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November 23, 2008


This post reminded me of pictures of the ultimate desolation: Chernobyl. It is amazing how quickly nature can reclaim its dominion once we've left.

In Boston, where I grew up, there are neighborhoods where a lot of the houses have come down. But it's rare to find whole vacant blocks.

It's certainly not rare in the industrial midwest. Two blocks from downtown of a major metropolitan center and there are whole blocks of weeds and buildings waiting to be torn down to make room for more weeds.

Not rare at all.

About to get a lot less rare, wait and see.

Out-migration is not a good thing for landlords.

It's a beautiful building. I too can hear it's soul crying out. It is telling me "I can still serve. Just give me a chance."

Many of us project human feelings onto animals or cars or even meteorology but how are you able to do this with -buildings-? It's like the Amityville poster where the windows could be malevolent frowning eyes.

What if the school was a naughty piece of architecture and that's why the people left? No use you falling for its schooly-lookin' ways now hilzoy.

I'm glad you picked up on his photos. I, too, clicked through after Sybil's post and spent a long, long time looking at that blog. Amazing stuff. Really sort of shows what the U.S. auto industry's decline means.

What is amazing is how soon it will be that much of Detroit is abandoned and gutted. It is a dying city in a dying state, and most likely a canary in the mineshaft when it comes to America as a whole. When the manufacturing base is gone, it can not be replaced by a mere service economy. Unless we are able to take the lead in new technologies, there will be many more Jane Cooper Elementary buildings.

Detroit has been through several waves of abandonment, demolition, and desolation -- to such a degree that it's a difference in kind from most other cities.

Every building in which my s.o. ever lived in the city is now gone. It's bleak. And we're going again for Thanksgiving. Hard to be festive.

"Detroit has been through several waves of abandonment, demolition, and desolation -- to such a degree that it's a difference in kind from most other cities."

I looked for a relevant link relating to Norman Spinrad's "A Thing Of Beauty," and couldn't find a decent one. But those who know the story will know what I'm talking about.

The complete disappearance of houses for blocks and blocks and blocks was in the particular case of the neighborhood surrounding Jane Cooper the result of clearance for an industrial park -- which never materialized.

Urban renewal tore down some incredible houses in Detroit. I used to live in Indian Village, just off of Belle Isle, and driving downtown to work was so painful. So much was torn down. Dead.
And so old. I trained as a nurse in 1968 in a civil war era hospital. Gone now, but an incredible building when you think of all the life of that place.
One thing about Detroit, though, you ALWAYS knew when you were in a bad neighborhood.
California is different that way.

This post deserves to be read in its entirety; a classic Detroit situation, ongoing, providing a different context to the images than the one readers are most likely to supply.

What about the desolation that Wal Mart and other shopping malls unleashed on small town American main streets in the post war years?

Mr Parsifal (props for taking the name of the knight who tried to find the Holy Grail)

the difference between a place like Detroit and where Walmarts have been extruded onto the landscape is that in places like Detroit, these buildings were originally designed to last while Walmarts are really not. I guess it's like being sad over the loss of a traditional walnut or oak desk and versus the loss of a desk made of milk crates and a few planks. Usually, Walmarts are built so that one has to drive to them, and then are never engines of revitalizing the downtown area. It's a common trope that Americans fail to appreciate the old, especially in the form of architecture, and I think that is what makes the difference between Detroit and small town USA (places that often have wonderful buildings as well, I should add)

It’s not just old buildings…

Here anyway, there are a lot of failed developments. I’ve been looking at property for a few months. I lost track of how many brand new never been lived in homes I’ve looked at that stand alone in what was once a farmer’s field. A lonely house or two surrounded by acres and acres of cleared land. Someone had visions of hundreds of homes and a quaint development. They bought the land from farmer John, built a home or two that no one wanted, and filed for bankruptcy.

Almost as sad as a home that was once lived in and loved is one that never got the chance to be loved.

At a guess, Mr Parsifal meant the capitalist desolation that Walmart-type stores inflicts on its surroundings - the small businesses and shops that close down in the shopping zone around a big chain store, because the big chain store can undercut them on price, because the people who work for Walmarts aren't earning a living wage - aren't even getting health insurance! - and so can't afford to shop much. A big company, with a unionized workforce, paying decent wages, can lift a whole neighborhood up. Equally, something like Walmart can drag a whole neighborhood down.

a real estate search in the Detroit area will bring up hundreds of houses under $10K - mostly little bungalows.

according to this site, the price per sq ft is down 42% over last year. it's at $34/sq.ft it's $119/sq.ft in my part of NC.

