- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2013

For some communities stung by tragedy, a wrecking ball is key to the healing process.

For others, the decision to keep the site of past trauma standing is a vital step on the road to recovery.

One approach is unfolding in Newtown, Conn., where local officials have voted to tear down Sandy Hook Elementary School — where 20 first-graders and six educators were murdered last December — and erect a new building on the same plot.

Many in Cleveland believe demolition also is the right answer for Ariel Castro’s house of horrors, where three women were imprisoned for a decade before being rescued last month. Two decades ago, what was left of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was demolished just a few weeks after a bombing at the downtown Oklahoma City complex killed 168 people.

But very different tacks were taken in the aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall and at Colorado’s Columbine High School. Both structures still stand, though each has undergone significant renovations.

In such delicate and emotionally charged situations, there is no right or wrong path to take, specialists say. The correct step for one school, company or town may be entirely inappropriate for another.

“Every community goes through their own process of deciding how they want to handle this. There are very different reactions and very different ideas,” said S. Megan Berthold, an assistant professor in the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work and a trauma specialist with more than 25 years’ experience in her field.

“Some communities have used the opportunity, if you will, of these horrible disasters to support the resilience of the community in terms of coming together acknowledging the loss but still looking to the future,” she said.

That rationale clearly was on display in Aurora, Colo., where the Century 16 theater reopened just a few months after 12 people were killed and 58 wounded during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” last summer. About 75 percent of Aurora residents said the theater should be kept open, according to a survey conducted by the city.

The Safeway grocery store just outside Tucson, Ariz., also still stands two years after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nearly 20 others were shot in the parking lot. Six people died in the assault and Ms. Giffords was gravely wounded.

Much like the decision at Columbine a decade earlier, leaders at Virginia Tech decided to keep open Norris Hall. Site of the worst mass-shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history that claimed 32 lives, the building continues to be used for research and classes.

Part of the structure was completely renovated and has become the university’s Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

“People did not want this tragedy to negatively impact the future of teaching and learning. To tear down or to no longer utilize a building that is in the heart of our campus, a very large facility, it would have been a feeling or a sense that we took a step backward,” university spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

“Every situation and every circumstance is unique to that community. No one at Virginia Tech can say what Newtown, Conn., should do. What we decided was right for our community given the circumstances,” he said.

The decisions by Virginia Tech and Columbine, can be best understood by looking at them in a larger context, specialists say. For years, the buildings had been used for an undoubtedly positive purpose — the education of young people.

They’ve continued to benefit students, faculty and society as a whole in the years since the rampages.

“They served a healthy, positive function in community life,” Ms. Berthold said. “As opposed to the house in Cleveland, where these young women had been abducted and held hostage and tormented.”

Indeed, it was only a few days after Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry were rescued that many Cleveland residents began calling for Ariel Castro’s home to be destroyed. The 52-year-old faces multiple counts growing out of keeping the women imprisoned in the house for 10 years, ranging from kidnapping and rape to the murder of an unborn child.

In fact, city officials say there have even been credible threats of arson, underscoring just how badly neighbors no longer want to look at the structure and be reminded of the unspeakable acts that took place inside.

“Those residents on that street that I talked to in the first week or two [after the women were rescued] felt that nothing else could be done than to take it down,” said Cleveland Councilman Brian Cummins, who represents the section of the city that includes the Castro house on Seymour Avenue.

Some have suggested that the house be kept standing, Mr. Cummins said. But unlike the structure on the Virginia Tech campus or, to a lesser extent, the movie theater in Aurora and grocery store near Tucson, the Castro home has served no healthy purpose for the people of Cleveland.

“There’s so much trauma around that property, Castro’s property, I really can’t imagine” letting it stand, Mr. Cummins said. “Some people have said we should let a contractor go in and do a complete rehab and continue to use it, to fight through this trauma and use it. But most of the people on that street want to see it come down.”

The precedent for tearing down homes used by kidnappers, rapists and murderers was set long ago.

The Chicago house owned by notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy was torn down, and a new structure was later built on the property. The Milwaukee apartment building where Jeffrey Dahmer murdered many of his victims was razed in 1992.

Some buildings only get torn down much later and for reasons untied to their criminal notoriety.

The home where actress Sharon Tate and several houseguests were killed in 1969 by Charles Manson’s followers was torn down, though not until 1994 — and in the interim, industrial-rock band Nine-Inch Nails recorded an album there.

One of the most famous addresses in British crime history was 10 Rillington Place, where Reginald Christie murdered eight women. The street was quickly renamed after Christie was hanged in 1953 but wasn’t torn down until 1971 to make room for a bigger road and after a major feature film titled “10 Rillington Place” had been shot there.

In cases like those, and the unfolding situation in Cleveland, it’s often best for the community and its healing process to see the building destroyed, Ms. Berthold said.

“I would speculate that it’s associated with a sense of vulnerability” for the people who live nearby, she said.