A mix of decaying beauty and visceral lived-in horror
Photographing 'Abandoned America'
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We spent our childhood in ruins. That sounds a touch melodramatic I suppose but I mean it literally. A half-burned farmhouse on the edge of a cornfield where I grew up the beams blackened and slouching. No money to fix it. A broken down railroad depot that’s now the one nice restaurant in my hometown. You probably have your own local variations on the theme. Abandoned factories that made god knows what with glass hanging like jagged teeth in the windows after years of tossed stones. Town buildings left in bureaucratic limbo ripe for sneaking into. An old library with empty shelves or a squat little brick shit house of an elementary school whose halls echoed no children’s voices but our own surreptitious whispers. The “old firehouse.” The “old” whatever. Something was always the “old” something. A place where important things happened and now do not. The cobwebbed places. For me in Maine an ancient seeming sawmill first a tall stone structure overlooking a swimming hole for climbing and jumping and climbing and jumping then shaved down to a concrete nub “for our safety.” Later in high school I’d work summers in transitional structures doing demolition. The site of a convent sold off for the land by the diocese (they very abruptly needed money I forget why) that looks like a lazily designed level of a first person shooter in my mind when I try to think of it now. Zero undead nuns ever exploded from a single closet although I always expected one to. The occasional forgotten religious artifact slumped against a wall.
Elsewhere one single dusty book left behind. If you were lucky it was a porno. There was an awful lot of damp pornography stashed around back then. It was a different time I don’t know what to tell you there. You were either walking out of the ruins with tetanus from stepping on a rusty nail or a newfound and very confusing understanding of human anatomy.
When we got older these abandoned spaces changed from the merely wondrous to more functionally clandestine. A space to drink a pilfered beer or to sneak a fumbling kiss. Not for me though mine were always very sophisticated and suave.
The appeal of places like these never entirely goes away. There’s a reason why the dumb shits in horror movies always have to explore the musty old cabin in the woods no matter how obviously sinister it feels. There’s really only one question you can ask when you’re in an abandoned place which is really one of the only questions worth asking about anywhere: What must have happened here?
You can also ask: What’s going to happen here? I’m thinking now of the century old wool mill straddling the river near my house where they keep trying to make a brewery happen. Or the monstrous Charles Street Jail built in Boston in 1850 now archly and shit-eatingly named the Liberty Hotel with its incarceration themed cocktail bars I spent a few uneasy nights in years back. If a city is lucky their abandoned spaces will be preserved after years of meetings and competing interests bitching at each other over what’s to be done and who will pay for it. More often now they’re “reclaimed.” The school your grandparents went to in Chicago turned into luxury condos. The church you were baptized at in Philadelphia turned into luxury condos. The majestic old theater now a CVS. The first people’s bank in town across the street now another CVS. The CVS that was old enough that you actually grew fond of it now a whole new futuristic kind of CVS.
A lot of times towns just say fuck it and leave these buildings to crumble via the not my problem doctrine. What’s left might either become an eyesore or a place of wonder depending on what’s leftover of your capacity for imagination. If they’re not going to be reclaimed by developers they’ll be reclaimed by nature in any case with the moss and vines and budding ambitious trees pushing through the windows and the holes in the floor. If nothing else these abandoned places make for fabulous location shoots for our robust apocalyptic film and television series industry. You scarcely need to invent what the end of the world might look like when entropy is already conspiring to have its way somewhere in your town as we speak.
I was thinking about all of that purple writer-brained shit in bed this morning after looking through the work of writer and photographer Matthew Christopher. With two books in his Abandoned America series: Dismantling The Dream and The Age of Consequences Christopher has specialized over the last decade or so in capturing the type of places I’m talking about. Emptied out zoos and amusement parks. Beachfront ghost towns cut off from civilization after a bridge burned down. A derelict ocean liner. Haunted old malls. The result is a mix of decaying beauty and visceral lived-in horror. Not all of the sites he photographs evoke anything remotely nostalgic or charming to be clear. There’s also the mercifully decommissioned prisons and mental institutions and orphanages and sites of horrific abuse that should never have existed as they did in the first place.
