Independent Lens

Healing Places: Rebuilding After a Community Tragedy

The new Sandy Hook school (Robert Benson Photography, courtesy Svigals + Partners)

“The only thing tragedy gives us is the opportunity to rebuild our life.” -writer Paulo Coelho


The film Newtown asks, “What remains after all is lost?”

Some have said that it is much harder to rebuild oneself after experiencing an unconscionable tragedy than it is to physically rebuild a space on the site the tragedy happened. But it is, of course, not especially easy to do that either. Each community experiences these awful events their own way, grieves at their own pace, and doesn’t always agree with what would be an appropriate use of the space where a mass shooting occurred. But it has often become a healing part of that process.

On the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School where the community of Newtown grieved, it was inconceivable to imagine carrying on in that same space. So they created a new space, to honor and to heal and to move forward.

This fall, after razing the original low-slung 1956 brick building and receiving $50 million from the state of Connecticut to rebuild, Newtown has a new elementary school. “This is a school to nurture and grow young members of our society,” says Jay Brotman, an architect and managing partner at Svigals + Partners, the New Haven-based firm that designed the school. “As architects, we aspire for opportunities like this, to build a meaningful symbol that serves a community as well as a global emblem.”

It’s a beautiful building. With a wavy roofline, wood-and-fieldstone cladding, large expanses of glass, and plenty of art, it aspires to be a safe, inspiring, and welcoming space that celebrates the town’s natural beauty rather than to evoke one catastrophic event from its 311-year history.

[Read more about the new school at Sandy Hook.]

Here are a few other places where an unthinkable tragedy occurred that affected many in the given community:

Columbine

Columbine (Colorado) High School, site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern United States history, and the deadliest high school shooting in US history, didn’t rebuild the entire school, but after some debate, the school renovated the site where the tragedy occurred. First, it built a new atrium:

The atrium, by contrast, was the victims’ parents’ own solution. The district initially hoped to simply redesign and reopen the library, but the families had been adamant that no one should ever set foot in there again. They raised $3.1 million to tear it down and build a new one.

The library, where the tragedy occurred, was torn down and replaced by a new one.

Stone by stone, the main site of the Columbine High School massacre has been replaced with an expansive library that has mountain views and is designed for serenity.

”Never mistake that it’s just stone and mortar,” said Dawn Anna, whose daughter, Lauren Townsend, was one of those killed in the old school library. ”It’s so much more than that.”

2009:

Orlando

The fate of the site of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando is still to be determined as of this writing, depending on what the club’s owner Barbara Poma decides would feel right. A deal by the city of Orlando to buy Pulse fell through, a decision she struggled with. Poma had founded the nightclub in memory of her gay brother, who had died of AIDS.

“We understand that this was an incredibly difficult decision for the owners,” the city’s statement said. “We respect their decision and are hopeful the Pulse site continues to be a place of hope and healing that honors the victims.”

Since the massacre, the club has become a place of mourning for visitors and locals alike. Had the city bought the club, Dyer had proposed leaving it as-is for a time while soliciting community input on what form a permanent memorial there should take.

Dyer’s office said city staff “will continue to research and understand how other communities have approached the memorial process.”

Dyer is the mayor of Orlando, seen speaking here:

One thing seems clear from hearing from all parties in Orlando, there will be some sort of memorial to the victims of the massacre, which was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

[2007, ABC News:]

A year ago Monday, gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV shattered a tranquil Amish community when he killed five young girls and injured five others at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa.

Roberts lined the girls against the chalkboard and shot them. As police drew closer, he killed himself.

The act stunned the nation, which watched this private community deal with its loss. Away from prying media lenses, a group gathered Monday to remember the moment that catapulted its secluded community into the public arena.

A Year Later

During the last 12 months, the community has shown its resilience. It opened a new schoolhouse called New Hope Amish School just six months after the tragedy.

But the community also has changed in dramatic ways. The new schoolhouse has a locking steel door and an emergency release bar, but memories of the tragedy have not been erased easily.

“The pain is still very close to the surface,” said Herman Bontrager, who worked with the Amish on their only public comment to mark the anniversary.

The Mennonite newspaper Mennonite World Review in 2016 marked the ten year anniversary of the Nickel Mines shooting, noting that despite the new building, the emotional scars remain in Lancaster County.

Though there had already been numerous school shootings that year, the invasion of a publicity-shy community committed to nonviolence, and the remarkable swiftness with which the Amish offered forgiveness to the killer’s widow and family, drew international attention.

Thousands of condolence letters poured in. So did more tangible assistance, including $4 million from funds established for medical care for the girls who survived. One remains at home, her injuries grave enough to confine her to a wheelchair.

Though the Amish generally do not accept charity, the medical expenses associated with treating survivors would have been unsustainable without such help.

The New Hope school has replaced the old schoolhouse, which was razed soon after the tragedy.

The children’s teacher has married and left the profession.

“All the families talk about living with the new normal, which means making a place for the grief and pain,” said Herman Bontrager, a businessman and longtime friend of the local Amish community who became their representative in the days after the massacre. “They all think of living their way through the tragedy, not getting over it.”

Utøya, Norway

The massacre at Utøya, Norway, remains the deadliest shooting worldwide committed by a single gunman, who attacked the island’s youth camp on July 22, 2011, killing 69, 33 of whom were under the age of 18. 

Understandably, there was a great deal of disagreement within the community about plans for memorial buildings, but ultimately certain structures were taken down and a memorial ring was unveiled at the camp in 2015, along with a new learning center that posed its own set of challenges. 

Utøya massacre site given “new beginning” by architect Erlend Blakstad Haffner

The biggest challenge was finding a way to both preserve and conceal the cafe – a building where 13 people were killed, but also where 19 people found refuge.

The architect’s response was to preserve one section of the cabin-like building – the rooms directly affected during the massacre – but to completely enclose it within a new glue-laminated pine structure.

“This is a story of both survival and death,” explained [architect] Blakstad Haffner during an exclusive tour of the site.

“Our task was to give this place a new beginning, but also to take care of the memory.”

[More images from this site can be found via the link above.]

More Subtle Reminders

Sometimes “rebuilding” does not mean tearing down and erecting an entirely new space.

After a white supremacist opened fire in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., in August, killing six people and injuring four, temple officials held a purifying ceremony and removed bloodstained carpeting, repaired shattered windows and painted over gunfire-scarred walls.

But they left one reminder of the violence — a dime-size bullet hole in the door jamb leading to the prayer room. The hole is now marked with a small gold plate engraved with “We Are One. 8-5-12.”

“It frames the wound,” Pardeep Kaleka, son of former temple president Satwant Singh Kaleka, who died in the massacre, said recently. “The wound of our community, the wound of our family, the wound of our society.” [via Associated Press]

Hundreds also gathered at the temple on the one year anniversary of that massacre, wearing bracelets that commemorated those who were killed.

More reading: The New Yorker, “Rebuilding Violent Places,” by Thomas de Monchaux


“All that we can know about those we have loved and lost is that they would wish us to remember them with a more intensified realization of their reality. What is essential does not die but clarifies. The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” ~Thornton Wilder