There are locations in this world you need to see — while you still can
We all know about endangered species, plants and animals that, for a variety of reasons, are on the verge of extinction. Well, the world also has its share of endangered places — some of them natural wonders, others man-made miracles of design. Some are cultural touchstones, spiritual, sacred sites, place markers in U.S. and world history.
And they’re vanishing just as fast.
In some cases, it’s due to natural decay, the ravages of time and weather. Others fall to the bulldozer, the “march of progress,” i.e., development.
But whether a plant or a place, a mammal or a monument, all things endangered have one thing in common. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. When it comes to extinction — or demolition — there are no do-overs.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation annually lists 11 endangered places in the United States, from Massachusetts to Hawaii. One of them is Dorchester Academy in Midway, GA, which opened in 1871 as a school for freed slaves.
The students ranged in age from 8 to 80. None had ever attended a school before. Prior to the Civil War, Georgia barred them — by law — from doing so.
You know those jokes about parents telling their kids how they had to walk for miles through the snow to get to school…uphill…both ways…barefoot? Here, that was no joke.
But Dorchester Academy did much more than teach. After the school closed, the facility became a kind of forward operating base for the Civil Rights movement. In the 1940s, long before anyone had heard of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks or Bull Connor, this school was registering African-Americans to vote.
How big a deal was this? Everyone involved knew they were risking their lives. Never mind actually voting; back then, merely attempting to register to vote as a black man or woman in places like Georgia could get you killed. And it would continue to get people killed in the South for another quarter-century.
But they didn’t stop. The 1963 Birmingham civil rights march was organized here. The Rev. Dr. King worked on his famous “I Have A Dream” speech here. They didn’t stop.
In 2010, I can walk into my neighborhood polling station and cast my ballot like any other American citizen, without having to wonder who or what might be waiting for me outside, because they didn’t stop.
Today, Dorchester Academy is empty, crumbling, dying. A single red brick building, badly in need of repair, is all that remains. The small town of Midway lacks the funds to fix it up. Barring some sort of philanthropic miracle, this place probably will be gone in a few years.
Half a world away from Georgia, virtually surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, is Venice.
This place was once a nation-state in its own right, a capital of world trade, one of the earliest superpowers and Ground Zero for all manner of political intrigue. Not bad for a town founded on an Adriatic lagoon by a frightened handful of Roman refugees fleeing from barbarians.
Today, Venice still has the power to captivate its visitors. The centuries have faded its paints and peeled its facades, but still seem helpless to deprive it of its beauty and grace. No cars, no trucks, no buses, no diesel fumes. The only motor vehicles in this city are on its miles of canals. More than 450 bridges connect its 117 islands, and you cross them all on foot.
You will spend at least one day hopelessly lost in Venice, and the rest of your time there praying not to be found.
But Venice is sinking. Its buildings stand on wooden pilings sunk into the lagoon, and a series of environmental factors are both raising the tides and lowering the buildings. Damaging winter tidal surges have become practically a way of life, and more than a few Venetians have had enough.
Once a city of nearly 200,000 people, it claims barely 60,000 today. On most days, the tourists outnumber the residents here — and in the summers, by a lot.
The Italian government is trying some spectacular engineering projects in an attempt to save the city. They may work. Others say the sinking has stopped. They may be right. Either way, no one really knows.
There are lots of endangered places all over the world. Some, like Venice or Macchu Pichu, are famous. Others, like Dorchester Academy or the ancient Afghan city of Herat, are barely known to Americans.
Maybe one of them has sparked your curiosity for a long time. Maybe one of them resonates in your own personal or family history. Maybe one of them holds a spiritual connection for you. Pick a place, pick a reason and go.
While you still can.
Text and photos by G. Gross