Wait I just got Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine caught in my head.
And it’s all all gone, and it’s all all wrong
Here’s the man with teeth like God’s shoeshine
He sparkles shimmers shines
Let’s all have another Orange Julius
Thick syrup standing in lines
The malls are the soon to be ghost towns
So long, farewell, good-bye
Ok now I’m reading poems about ruin.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Castles In Spain…
How like a ruin overgrown
With flowers that hide the rents of time,
Stands now the Past that I have known;
Castles in Spain, not built of stone
But of white summer clouds, and blown
Into this little mist of rhyme!
and Emily Dickinson’s Crumbling is not an instant's Act
Crumbling is not an instant's Act
A fundamental pause
Are organized Decays —
'Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —
Ruin is formal — Devil's work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe's law —
“Organized Decays.” I think she means we let this shit happen by design.
Both of them were somewhat more sophisticated lyricists than our man Isaac Brock up there I’d have to say but on the other hand how many riffs did they write? Zero riffs is how many. Incidentally both of the poets very old homes have been very well preserved not far from where I live. I used to drive by Longfellow’s place in Cambridge all the time. It’s extremely… yellow.
So I called up Christopher to talk about his work. You can find galleries of his photos here or find him on Twitter or Instagram.
Do you remember the first abandoned building you were fascinated by? I assume it was when you were much younger.
When I was in high school I lived in a place called Mount Gretna in Pennsylvania and they had an old fairground there that was broken down. I thought that place was interesting. But really it was Philadelphia State Hospital that got me obsessed with this stuff. I was working in mental healthcare at the time, in a private psychiatric facility that was all in-patient. I didn’t really have any background in mental healthcare, so I was just reading and reading, and the entire system was really…. I think there’s definitely some kinship in what you write about and what I’m interested in. This whole Shakespearean tragedy of great ambitions and horrible execution. That was the first one that really got me into it. Reading about the Philadelphia State Hospital I was like, oh my god, this place is just sitting there and I can go there. I wasn’t really a photographer at that point. It was a very strange experience. It’s hard to tell people why it would be significant. Actually seeing a place with dark history versus reading about it.
What was the story there I’m not sure I know.
Essentially eugenics, which led to the whole final solution thing, were very popular in America at the time. Unfortunately they seem to still be. The idea with the state hospitals was, well, we have these people that are mentally ill, or physically or developmentally disabled, or homosexual, or unwanted kids, unwanted older folks, people with dementia, who cares, throw them all in a bin and we’ll warehouse them there. There was involuntary sterilization at some of these places. The point is going to a place like that and realizing this was really real, not just a legend or a thing you read about. From there I got obsessed with going to other state hospitals and it ballooned into schools and factories and churches or whatever. But my interest has kind of remained the same. There are a lot of stories behind these places that people don't know about. What you’re writing about today, as you’ve pointed out, are things that have gone on for quite a while. This isn’t a moment that we just randomly happened at. I’m interested in how these places play into later politics, care for people with illnesses, healthcare, stuff like that.
In a way it’s almost like fifty or a hundred years from now someone going around photographing the since abandoned sites where the nightmares I write about in Hell World took place.
Yes. That’s really an integral part of the point. I feel like we have this interest in things that are ancient, which is great, I love them. But things that are of our time, or indicative of where we are, or our recent past, aren’t really viewed with any significance until we’ve destroyed all of it. So, yes, what you’re saying about someone down the road, that’s exactly who this is for. Somebody that’s trying to pick through what the hell is going on right now.
Maybe it’s on a case by case basis, but do you find a sort of fractured beauty in these places, or do you read a sinister and foreboding tone into most of the places you visit? Or is it a bit of both?
It’s kind of a bit of everything. I’ve spent so much time in places like this, so, for example, talking about sinister and foreboding, prisons are absolutely that. They’re built to be frightening and foreboding and horrifying. I’m not into ghosts or the supernatural, but I think they have a presence based on what they are and what they were used for. But on the other hand, places can be very peaceful and beautiful. It’s interesting because it’s like death or grief and loss in general in that there are a million different angles you can look at it from. Some of it is like life goes on, the transcendent beauty of weeds growing up through the ruins, and some of it is like a horror story. But each place has its own personality.
And maybe in a specific place one photo you take is beautiful and then you turn the corner and it’s horrifying. I’m sure it changes even within the sites themselves.
I’m looking at a photo of the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. It’s inside of a cell and the paint is all flaking. I don’t know exactly how to describe it. The way the paint is flaking it’s like… skin. It’s like a living, or dying rather, organism. What are you feeling looking at that photo?
Holmesburg is a really interesting one. First of all, the past of it is horrible even for prisons. I think in some way there’s a peace to it in that people aren’t being incarcerated there any more. So that’s a plus. Prisons are in general very sad, but there’s something kind of beautiful about seeing them empty. Especially in a place like that. At one point they had a hunger strike and they boiled the leaders of the strike alive. It was the middle of the summer and it was super hot and they chained them in a room with a lot of radiators and steam pipes without ventilation. Essentially they were boiled. It’s funny that you mention that about skin because there’s a book called Acres of Skin about that place. Holmesburg is particularly infamous for unethical medical testing on prisoners. This is like the US Army and Dow and Johnson & Johnson and a couple others. Again, it’s kind of that thing where you think, oh, it’s a prison, it’s not going to have a great history. Then you read about it and it’s like, oh my god.
As bad as we think prisons are by default they can be so much worse than most people even think about. I’m zooming in on the photo as we’re talking and noticing dozens of photos of cars pinned to the walls. The person in that cell I assume must have been really into cars, and trying to give themselves something to look forward to or dream about if they ever got out and now we’re looking at his cell and have no idea if he ever did.
Oh absolutely. I think the things that people draw or leave in their cells are really poignant. They have that sense like this is the person’s one little tiny connection to the world outside. There was one solitary cell that I was at in one prison where I’m 99.9% sure that things had been written on the wall in blood. In a sense you can say solitary confinement is bad. It’s one of the worst things you can do to a person. But I think when you go there it really reinforces an actuality to the place. You wrote something along these lines. You were talking about processing the numbers of people dying from Covid. How it’s an abstract concept. I think with a lot of these places it’s an abstract concept until you go there. You realize that this person scratched “help” in the plexiglass in their little window out of their cell.
It’s not often when I do interviews someone else is more depressing than I am.
Well I read some of what you wrote and thought, ok, it’s on! We kind of have this expectation that we’re always going to be like, yeah, things are ok, all is well, how are you? I think there are a lot of things to it, but one of the things that draws people to abandoned buildings is you don’t have to keep up that charade about things going well.
We all do often have to delude ourselves to make it through a given day or to keep living in general. Hoo boy.
I found the two titles of your books very evocative. With Dismantling The Dream I assume you’re talking about the “American dream” of robust enterprise and industrialism and all that and how it has fallen by the wayside. Can you talk about those title choices?
I feel like this work has always been like looking at the canaries in the coal mine. It was 2006ish, and I’ve progressed a lot since then, but my thinking was, hey, these places are warnings. We all need to wake up! Now I feel like the mine is full of poison gas and everyone is choking on it. Being an alarmist isn’t really that important anymore because most people are already alarmed. Age of Consequences, I feel like that’s the age we live in. Where we’re at we’ve made our choices, had a lot of choices made for us. One analogy that best describes it is this: A bunch of people are at a table having a big dinner. Everyone thinks someone else is going to pay for it, so they’re ordering everything they can. Then at the end when the bill comes due everyone is like, oh, I thought you were going to get it. I think that’s the era we live in. The check is coming due for environmental destruction, policies that are letting corporations run roughshod over people...
Yes. Labor inequity, the wealth gap, wealth disparity. That’s how I look at things. I’m forty four years old and I feel like my entire life has been watching the ship sink.
For Dismantling The Dream, I looked into the “American Dream,” and basically what it means is through hard work and ingenuity you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, right? You can go from being the mailroom clerk to being the CEO if you work hard enough. I feel like at a lot of these places, particularly in schools, there are rungs being kicked off of the ladder. That was kind of what that title references. This idea that there should be, and it’s a goofy idea, that you can come here as a poor immigrant with nothing and wind up being wildly successful if you just apply yourself. As you’re well aware, it’s just a complete joke.
A lot of people around us still want to cling to that concept though. But as you said the mineshaft is filling up with the gas.
I’m also turning this word abandoned over in my mind. Are there multiple meanings to abandoned? Obviously there’s the literal one? Is there a second meaning? Maybe we covered that in abandoning the so-called American Dream.
100%. You can read it as a literal descriptor: There are abandoned buildings in America, here they are. You can also look at it like here are segments of America that have been abandoned. Let’s say you’re talking about a Pennsylvania town with a big coal breaker. You and I would probably agree that coal isn’t the way to go environmentally, but when that thing closes the town is destitute. In that sense these places represent loss. For example, another thing I think about a lot is how people talk about “well that’s just progress….” You used to have all these ice harvesting businesses that were up and down the Hudson where they would pull ice blocks out of the river to keep food cold. Then refrigerators were built and the ice harvesting business was no longer necessary. These were people’s jobs. Again, you have to be careful not to overly romanticize the industrial era, and I’m not trying to, but by the same coin, you have a factory that shuts down and now it’s a Foot Locker, or a Walmart is in its place. A business paying people part time wages, deliberately keeping them below a threshold so they can’t get healthcare, and they have to get food stamps at the same time, or work three jobs.
A good example in your photos is the Packard Motor Company in Detroit. Detroit was once the grand hub of the auto industry. Then a lot of the industry abandoned the people there in the way you’re talking about. I think what’s even worse is that happens, then we turn around and blame these cities for having been abandoned. You might hear people denigrating Detroit for being this or that. It feels like blaming a child for its parents leaving it behind. Maybe that metaphor is too tortured. The point is major industries abandon these cities then we refer to the cities in a derogatory manner.
That’s an excellent point. Another great example of that is Gary, Indiana, where the steel plants moved out. There’s quite a bit in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania with the textiles industries, where they moved south and kept moving south out of the country so they could start avoiding environmental laws and pay people a nickel a day in a factory that collapses on them.
Like in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which you’ve photographed. It’s a place people would say is down on its luck or whatever euphemism you want to use. They’ve got a real bad opioid problem out there in western Mass. You’ve got some photos from a theater in Holyoke that looks like it must have been gorgeous. Last I looked they were planning on revitalizing it but I’m not sure where that stands.
I’m not sure what’s happened since Covid. I know they were going to take all the seats out and were starting to preserve stuff but I’m not sure what’s happened. But Holyoke is a great example of that. A lot of towns are struggling with that exact thing. You hit on this sense of shame. First of all, there’s just tons of racism that comes with that. When people say, like, oh the demographics changed in that area. Well, no. All the wealth was taken out. It’s not the demographics, it’s the wealth. The other thing too is there’s this kind of sense of if you’re poor it’s because you're bad. You didn’t pull the bootstraps hard enough. That’s the whole central ilusion we work on. You have a bunch of these towns where they’re really struggling financially, but there’s this sense of stigma around it rather than saying, no, this is kind of everywhere because we’ve been sold a false bill of goods.
You’ve got a bunch of photos of theaters from all over. Maybe it’s just because I’m watching Station Eleven and I’m thinking of theater in the apocalypse… Have you watched that by the way?
No, what's it about?
Well you might not enjoy it because it’s about a flu that wipes out 99% of the population.
I can’t relate to that.
Right? It follows the story of various survivors and they end up being actors who travel around performing Shakespeare. It’s good. It’s “really about loss and trauma” and all that shit shows are about now. The thing I wanted to ask though is do you have a different reaction to abandoned sites that were places of joy versus ones that were places of suffering? I know we talked about prisons, but look at this theater. The beautiful stage. They don’t make theaters like this anymore. Does the opposite of what happens to you in prisons happen in a place like this?
Those places I think represent their own sort of loss, which is an investment in a community. You could make an argument for elaborate architecture being bougie, and theaters obviously you have to pay to go in, but when you look at libraries, schools, things like that, these are places that are kind of a gift to the public. It’s sad to see them go. I pretty much grew up going to see movies in shoeboxes with speakers in these anonymous buildings. I think that’s one of the things that’s also important, to show that this current moment where everything is viewed as disposable, and where architecture is something that… You could walk into a Walmart in Boston and walk out of one in Wichita and they’re the same building. I think that loss of community idea is really profound. Certainly that’s why they’re working so hard to save the Victory in particular. There’s this hope that if they do that it will create a downtown district. People go to restaurants before they go see the movie or show at the theater. Covid has thrown a huge wrench in this of course, but it’s something people are hoping will happen.
It’s complicated. You’re sad to see a place as beautiful as this in the condition it’s in. You’re hopeful that somebody will do something. Maybe I’m a little fatalistic thinking about how many places I hoped they would save and they didn’t.
And then when they save it they call it the Bank of America Theater or whatever. Another series of yours I liked was the Taunton State Hospital also in Massachusetts. You wrote about having to sneak into that one at night. Is that typical and have you ever gotten in trouble?
There are a fair amount I’ve snuck into. I’m very religious about leaving everything the way I found it. Sadly I’m not in my twenties anymore and I can’t Spider-Man up a wall like I used to.
I know how that is.
It’s almost like our bodies are a metaphor for these crumbling buildings!
Oh yeah. It’s like an onion that doesn’t have a center yet. You can look at them from a sociological standpoint. You can look at them in terms of politics and economics. You can look at them in terms of the philosophic experience of mortality and again.
Now I do end up getting permission to go into a lot of places. I’m lucky that I haven’t gotten into any serious trouble. I have had run-ins with the police but nothing thankfully turned into anything. That’s not always the case with other people who do this. Some have gotten big fines or charges they had to figure out how to get out of. It depends. I was reading about someone photographing an abandoned house, I think in the Poconos, and turned out it wasn’t abandoned. The guy shot the woman and killed her boyfriend. She lived. But they were very much like please just let us go. So certainly very bad things can and do happen. One of the guys who is a patron saint of this sort of thing, Richard Nickel, died in the old Chicago Stock Exchange when the building collapsed on him. It’s definitely something that has a lot of safety and legal risks. I’ve been very fortunate in both senses. I’ve had injuries but nothing with life changing consequences thankfully.
Ok well thank you for the depressing talk.
One more thing. I was thinking about this when you were talking about Taunton. You asked if these were all about suffering and despair. I think Taunton was a gorgeous building. When you went there you really saw that initially they had invested in this as a place that was going to be state of the art. There was a lot of doom and gloom in what we talked about, but a lot of times too they are just very peaceful places. They’re a lot less scary than people.
I love decay. Needs a photo of my body…
Jesus Christ, man. I'm from Dayton, Ohio, and this entire conversation could just be about Dayton. The old factory with dangerous shit falling off of it behind our high school (since bought by a rich guy, torn down, and turned into a football stadium and training center), the old abandoned downtown Arcade we used to drink across the street from atop an adjacent parking garage because downtown was deserted at night (reopened as a civic meeting place right when everybody had to stay in their homes for two years), the old GM plant featured in that documentary Obama produced (I was just glad they showed the old fishermen in the beginning being kind to the Chinese dudes)...and this was before fourteen tornadoes blew through town in 2019 and wiped whole areas out, businesses destroyed, trees uprooted, endless sky visible where once there was woods, and a lot of that damage is still there, empty buildings abandoned years before the tornadoes came that weren't leveled just boarded up and left to crumble from there.
But way before Mother Nature intervened, we grew up in fresh ruins, and the psychological damage of that is only now becoming evident in so many of the people I grew up around and those who raised us. It didn't have to be that way, and everybody suffered. Things are better in certain parts of town now, but those improvements were not holistic, and a lot of people (especially older people) are sort of just hanging out wondering what the fuck is going on and when any of this is going to get better, though I think most of them know the answer to that one by now.
Anyway, thank you for this. It really is a thing nobody talks about, not in a way that feels anything like healing.