I am treading a treacherous path this week- Please don’t send me any hate mail. Prerequisite knowledge for this post: a) Alabama and Auburn are most bitter rivals, b) I was born an Alabama football fan and continue to be to this day, and c) I went to grad school at Auburn and dearly love the place.

My wife, an Auburn grad, informed me this week that she’s headed down to spend the weekend with her old college roommate at this year’s A-Day game (Auburn’s annual spring football scrimmage). In truth, she informed me that she was going down for an alumni council meeting that happened to coincide with A-Day, but all I heard was football. A-day this year will be a bittersweet event for Auburn people. On one hand there is the promise of a brighter future under new coach Gus Malzahn. On the other hand, this is the very last opportunity to roll the trees at Toomer’s Corner.

If it's academics, I'm like...
If it's football, I'm like...
I have a vivid recollection of the night of September 20, 1997. I had just enrolled in graduate school at Auburn that fall, but on that weekend was back in Montgomery baby-sitting for a friend. I put the little one down early that night so that I could tune in to see #12 Auburn play #10 LSU in Baton Rouge. Auburn won an incredibly entertaining game with a last minute touchdown by Rusty Williams. When the child’s mother returned, I decided on a whim to drive the 45 minutes back to my apartment in Auburn rather than return to my folks’ house. It was about 2 a.m. when I arrived, and despite the win the town was asleep. It was then that I happened rather unexpectedly on one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Approaching Magnolia Avenue on College Street, I noticed a great, ethereal, fluttering white mass ahead in the darkness. I pulled the car over and got out for a walk around in what was a still, humid and warm night. The white mass that I saw from down the street turned out to be toilet paper…lots of toilet paper. There were prodigious amounts of TP everywhere: on the ground, on street signs, on gates leading to campus, on cars, and on traffic signal mast arms. The focus of the TP’ers, however, was on two 100-year-old oak trees. That was my first experience with the rolling of Toomer’s corner.

No matter what team you root for, you have to admit, this is cool.

The intersection of Magnolia and College is called Toomer’s corner, taking the name of Toomer’s Drugstore which occupies the northeast corner. The intersection is in many ways the heart of Auburn as it is the center of downtown and the place where the University meets the town. Toomer’s corner is where Auburn people congregate to celebrate community. Understanding the role that football plays in the life of the state and its citizens, one can imagine that the largest community celebrations are reserved for when Auburn wins a football game. On those occasions, thousands of fans make their way from Jordan-Hare Stadium to Toomer’s to celebrate with one another and to throw rolls of toilet paper into the trees. The bigger the game, the bigger the mass of paper.

I have a vivid recollection of the night of November 26, 2010. On that day my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide blew a seemingly insurmountable 24-point lead to lose to Auburn. I dearly love Auburn, but not on that day. I, however, did not take it as badly as others. After the game, and idiot Alabama “fan” named Harvey Updike drove from his home in Dadeville, AL down to Auburn. Mr. Updike arrived armed with a jug of Spike 80DF, an industrial strength tree poison, and proceeded to give the Toomer oaks a lethal dose 50 times more potent than required.  The trees are now dead and will be removed after the A-Day game. The university has plans to replace the trees with other elements (presumably they will be TP friendly).

The whole ordeal is incredibly stupid, depressing, and sad and it gives the state yet another black eye. There is a bright side, however, to how things went down.  If one accepts Neil Young’s* view that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, and is sympathetic to The Who’s wish that “I hope I die before I get old”, then this is a near-perfect death. For a tree that is over a hundred years old, would it be better to be dismantled over a decade as your limbs die off, or go out in a blaze in glory? The fact that the tree met its demise at the hands of a moronic fan of an archrival means that it has been effectively martyred. The trees will now be an active part of the rivalry dialogue in a way that would not have otherwise happened if they merely succumbed to old age. So rather than depriving Auburn people of a symbol, Mr. Updyke has actually given them one that, although intangible, is more powerful and longer lasting.

I love to make the analogy of cities acting as forests, the life of the whole being informed by the cycles of single buildings and spaces. There are, however, differences. None of us has the ability to create life or prevent death. It is, however, entirely within our means to create and maintain buildings and spaces indefinitely- as long as we have the will. It has come to my attention that some otherwise reasonable people are clamoring for a certain historic former hotel to be demolished. The argument being that it doesn’t look good in its current state and that the peculiarities of the structure mean it may never make financial sense to fix the building.

Perhaps a "T.P. St. G" fundraiser? Or may not...

What are the Toomer’s oaks worth? If saving the trees was a matter of money, do you doubt that Auburn people (or Alabama people for that matter) would pay the costs? The trees, however, represent something beyond money- they represent the collective, shared history and memory of generations of Auburn people. We must consider the historic buildings in our community in the same light. The St. George hotel is more than just a building. The hotel is part of our collective memory, a reference to the era when Chattanooga became the “Dynamo of Dixie”, and a damn fine example of an urban building. Unfortunately, it’s current state offends the sensibilities of some new residents who aren’t prepared to consider the long-term picture and who demand a more antiseptic site immediately. While I will stop short of likening those who are actively seeking the destruction of a piece of our identity with Harvey Updike, I will argue the other side of the coin. It is the responsibility of those of us who care about things such as community and collective history to make our case. It is our responsibility to organize resources for things that are beyond price. The St. George presents a problem that can be solved by (but it’s value not quantified by) lucre- What is our history worth?

It is still possible to save one of these.

While it may be fitting for the trees in Auburn to go out with a bang, our historic buildings don’t have to. We have the ability and means to save our “Toomer’s oaks”. We simply have to muster our vision and will. I tried to rewrite Mr. Young’s song, but “It’s better to be resurrected, than to burn out, or to fade away” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

*Please no comments regarding the irony of an Alabamian quoting Neil Young. Turns out that “Southern man don’t need him ‘round anyhow” is a false statement when he can be used to make a point on the blog.

1 comment:

  1. Good blog. My first experience was going down from Tuscaloosa in 1995 for the infamous Curtis Brown TD that wasn't called a TD. My buddy and I had to leave early the next morning at around 5am. It was foggy as we came up Magnolia....but once in sight of the trees in the morning fog it was so bright white I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A surreal image that I'll always remember.