Abandoned Neighborhood

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Several years ago I experienced an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC that has stayed with me. Gnawing at the corners of my mind, it reminded me how fleeting the relics of human existence are. The installation by the Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres was entitled "I don't know if that's what caused it," featuring two slide projections. On one wall a black and white photo of a early 1960s hotel on the Caribbean Island of St. Croix. The image was shot during the hotel's heyday, featuring hollywood type sunbathers, relishing the warmth of a summer day long passed. While the other projector clicked through a series of color photographs featuring the same hotel in its current state, having been abandoned in 1989. A cracked empty pool, crumbling murals, busted out hotel doors and windows, a rusted lounge chair, and no trace of humanity. As images clicked by an audio clip played on repeat telling the audience what they were seeing, accompanied by a French song. When I encountered this exhibit I stood still in the dark room for several minutes. Transfixed, eyes darting between images trying to make sense of a once vibrant place. A destination location where the inclusion of people breathed life into inanimate objects.

For years I have been haunted by the ruins of hulled out places. A once discernible fast-food joint. An empty video store. A giant parking lot overgrown with weeds. Broken glass and graffiti overrunning a crumbling facade. Whenever I pass such a location I envision the people that use to frequent the now abandoned space. Wondering how long the building has stood empty. What contributed to its eventual demise. And how long until the building is flattened to make room for another rendition of exactly the same space? In the same moment that I mull over those questions, I can't help wonder if these visual reminders of decay and failure are perhaps just another window to the inevitable decay of our own existence.

St. Louis, a once booming town of culture and industry, is replete with these type of abandoned structures. Never have I lived in a city that keeps these architectural relics for as long as the gateway to the Midwest. Of course this isn't Detroit, but much of what I see on my daily commute is a reminder that structures need people to imbue meaning. Truthfully, the proximity and frequency with which I encounter these spaces still surprises me. For example, just one mile from where I live is an entire neighborhood that now sits abandoned; where just two months ago families lived in these homes. Now Hadley Township, a once predominantly African American neighborhood that sprouted up in the early 1900s, will likely be demolished within a few weeks to make way for a big box store. Which, will be located right across the street from, you guessed it, another big box store. Whenever this happens I can't help wonder if we are sacrificing our history to the gods of consumerism. And at what cost?

Walking through the neighborhood I was reminded of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, which I had seen firsthand. Immediately that haunting feeling returned. However no natural disaster had ripped through these homes, instead they are being leveled to increase tax revenue for one part of the city. Yet no matter how the desolation occurs, the cycle is the same: building, destroying, and re-building. Each home I passed told a different story. Closets still full of clothes; mattresses dragged onto front lawns; neglected bikes left in open garages; dozens of trees leveled to stumps; and a terminal 'X' marking each house. Their were no dogs barking, no parked cars, no children laughing, not even the scurrying of a squirrel. How many generations had called this specific address home, I wondered? And what will become of all those people that use to make a life in these now abandoned spaces?


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