me smile, simply because its a mystery to me.
To the rest of the state, all of Berlin speaks French, and it isn’t something they understand. In a lot of ways non-industrial economic development stopped south of the notches. A city so rooted in its traditions and its heritage is not something a society of transients is familiar with. What might make perfect sense anywhere else in the state is turned on its head in Berlin. It is a city unlike any other.
The news director asked me if I really thought it was worth the time to report the story of the building, seeing as people in Berlin didn’t see it as a disaster. Yes, I said, it is worth reporting, but not because a building collapsed. It’s news because it isn’t a disaster. It’s news because as the city fights its way out of the economic malaise it has been in for the last several decades it creates situations that defy rationality. It’s news because people are happy to see one more building go down, because it signals the rebirth of the city. It’s news because the rest of the state doesn’t understand this, and because they don’t understand they don’t know what to think of the city.
But it isn’t news that can fit into a 45 second spot. It isn’t a story easily told in a few short sentences. It is a story that goes back a century, and it is a story that happened just yesterday. I watch it unfold, and most of it I can’t put into the newspaper. It is more broad, more emotive and more powerful than I can capture in print. It is truly a spectacular transformation, one residents have been yearning for for generations. Berlin is shedding its skin, growing into a new self even it doesn’t understand. I will never be able to finish telling that story.
But I will continue to try.