“Doesn’t anybody care about all the old buildings?” I kept asking this question out loud every Sunday night when AMC aired the opening credits of The Walking Dead. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know of course, that this is the wildly popular zombie apocalypse hit series which is based on the 2003 graphic novel of the same name. Its third season recently ended so it will be several months before us viewers can once again get their zombie fix. I have to confess, however, that I usually find myself more worried about the buildings than any of the characters I know will likely end up as zombie chum at the end of each episode. In this past season alone, we’ve already witnessed no shortage of interesting structures in varying states of decay as humans battled both zombies and each other behind the backdrop of dilapidated roofs, broken windows and crumbling walls.
This season in particular was troubling because we were introduced to the residents of “Woodbury,” a small community that managed to barricade both ends of its central thoroughfare and create a safe place from the undead hordes beyond its walls. In real life, this idyllic haven is actually Main Street in Senoia, Georgia, a small town located less than an hour southwest of Atlanta. It’s easy to see why the producers of The Walking Dead chose to film here. Senoia’s buildings are a delight, mostly early 20th century multi-colored brick commercial structures with intricate cornices and rounded window moldings—it’s the quintessential small town, U.S.A. But this place is probably doomed too, as it’s hard to believe anyone cares about building upkeep and maintenance with the threat of extinction looming over one’s head.
But it turns out, my interest in zombies and historic preservation goes beyond television entertainment. The zombie threat to historic properties is, in fact, quite real. First, back in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans city mayor Ray Nagin, along with the financial assistance of the federal government initiated a demolition program of both historic and non-historic homes alike. With great alarm preservationists observed how hordes of city workers descended upon neighborhoods and began “infecting” properties—that is, red-tagging them for future bull-dozing. When Nagin’s term expired in 2010, the program ended and many breathed a sigh of relief, but their reaction was premature. Newly elected mayor Mitch Landrieu brought the program back to life, which wary preservation advocates quickly dubbed “zombie demolitions.”
More recently, in Austin, Texas the City Council voted to do away with expiration dates on building permits in the last week of March, and as many as 1,300 dead construction projects could now come back to life. In a 5-2 vote, the city council ignored the protestations of preservationists and environmentalists alike and invalidated its three year expiration date. Persuaded by arguments that the three year permit contradicted a state law which allowed five, council members opted to give Austin developers no limits at all. Bill Bunch, director of Save Our Springs Alliance, a grass-roots organization dedicated to protecting Austin’s unique aquatic assets spoke out at an initial city council meeting on March 20th warning that once dead projects dating as far back as the 1970s could now become “zombies” and spring back to life with only outdated ordinances to hold them in check.
No shortage of ideas exists when it comes to weighing in on the zombie zeitgeist and what it tells us about contemporary society. In sum, zombies are blank slates for any number of fears we may have; the ill effects of conformity, the repetitive mind-numbing tasks we perform every day, or the suspicion a rapidly changing technocracy will only result in dehumanizing change. One of the more notable representations came in 1978 with George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—a film remarkable not only for its violence and gore, but also its searing indictment on consumerism run amok. The basic plot concerned a handful of protagonists who seek refuge from a zombie horde on the second floor of a shopping mall, while down on the first floor zombies shuffle around in a typical somnambulist state. But these are not the aggressive, aurally-sensitive creatures that populate The Walking Dead. Instead, these zombies are motility challenged and cannot even master the escalators, leaving their upstairs neighbors free to indulge in all the hedonistic pleasures the mall can offer. But over time, in subtle fashion, we come to realize there is little distinction between people upstairs and the zombies down below. We are all infected.
Likewise, in the preservation field the zombie metaphor is not simply an effort to be trendy by referencing the latest cultural obsession, instead it is one imbued with implicit meaning. For us, zombies represent our fear of the deadening effects of bad architecture. This is not to say we fear anything modern or new, but rather everything unimaginative and cheaply made. Like Romero’s zombie film classic, we are all too often victims of architectural capitalism that has run amok. Behemoth, mass produced structures stripped bare of sentimentality is a virus we are constantly battling. Hastily erected by developers and big corporations, this architecture offers society nothing dynamic or inventive—they are buildings created with minimal investment that exist only to extract maximum profit. No collectivism or life exists within their walls; they are just hollow glass and concrete expanses unable to offer any meaningful connection with humanity. Like zombies, these buildings just keep coming and coming, one after another is built, until there are too many of them, and all of a sudden, we no longer feel a unique sense of place. Our built environment becomes a homogenous mass that overruns us, leaving us empty and overwhelmed.
References to zombies and historic preservation, then, reflect an all too real phenomena in our cities and towns. It aptly summarizes our ongoing struggles and unanticipated challenges were encounter on a daily basis. In any event, there is nothing to do now but sit back and wait for Season Four of The Walking Dead. When it finally starts up again all I can do is keep rooting for the buildings and hope that next season the beleaguered survivors finally run into FEMA specialists ready to implement a preservation plan and at least save the architecture in a world gone mad.
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