What We Lost

by Kim Mayer

It was the only time I can ever remember dreading going into town, Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. Centered on Spring Street, steps up from the waterfront, the ferry terminal, the Marina, and Fairweather Park. Where musicians play in summer.

There was no music now. On April 7th a fire blazed in the night, extensively damaging six iconic historic buildings—some a total loss–two buildings dating back to the 1880’s. Although the fire had been extinguished, the block was still sectioned off with emergency vehicles and yellow tape.

I hated to look. The agony of seeing what isn’t there anymore. I was feeling things architecturally in the moment. A popular tavern, coffee shop, real estate office, and kayaking tour company. All of these buildings had had other incarnations through the ages: hotels, grocers, saloon, barbershop, and a silent movie house among them.

Later I determined that the fire in Friday Harbor was causing something not unlike PTSD in me, triggering memories in the town where I had grown up. A small town in northern Connecticut, Suffield prided itself on its Historic District. Gracious 18th and 19th century homes lined North and South Main Street, with a town center and village green. A Town Hall, Masonic Lodge, bank, fire station, a grocer, pharmacy, luncheonette, and various shops comprised the old town center. I always thought the center comfortable with itself. Every bit as archetypal then, as Friday Harbor, my western town now.

And then the most incongruous thing happened—entirely off-plot. These were going away to school years for me, so I wasn’t paying close attention. It seemed to me that on one visit home the town center was there, as always, and on the next visit it was not. It was almost like the center disappeared.

In Friday Harbor a rogue arsonist torched the town on April 7th. In Suffield Connecticut, the town center was demolished in the 1960’s by committee. Bulldozers and wrecking balls right through the heart of the town. I will never understand how it happened.

A suburban shopping center was then constructed, like a small mall, off the site–not in The Historical District. “Suffield Village” is how they refer to it. Initially it tried to hold the businesses from town, but now it’s mostly offices and empty spaces. As a friend in Suffield notes, “Businesses failed and the building went into some disrepair. It’s just not anything special.” All the parking in the world now, and no one wants to go there.

The old Suffield Town Center had good bones and charm. It was nothing that fresh paint, new awnings, parking meters, and love wouldn’t have fixed.

Islanders know this with every ounce of their being. The love in Friday Harbor has been overwhelming.