Lessons from a destroyed city

Imagine, if you can, the whole of Charlotte's uptown destroyed by enemy action or other disaster. Once the dead were buried, how would we think about rebuilding our city?

The recent anniversary of the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center brought to mind the struggles of cities around the world that have restored their buildings and spirits after being blown apart by war and terror.

As much as the new buildings, the words people use to describe their struggles say a lot about the priorities and attitudes of a society.

The horrors of urban destruction were visited on my family's home, Plymouth, England, 68 years ago. At 8.30 p.m. on Thursday, March 30, 1940, the air raid sirens sounded the alarm.

Four aged biplane fighters scrambled skywards only to be brushed aside by four squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers who dropped tons of high explosive and tens of thousands of incendiaries on the undefended city.

The Luftwaffe bombardment

Thus began several fearful nights of deadly aerial bombardment that left nearly 1,200 civilians killed and as many more maimed. These figures do not count navy personnel killed inside the adjacent large dockyard.

For security purposes those figures were never released, but word-of-mouth estimates in the aftermath suggested as many as 2,000 more casualties as workshops and ships were blown apart.

My family was among the lucky ones. My father was at sea, on a destroyer hunting German U-boats, but Uncle Ronnie, home on leave from his Royal Marine regiment, hustled my mother and older brother into the flimsy shelter at the end of their street, and huddled there as the endless nights erupted around them in lethal firestorms.

Plymouth survived the maelstrom of destruction, but over 20,000 buildings were razed or heavily damaged, and an area approximately the size of uptown Charlotte was reduced to smoldering rubble.

Plymouth was not alone in coping with such devastation. Cities all over England suffered similar fates, London most of all, where about 43,000 civilians died during the Blitz. Almost 140,000 more were injured, and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed.

In their turn, German cities suffered even worse death and destruction in the Allies' revenge attacks.

The British rebuilding plan

Almost as soon as the smoke cleared, plans were being drawn up for rebuilding British cities. In the context of America's more laissez-faire attitudes to planning and development, it's interesting to read some of the (paraphrased) recommendations from a key British report:

“Provision for the right use of land, developed in accordance with considered policies, is essential. New houses, the new schools that will be required, the balanced distribution of industry, a healthy and well-balanced agriculture, the preservation of land for national parks and forests, the assurance to the people of enjoyment of the sea and countryside in times of leisure, a new and safer transportation system…. (All these things) involve the use of land. It is essential that their various claims should be harmonized to ensure … the greatest possible measure of individual well-being and national prosperity.”

Even in the depths of crisis, with war all around, there was no rhetoric about “freedom,” “democracy” or how “God loves Britain.” These were simple, pragmatic prescriptions for planning and building, where the purpose of government was to revive communities that had suffered catastrophic destruction.

Researching the pronouncements for rebuilding the World Trade Center for an anniversary talk, I was struck by a marked difference in tone. Statements such as “symbolizing liberty,” and “representing the American ideals of freedom, democracy, and capitalism” abound in speeches and press releases.

Brits also cherish freedom, democracy and capitalism. We might reasonably claim to have invented at least two of the three in the modern age. Our words, however, reflect a different culture.

Whither America?

As I was growing up, I loved America from afar, truly a generous nation and a beacon of progress and hope for a better world. Living here today, and seeing close up such recent events as the Republican convention, I find myself staring at a different land

Instead of coming together to face the huge challenges of the future, part of the nation has developed an angry, sneering mentality, more interested in its own religious righteousness than caring for American cities and the larger planet that's under threat.

With the tragic events of 2001 still in our minds, I fervently hope and pray that Charlotte never has to experience even a fraction of the horrors borne by my home city. But whatever we face, America needs Christian virtues of compassion, humility and generosity. And right now they're in desperately short supply.