I dont know if you know of this poem, but I have a feeling it will speak to you. It's by Joyce Kilmer and it describes the feeling abandoned homes give me

WHENEVER I walk to Suffern along the Erie track
I go by a poor old farmhouse with its shingles broken and black.
I suppose I've passed it a hundred times, but I always stop for a minute
And look at the house, the tragic house, the house with nobody in it.

I never have seen a haunted house, but I hear there are such things;
That they hold the talk of spirits, their mirth and sorrowings.
I know this house isn't haunted, and I wish it were, I do;
For it wouldn't be so lonely if it had a ghost or two.

This house on the road to Suffern needs a dozen panes of glass,
And somebody ought to weed the walk and take a scythe to the grass.
It needs new paint and shingles, and the vines should be trimmed and tied;
But what it needs the most of all is some people living inside.

If I had a lot of money and all my debts were paid
I'd put a gang of men to work with brush and saw and spade.
I'd buy that place and fix it up the way it used to be
And I'd find some people who wanted a home and give it to them free.

Now, a new house standing empty, with staring window and door,
Looks idle, perhaps, and foolish, like a hat on its block in the store.
But there's nothing mournful about it; it cannot be sad and lone
For the lack of something within it that it has never known.

But a house that has done what a house should do, a house that has sheltered life,
That has put its loving wooden arms around a man and his wife,
A house that has echoed a baby's laugh and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight, when it's left alone, that ever your eyes could meet.

So whenever I go to Suffern along the Erie track
I never go by the empty house without stopping and looking back,
Yet it hurts me to look at the crumbling roof and the shutters fallen apart,
For I can't help thinking the poor old house is a house with a broken heart.

"The House with Nobody in It" was originally published in Trees and Other Poems. Joyce Kilmer. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1914.

At a guess, Mr Parsifal meant the capitalist desolation that Walmart-type stores inflicts on its surroundings

I didn't mean to discount what he said, just that there is something about a building, be it a school or a church or a public building, designed to last for several generations that seems different from Wal-mart dropping a strip mall on the outskirts of town. I'm not in a position to say if the damage is the same or different, but it seems ironic that something that should be 'conserved' is viewed as a victim of the market and modern day 'conservatism' seems not to see that and these sorts of things seem to be a much better basis for a rebirth of conservatism than any sort of social issue, imo.

"Thus for those who can read the forest landscape [in Sierra Leone], some natural features are as tragic as any scene of violent desolation. Certain trees are, and were, planted for food, defense, and shade only at sites of human settlement or farming. And when such rural settlements disappear, with their constructions of mud, sticks, and thatch, clusters of kola and fruit trees planted in village gardens quickly become the only visible traces . . . In most cases, only those who recognize the human plan that shaped the clustering together of certain trees know that these features of the natural landscape are ruins, And only those who know the story of how they became ruins know whether a violent event is at their origin . . .

. . . In addition to particular configurations of vegetation, past settlements are also marked by the slightly elevated spots in the forest floor where houses once stood and by the sunken hollows where graves repose. Graves and the dead they conceal remain one of the lasting ruins of past live settlements. A casual walk on forest pasts can take one by several such sites, and if someone in the company has specific knowledge of them, the conversation often turns to the ruin's history. The story is always told backwards in time, from the events that triggered abandonment and decay. It defies straightforward teleologies and hence offers myriad opportunities for alternative narratives of the past. But others walking by ruins in the forest may recognize from surface signs the traces of earlier settlements without there being a meaningful connection that might create an opportunity for the dead to return to life in the remembrances of the living."
-The Underneath of Things: Violence, History and the Everyday in Sierra Leone, by Mariane C. Ferme

I didn't mean to discount what he said

Oh, I thought you just completely misunderstood what he said.

The desolation caused by Walmart droping a shopping mall on the edge of town and wiping out a thriving city centre isn't in the shopping mall: it's the streets of boarded-up closed-down businesses. Which is the step before the public buildings start dying because the city doesn't have the money any more to keep them going.

It's not "conservation v social issues" - it's the same thing.

(and, in part for a Parsifal,)

by Robert Frost

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town.
The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry—
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there’s a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods’ excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone’s road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.
First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny’s
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

"City's library-closing plan sparks outcry," The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 2008

Desperate to find revenue, the [Philadelphia Mayor] Nutter administration [has] made the difficult choice to [permanently] shutter 11 libraries and save $8 million.

. . . Fewer libraries might be needed, [spokesman] Oliver said, noting that the current library system was built for a city of two million residents. "We're closer to 1.5 million now, and that's a significant difference," he said.

(online petition)

I am horrified by abandoned houses

I am aware that it's not entirely ethical to just ignore the social context and view such places from a purely aesthetical perspective, but I have to admit that I just love abandoned and derelict buildings.

This is a very good site featuring photographs of abandoned places (also check out the link section).

"It's not that I actually believe they are alive, but I think things like: every house deserves to have someone who loves it... I am horrified by abandoned houses, and have been known to keep track of them... I have special favorite abandoned houses,"

as a union carpenter I have spent many years worth of time in old houses, factories, etc. While they are not alive, they do contain the spirit of those who have passed through their doors. The dreams of those past denizens, as well as their tragedies, are written on the walls and floors in many small ways that can be read by the intuitive.

But I am not horrified by abandoned houses anymore than I am by a graveyard. I like to go and visit with them (hard to explain) and feel the strange and complex mixture of emotions that is both the happiness and the sadness witnessed by those walls. They speak of the eternal human struggles that never really end.

What I do find sad though, is that all too often when we rehab an old building, we strip it down to it's barest minimum, removing all walls, floors, and ceilings, as tho we desire to strip it of it's past history, it's memories, as well. The things I have found... old coins, stamps, newspapers, toys, letters and postcards, beer bottles, medicine bottles... All this is done in the interests of "modernizing".

It is a trade off, a necessary one, but one that saddens me a little.

I live in Atlanta, where we have our share of what I call "disposable land." Not that I think land is disposable, but that it has been treated that way.

But recently I visited a friend living in Wilmington, DE. Taking the train up to Philly, I saw entire disposable towns. Horrifying. One area actually looked quaint- kind of neat 2,3 story brick store fronts along a large intersection- all boarded up. Not a person in sight. It looked like a movie set.

For years we've heard from the Free Market Capitalists that "you can't manufacture things in the US anymore: costs too much."

No one ever thought of the cost of not manufacturing things here.

Check out the Detroit Blog for more heartbreaking photos along with interviews with the people who live and work in these neighborhoods.

This post, one of a series about the State Fair neighborhood, is really worth reading.

The demographics of Detroit simply require that such things happen.

Detroit population, 1950 census: 1,849,568

Detroit population, 2007 estimate:916,952.

Of course there will be a lot of abandoned buildings when 50% of the population leaves.

A lot of this is white flight from the city rather than simply declining industrial base--the metro area population is up 2 million over the same 1950-2007 period.

The anthropomorphic house reminds me of a classic kids story, "The Little House" by Virginia Lee Burton. The pretty house in the country gets overtaken by the encroaching city & progress, and eventually gets moved back to the country.

For the best view of abandonment in Detroit, check out the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit page. http://www.detroityes.com/home.htm

Its not enough to say that the demographics of detroit require so much abandonment. On the contrary, perhaps the abandonment led to the demographic shift: no one wants to move back to a neighborhood full of empty houses.

At its demographic peak, Detroit was frankly overcrowded, with families sharing small homes. When some of these families moved out, the remaining ones could have taken over the larger homes.

I'm from Michigan, about 2 hours north of Detroit. I don't drive through Detroit when I visit home, so I don't see the desolation in that area. I do, though, see the problems in even rural Michigan.

Driving through the neighborhoods I grew up in, I see so many homes for sale. Not just for sale, but for "Reduced" prices and abandoned. Small businesses that just opened within the last few years are closed, for sale, or at the very least have changed hands several times. Older small businesses are surviving through customer loyalty, but barely, and last time I visited I saw some of those businesses for sale as well. People are struggling to find jobs and make ends meet.

I was there last in June, and I was shocked by what I saw. We'll be visiting again for Christmas, and I dread the changes I'm sure I'll see.

Please forgive the depressing post, but this story reminded me of how I feel each time I go to the place I still consider home. It's so sad to watch it withering away.

If any of you need a mental health break from all this desolation and melancholy and meditation on how our civilization is headed the way of the Anasazi (only with less awe-inspiring stonework to leave behind for future archeologists to puzzle over and lots more non-biodegradable plastic), be sure to hop on over to the pages of that fantastic Sweet Juniper website where the author catalogs terrifying childrens books from the Eisenhower thru Nixon era.

no one wants to move back to a neighborhood full of empty houses.

If this is true, how do new developments get off the ground?

This thread makes me want to cry.

Here anyway, there are a lot of failed developments.

There's one around the corner from my house. Seven lots, three houses built, one sold, and it's come to screaming halt.

All the builders thought this was going to be their shot at making their big score. If they got it done early enough, it probably was. If not, they're probably out of business now, or else working more or less for nothing just to keep some cash flow so they can service their debt on the properties they'll never sell.

What a freaking waste.

Thanks -

it's not animism, hilzoy, it's john 14:2:

in my father's kingdom of ends there are many houses.

There's a house on my block
That's abandoned and cold
Folks moved out of it a
Long time ago
And they took all their things
And they never came back
Looks like it's haunted
With the windows all cracked
And everyone call it
The house, the house where
Nobody lives

Once it held laughter
Once it held dreams
Did they throw it away
Did they know what it means
Did someone's heart break
Or did someone do somebody wrong?

Well the paint was all cracked
It was peeled off of the wood
Papers were stacked on the porch
Where I stood
And the weeds had grown up
Just as high as the door
There were birds in the chimney
And an old chest of drawers
Looks like no one will ever
Come back to the
House were nobody lives

Once it held laughter
Once it held dreams
Did they throw it away
Did they know what it means
Did someone's heart break
Or did someone do someone wrong?
So if you find someone
Someone to have, someone to hold
Don't trade it for silver
Don't trade it for gold
I have all of life's treasures
And they are fine and they are good
They remind me that houses
Are just made of wood
What makes a house grand
Ain't the roof or the doors
If there's love in a house
It's a palace for sure
Without love...
It ain't nothin but a house
A house where nobody lives
Without love it ain't nothin
But a house, a house where
Nobody lives

Tom WAits

We're seeing some of this in our small/town semi-rural county. Little houses out on acreages that are boardered up. Big view houses for sale. Spec houses that are now rentals. I'm glad to see the proliferation of new houses stop and I hope that, when the economy recovers, the market for new houses will not.

A tragic side effect: stray dogs. We have nearly thirty puppies at the shelter now from abandonned dogs. There are abandoned dogs everywhere. And cats.

Thanks for the Robert Frost poems. I spent a part of my early childhood in northern Vermont. So I know what he means in my memory and its visions.

Anyway. The desolation is to me the absence of love. Love gone, withdrawn.

Walmart is not a loving business enterprise. Is that what we want?

I do not.

Detroit built cars. The cars called for roads. The roads turned to super highways. And the super highways took the people out of Detroit. On my first visit to Detroit (the partner took her PhD at the University of Michigan), the spectacle of a crumbling Detroit haunted me, and I decided that a comparison of the current states of Detroit and Hiroshima suggests that the car culture, unrestrained, does more damage than a nuclear attack.

All of this may help to explain why I have a deep ambivalence when it comes to bailing out the auto industries. I know too well the ruthlessness with which the advocates of that form of transportation not only promote their own means of transport, but attempt to drive out all competing ones.

I don't vouch for the accuracy of the following story; I offer it to show the way I think about these matters. But I heard that at one point in the motorization of North America, tractor dealerships announced they would take horses in trade. And farmer John walked in with Bessie and Dobbin, and walked out with a shiny new tractor, and Bessie and Dobbin, however much or little they could still serve, went to the slaughterhouse right away. Because the tractor companies did not merely have no use for horses; they wanted to wipe out the draft horse breeds, annihilate the Percherons and Clydesdales bred centuries ago to carry knights and invaluable servants to farmers all over the world since. They too had kept their end of the bargain.

"They have sown the wind..." Sir Arthur Harris said, setting out to level a wholly different set of cities. And there we have the problem. The ordinary people working in the industrial Midwest never sowed this wind. They came into the world with the storm already gathering, and they have done nothing worse than try their best to live with it.

So the painful question persists: do we give a car culture that has already cost so much and caused so much pain another lease on life? Or do we end it?

My own take, FWIW: let the overall institution die, but make sure the assets go to companies that will not just sell them for scrap. Let Bombardier, the integrated transportation company, take over Chevrolet and make the Volt. Let us see the Boeing Pontiac, the United Technologies truck division, and the Cadillac worker's cooperative (the Union pension funds own much of GM anyhow). Let the GM trademark rest in peace (helped along by a stake, if necessary).

Just in case you wondered why a Toronto cyclist would have a problem with car culture...

There's only a thin veneer of civilization protecting us from chaos and the wild. We see it in disasters and now we're seeing it in the deterioration of our economy.

If you don't have a car in your driveway from Detroit, then you made this problem. Complaining about Walmart while buying a Prius is hypocritical: among vehicles produced by Detroit were relatively competitive, Union Made, products. Additional cost to Union Made vehicles were due to social contracts companies made with employees, which presumably are good things for the macro economy.

In any event, Detroit has a problem because people won't buy the products made there, and the difference in cost to the individual taxpayer to buy the actual product (vs import) will probably be less than the cost of the bail out to the taxpayer.

That reminds me of the old Talking Heads song, "Nothing but Flowers":

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it's nothing but flowers

There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers
you got it, you got it

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it

There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
you've got it, you've got it

If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you've got it, you've got it

Years ago
I was an angry young man
I'd pretend
That I was a billboard
Standing tall
By the side of the road
I fell in love
With a beautiful highway
This used to be real estate
Now it's only fields and trees
Where, where is the town
Now, it's nothing but flowers
The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

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