Saturday, August 25, 2018

Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences Hardcover – December 7, 2014 by Matthew Christopher (Author), James Howard Kunstler (Foreword) (Jonglez Publishing)

I’ve been looking at photos like these since 2010, and I must admit, I am fascinated. For some reason I enjoy looking at images of abandoned property, and can’t think why. Even my teenage students love seeing photos of abandoned Detroit, but unlike me, the crabby grownup, they have an idea of why. Their reasons range from “I want to host a dance party in that factory” to “wouldn’t it be great to use one of those morgue tables for a bed?” Morbid on her part, yes, but stupid, definitely not. Both of these kids had an idea for using these abandoned spaces, and I think that’s one reason I think I like looking at them so much; they offer possibilities.

Matthew Christopher goes around the country photographing abandoned factories, schools, hospitals, theaters, and jails (no complaints about the last one.) The first empty vessel is the New Castle Elks Lodge, and I found this almost comical, because so many other Elks and Masons Lodges have shut down. Remember the All In The Family episode where Archie Bunker goes to George Jefferson’s party? Everyone says “sir, I believe you’re looking for the Elks Club down the hall.” It’s almost a running gag that white men would want to belong to the Elks or Masons, but thanks to changing demographics, not any more. The Elks Club doesn’t have much appeal to Bengali men in Queens, or the urbane young whites in Manhattan. Except in Upstate New York, I imagine the Elks have gone the way of the mouse-gnawed moose head that he photographs on the wall.
The beautiful church in Germantown, Pennsylvania? That’s empty too. The residents got old and died off. The Lebow clothing company in Baltimore is a funny place, because the ugly 1980’s suits were still hanging there when Matthew Christopher went in. He blames the closure on loose workplace dress codes, and as I would guess, a loss of jobs in the area. But there may be another reason the company closed, and that has to do with changing styles. The suits in the abandoned factory are ugly, even by 80’s standards. From the looks of it, the owners probably couldn’t transition to modern clothing for younger people.

One of the saddest photos in the book was the Kohl’s motorcycle warehouse, not just an abandoned building, but abandoned goods! The warehouse was full of beautiful vintage motorcycles, and the owners dumped the building and the contents for tax purposes. The most pathetic thing is that the owner could have sold off the bikes to China and Africa, were low-fuel transport is welcome. At the very worst, the bikes could all have been sold for scrap metal. Instead, they sat there abandoned for years until the building burned.

In the spirit of Alberto Vargas’ earlier book The New American Ghetto, Christopher captures the decay with an artist’s eye. His photos are just as good as the great architectural photographers, and you almost forget how horrible these places look. He makes rusting hulks and collapsing ceilings look like natural landscapes, which is that they are in a way. Nature is reclaiming these structures, and floors that once had ugly 1970’s carpets are now covered in moss. Unlike Vargas, who photographed abandoned homes, Christopher sticks to factories, churches, hospitals, and occasionally schools. Maybe we feel less depressed because these structures weren’t actually lived in? With no feeling of “they lost their home,” there isn’t much love lost when the factory if torn down.

Fortunately, there is a window of hope. The Lebow Brothers clothing factory, shuttered for almost 30 years, is now a school. As for the abandoned Edison High School in Philadelphia, it’s being torn down and will become a supermarket. The abandoned St. Peter’s church reminds me of another one in Brooklyn that was sold off. Unlike the one in Pennsylvania, however, this one is now expensive condominiums. The only people that object are the old folks in the residence next door, because they used to go to that church, but there’s not much you can do. A building is only as good as the people who can pay for the upkeep.

Most of these building, be they factories or churches, are in the industrial towns, hemorrhaging people as job cuts have gashed the economy. Another common factor is that all these buildings sat unused for years, but the local government made no effort to demolish them. The factories are basically piles of scrap metal, wood, glass, and brick, and all these things can be recycled. Demolition would’ve given jobs to the local residents, and put an end to these eyesores. Perhaps the municipalities have trouble agreeing on how to take care of the problem?

We can blame these abandoned places on outsourcing and job exportation, but human demographics are a factor. No place can stay the same forever, and people move on. Even the city of Rome eventually collapsed, just like the Bell telephone lab, an architectural marvel, outlived its usefulness. No man-made structure will stay the same forever, and city will look the same 20 years into the future. Maybe instead of calling this book “The Age of Consequence,” it should’ve been called “An Age Of Moving On.”

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