Since Dorothea Dix Hospital was shut down by the state in 2010, suggestions for what to do with the 308-acre property have been wide-ranging and thick on the ground. But nearly everyone can agree that if Dix must remain closed, at least part of the land should be given over to commemorate the hospital and the thousands who lived, worked and sought treatment atop Dix Hill.
Rose Hoban, a journalist who covered Dix’s closure for WUNC and now runs NC Health News, contacted Raleigh in spring about using her resources to gather input about what that memorial might look like.
“In my years traveling around the state and talking to people, I found that as soon as you mention Dix hospital, every North Carolinian has a connection,” Hoban said. “Whether it’s a relative or someone in their town was a patient, or they knew someone who worked here.”
Raleigh, which is working with the nonprofit Dix Land Conservancy to build a park on the land, agreed to let Hoban and NC Health News do that work on its behalf. At an event televised from N.C. State’s Talley Student Union on Sunday, Hoban and several speakers kicked off that effort with presentations and small group discussions about Dix’s legacy.
Never miss a local story.
Dix was founded in 1856 as the state’s first psychiatric hospital by Dorothea Dix, a New England activist who lobbied the state legislature to buy the land for that purpose. Over the 154 years it was open, the hospital became both a touchstone of the city’s geography and an institution respected throughout the region.
Hoban and Kate Pearce, Raleigh’s project manager for the Dix property, both acknowledge the sensitive nature of treating Dix as history when so many of those close to the institution would rather it had remained open. But given that neither Hoban nor the city had any say in Dix’s closure, they feel they’re doing all they can to make concerns over treatment more visible.
“I think we have to respect that there are such strong emotions tied to the property,” Pearce said. “It was a healing place, and I think its legacy as a healing place is important to the future. I honestly see a park as a healing place, meaning its evolution as a park has the opportunity to carry on the legacy of the property.”
Sunday’s event aimed to provide those present, some of whom were employees and patients at Dix, with some context about how memorialization takes place, especially when what’s being remembered has yet to be wholly given over to the past. No defining concept for the memorial has emerged – for instance, a decision to build a museum rather than a statue or vice versa – but Hoban and Pearce hope that this event and others like it will help solidify options.
Fitzhugh Brundage, the chairman of UNC-Chapel Hill’s history department, spoke of how memorialization occurred after the Civil War and the Vietnam War, other times when memories were fresh and battles were still being waged for control of the wars’ enduring narratives.
A photographer who documented suitcases recovered from another abandoned psychiatric hospital in upstate New York, John Crispin, presented photographs he’d taken of those suitcases with the hope that they would restore humanity to those who lived forgotten in the hospital.
If you wanted to build a memorial to Dorothea Dix and a memorial to her legacy, you would do it through action, not through talk.
Dr. Don Crohan, forensic psychiatrist at Dix when it closed
But Dr. Don Crohan, a forensic psychiatrist at Dix when it closed, said that’s a noble but misguided goal in Dix’s case. Crohan, who said he attended Sunday’s event reluctantly, is among those who feel that Dix shouldn’t have been shut down and that attempts to memorialize the place do too little to address problems that have worsened in Dix’s absence.
“If you wanted to build a memorial to Dorothea Dix and a memorial to her legacy, you would do it through action, not through talk,” Crohan said. “I think the people here are generally trying to do the right thing. But it’s the same thing that killed Dix that’s going on now: We’re trying to figure out how to remember it instead of trying to figure out how to build on it.”
Brundage, though, said that’s not an uncommon problem for memorials and places of remembrance.
“It’s not an exact analogy, but this is a challenge some of the civil rights museums are trying to grapple with,” Brundage said. “For example, in Birmingham, they don’t want to have a museum that suggests the problem is over, that racism is in the past. So the museum is, in addition to being a museum, an institute that promotes all sorts of other activities.”
As a journalist and self-described “agnostic” toward Dix’s future, Hoban said she hopes she’s the right person to bring stakeholders together to build consensus. In the short term, she and her team have been collecting oral histories to preserve the wishes and memories of those closest to the place. She said part of the reason this push is happening now, while emotions are still raw, is because many of those closest to Dix wouldn’t be able to help if she were to wait much longer.
“The very first thing we did, even before we’d raised any money, was we hired a videographer to start taking oral histories,” Hoban said. “Because they’re not young people. Time is really of the essence. We need to capture these people while they’re alive, while their memories are intact.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan