Baker's stature preserved in stone; and what my brain's worth

By Jayson Jacoby July 02, 2010 10:10 am

You can tell a great deal about a town, I think, by having a look at its schools and its churches.

This exercise — literally, if you take a walking tour — shows Baker City to be a place of substance.

For a city which has never, during its 146 years, boasted an official population of as much as 10,000, Baker seems to me graced with an inordinate share of noteworthy houses of learning and of worship.

These are solid structures, constructed of stone and brick, heavy materials largely immune to the harsh climate of a mountain valley.

It is as if the people who designed and who assembled these buildings understood that this city, so unlike the mining boom camps that surrounded it, had real staying power, and that its constructions should reflect that persistence and prominence.

I like to believe that these craftsmen, were they ever of a philosophical bent, imagined while they were hard at their labors that a century on the quick footsteps of pupils would yet echo in the halls, that the preacher’s devotions would still wash over the penitent in their pews every Sunday.

Anyway I hope they did.

They were entitled to the assurance that the fruits of their toil would last not mere decades but centuries, would in fact outlast depression and wars and the deprivations of blizzard and August sun.

These buildings are in their way the very antithesis of our disposable plastic society. We sometimes say, in their defense when someone suggests that one be dismantled, that edifices such as these can’t be replaced.

But the real heart of the matter, it seems to me, is that they don’t need to be replaced.

Yet even though so many of these buildings stand as they always have, the city itself has changed.

The churches, by and large, have endured.

The twin spires of St. Francis de Sales Cathedral, for instance, form an indelible part of the city’s skyline just as they have for more than a century at the corner of First and Church.

And the cathedral’s even older neighbor just to the south on First Street, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, which dates to 1876, continues to welcome its congregation.

Yet our families, in the main, are smaller than they used to be, and so we haven’t the need for quite so many classrooms.

Three of Baker’s venerable schools no longer serve their original purpose.

The oldest, North Baker Elementary at 2725 Seventh St., celebrated its centennial last year. The school board decided last year to close North Baker and distribute its students between Brooklyn and South Baker.

The Central Building, built in 1917 at Washington Avenue and Fifth Street, served as Baker High School until 1952. After that it was an elementary school and then part of the middle school campus. It was closed three years ago, and earlier this month the school board declared the three-story building as surplus property, available for sale.

Churchill School, built in 1923 at 17th and Broadway, closed several years ago and was sold.

This is not altogether a bad thing.

A building, when you think about it, is only a shell, a blank canvas.

What matters is not what a building is used for but that it remains, its mortar sound, its tuffstone blocks unblemished.

I hope, though, that each of the schools can be put to some worthy purpose, even if that purpose is not quite so meaningful as the education of our children.

Whether this in fact happens will be, perhaps, the truest test of our commitment to Baker City’s past, a duty for which the city has shown an admirable degree of faith.

What will we choose as the symbol of our city’s stature, modest though it is?

A fresh layer of asphalt on the freeway which enables people to pass the whole breadth of this place in less than the span of a pop song?

Or a wealth of buildings that went up before almost anybody alive today was born, before the first automobile clanked into town, before the term “world war” was anything but a fantasy novelist’s conceit?

I’m pulling for the buildings.

I prefer in my symbols a certain level of stability. I like to know that, any time the notion comes over me, I can go for a stroll and see structures which refute in their stolid way the impermanence of the digital age, where so much of what we see and hear is measured in bits and bytes, ephemera that can disappear forever if a finger taps the wrong plastic key or a bolt of lightning comes too close.

.        .        .

At least one person cares more about my brain than I do.

Which is both touching and troubling.

I went for a bicycle ride the other evening after most of the heat had gone from the day.

I was pedaling south on Highway 7, just about at the weigh station, when I noticed that an SUV, which had passed me just a minute or so earlier, was parked on Beaver Creek Loop where it meets the blacktop.

The rig’s liftgate was open, and I figured maybe the driver had a flat tire and was digging out the spare.

As I rode closer I saw a figure standing beside the vehicle, holding something in one hand.

It wasn’t the lug wrench I expected.

It was a helmet.

A bicycle helmet, to be specific.

The index finger of the man’s free hand was pointing at the helmet, or rather jabbing at it, like the beak of a bird pecking for worms.

The motivation for this bit of miming was obvious.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Riding a bicycle without wearing a helmet is stupid.

And riding a bicycle, helmet-less, on the slender shoulder of a 55 mph highway exemplifies idiocy of truly epic proportions.

I recognized the helmet holder.

It was Dave Coughlin, a local attorney and, as a triathlete of some repute, a man who has spent considerable time on a bike.

Now it happens that my political predilections tend toward the libertarian.

As such, I have bristled at the proliferation of laws which require people to wear protective devices such as seat belts and helmets.

(In Oregon everybody has to wear a seat belt; bicycle helmets are mandated for kids 15 and younger only.)

But my philosophical objections aside, the truth of course is that if you wear a helmet while bicycling you’re less apt to end up lying in the barrow pit with your brains oozing messily from a gash in your skull.

Which is pretty much the point that Dave was trying to get across with his gesticulating.

So anyway, thanks, Dave.

I appreciate your concern for the most vital of my organs.

And, though I have no proof of any collusion between you and my wife, I’m suspicious. Lisa, you should know, has commented many times — along with making uncomplimentary comparisons between my intelligence and that of certain insects — about my neglecting to wear a helmet.

One of which, by the way, I own.

I rummaged through a closet when I got home from my ride and found it, too.

If you don’t trust me you can call Lisa and ask her.

Although I’m thinking about riding past your house.

I know how you lawyers prefer physical evidence over circumstantial.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.