To build and rebuild

PHOTO: Alan Levine, Flickr CC-BY

When I was young, I could spend a whole afternoon building a city of blocks, filling its streets with Matchbox cars. But if my mom asked me to spend one hour cleaning my room, I’d declare bankruptcy. I don’t have time for THAT!

We like to build things, or have them built for us, but we don’t like to clean up. That’s a dangerous flaw at the heart of human nature. I wish I could say that this gets better with time. It only gets different.

We want to build a world where the children are safe. A world with jobs and prosperity. Some say build the wall. Others say build schools. Then we imagine building bridges, both real and figurative.

But too often these are just rhetorical flourishes. People want lumber and steel, cranes and carpenters. We struggle with what’s left behind in ruins.

The highest hopes in many Iron Range towns is that something new will be built out on the highway. A sporting goods store, perhaps, or maybe even a chicken restaurant.

What we experience far less, and what seems far more important, is a desire to rebuild our world — to mend the broken pieces and clear away the debris.

I’m talking about something deeply unprofitable, vastly unpopular, and utterly vital to our future. Do we have it in ourselves to rebuild a broken world? Not for financial gain or political power, but for our spiritual and emotional wellbeing. Will we rebuild civilization for new times?

Because all that doesn’t happen in outer space. It doesn’t happen on the mountaintop or even in Congress. It starts right here in our hometown. We might lament perceived resistance by outside forces, but the change we actually need stares right back at us in the gap-toothed smile of our downtown streetscapes.

Recently, another Range town watched its historic school building demolished in the name of progress. Crews razed the former Eveleth-Gilbert Junior High School after no one stepped forward to buy or reuse the building. That’s not unusual. These kinds of buildings are more expensive to maintain than they are to buy.

The demolition of the Virginia High School last summer, and now the former Gilbert High School, with Eveleth’s former high school soon to follow, brings a reckoning. These buildings represented the best hopes and dreams of an immigrant population now a century removed from present day. Their efforts reaped a bountiful harvest of upward mobility and prosperity for many. But their world no longer exists.

Do not mistake this for wistful regret. There’s no going back. Nostalgia is suffering. But the past can provide useful landmarks. We can’t restore what was, but we can replicate how it was done.

Right now there is something going on that you could change. An organization teetering near the brink of collapse could benefit from fresh perspective and energy. Perhaps a new organization might fill a community need or sate a collective desire.

Some can give time. Some have money. For a few, both. But the rebirth of the Iron Range won’t happen by admiring new construction. It will look a lot like sweeping out an old building for a new purpose. We must pull weeds to restore a garden.

Art is not built. It is rebuilt. Those are not new colors or notes, new stories or shapes. They are merely new combinations, clapboard additions to what came before. Artists play with the bones of the dead. Our oldest folk tunes stole chords and phrases from songs previously lost to time. We’ll never know who wrote them, though their melodies will outlive empires, including ours.

Why would our little towns be any different?

The towns of the Iron Range are mere children walking the face of notable geology. Just 120 years, compared to Old World places that endured for millennia. What do lasting places have in common? None of them remained like they once were. New architecture blends with the old. Building out is a young town’s game. Rebuilding within is where we find peace and contentment.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, March 16, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Our mother is from England; the first building she worked in…at 14…the files were stored in an actual dungeon. Unfortunately we don’t have such things, or they were destroyed because we’re from a settler colonial culture and settlement was tied to erasing the former culture and exploiting the landscape. For us, that meant destroying the forests, digging giant holes and trying to farm a burnt over landscape. Because of that, many think that’s normal and is the only possibility. The same where I’ve worked in the west; logging, ranching or mining and none of them sustainable. So, we glorify the destruction, weather logging or mining museum. But if you’ve never seen an alternative, you don’t understand that other people see them as destructive and don’t care or are appalled. Every extractive based community I’ve seen, in Minnesota or out west, looks the same afterwards. Because they weren’t based on the people or the landscape, but on exploiting both. Both are left the same way, as forgotten and abused.

  2. Joe musich says

    Good question. Where are the polluted tailing ponds and waste rock diggings of the mining done for those in the long ago past ? How many desert area once were abundant with trees reaching fir the sky ? The pyramids and other such sites we can see. Where the resources came from for the building is in many ways a mystery swallowed up by lack of attention by the earth itself. As wealth becomes joyously squeeze by fewer hands one alternative would be to put that concept into the “no longer needed closet.” And then share that wealth. Cut back the work week and day and create adequate education and healthcare for everyone nationwide. We could do that with a little bit of imaginative elasticity. It is time to suspend playing on fear and to bring all that energy to fostering and following through with building hope. Everybody is an artist.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.