There are two abandoned houses in my neighborhood. I walk by one most days, a small four-family with asphalt shingles slowly littering the ground around its foundation. The sides are a greenish color that I think comes from moss. It smells moldy even from the outside. For a long time, hundreds of dead flies were pressed against the front window by a sheet of cardboard. The upper windowpanes are missing, though criss-crossed with X’s of drying masking tape, and sometimes I’ll catch pigeons flying in and out of them. There are condemnation notices from the city on the doors – its owners have long been delinquent in their tax payments – and I’ve seen workers unloading reams and boxes of papers from the apartments inside. I said the building is abandoned, but some evenings I’ll walk by and see the faint glow of a bare lightbulb coming from a rear room. So I often wonder, when I see trash cans in front of the house on the sidewalk on Tuesday evenings, or when I see one of the doors ajar, what is going on inside.
One frigid day in mid spring I was taking a walk and noticed that, behind the building, there was a panel missing in the fence. I followed the path around the building and stepped through the empty fence frame, and found myself in front of a rambling yellow house. My feet shuffled through last fall’s leaves as I approached the front door, on which was nailed a bright red X. Plywood covered the windows, and a large, black, jagged arrow inside a circle had been spray painted onto the side of the building. Curious, I crunched my way through the leaves and circumnavigated the property. The structure had been propped up on makeshift cinderblock piles so that it did not fall into a large hole that extended around the entire rear of the building. I had to hold on to a fence as I crossed the trench, since there was barely any solid ground and I wasn’t confident in the soundness of any of the building material. I saw that arrow scrawled across fences and walls a few more times.
Just like the moldy house on the other side of the fence, this building was a puzzle. I saw signs of recent human presence at the same time as clear evidence of decay, as if the human stories inside were ghostly, disembodied, incapable of making any impact on their environments as they crumbled around them. This cognitive dissonance became a visceral sense of unease. I wondered if there was anyone inside, if they were looking at me. I wondered what those arrows meant. I wondered if it was safe to step as I walked. I tripped over a tree root protruding from the ground as I exited the property, a feeling of watchfulness and anxiety crackling around me.
After I returned home I looked up the arrow symbol and found that it is the international anarchist symbol for squatting. I found myself thinking about ruins and abandoned places, wondering how many places I might think are abandoned are actually places of shelter or resistance, or of refuge, for cold pigeons or defiant anarchist squatters. About how the human inhabitants were both invisible but also imperatively present in my mind, even as the slow encroachment of bugs, plants, and rot were what my eyes saw.
There’s a long tradition of interest in ruined places for their physical aesthetics. I contemplated them, pretty uncomplicatedly, before “ruin porn” was a ubiquitous term, here. Contemporary interest in the genre has found its greatest expression in Detroit, and tracks pretty closely with public concern about urban disinvestment in the aftermath of the 2008 real estate crash, when terms like “right-sizing” and “shrinking cities” entered the lexicon. While some of our cities have been exploding in a new urban migration, the industrial centers of the twentieth century have been decaying, leaving behind ruins of Roman proportion, and foreclosed and abandoned homes have threatened the economic foundation and even health of many neighborhoods. (I want to note that some thinkers who live in and care about these so called shrinking cities would like to see this conversation be more nuanced. I agree. Here’s an example.) In many places, an abandoned home is a destructive force, a vanguard volley of despair, a symptom of the bottomed-out American dream. The point of this despair is that the buildings’ emptiness represents the fact that human lives have been de-placed, evicted from the places they call home. When that happens, what do they leave behind, and what takes their place?
Joan Nassauer, an American landscape architect, has found that Americans prize as most aesthetically pleasing landscapes that they perceive to have been well cared for. What an individual considers to be “cared for” can vary, and is strongly influenced by local norms, on the neighborhood or the block level – every time I decide that I don’t have to weed my front yard because my neighbor hasn’t yet either, I think of her research. But needs and local experience also influence those perceptions: a vegetable gardener might prize straight rows and companion planting, while a flower enthusiast might value lush, diverse plantings and curving borders. In any case, knowledge that a human hand is guiding, intervening in, and managing a landscape “cues” viewers to see it as attractive.
So what am I seeing in these abandoned buildings, without the guiding hand of a human’s dutiful attentions, not beautiful or antique enough to show the kind of natural patina that Ruskin so valued and that ruin porners seek?
I started to think I had the answer when I learned about how non-industrial people think about the places that they inhabit. For aboriginal New Zealanders, for example, places have power. Places have potency. And in order to maintain that potency, the places have to be “kept warm” with use: by dwelling, by visiting, by literally warming it with fire, or by presenting offerings. If it hasn’t been kept warm, the potency can be latent, that is, not expressed, like a farmer’s field lying fallow. (For more on this see the writing of Michael D. Jackon.)
I think what’s going on is that I’m sensing latency. These houses – not the product of a collapsed real estate market, but local anomalies – are sites of imagination. They receive my projections and speculations, they are sites of creative possibility, even if only in the realm of hypotheses. They are places where their power from dwelling has been extinguished, where the cues of care are no longer present, but the presence of human attentions linger, calling mine forward with that eerie cognitive dissonance. They are places of potential, of transformation. They are colonized by animals and plants. And because my neighborhood is mostly well cared-for, they present a contrast, an exercise in possibility. They are the witch’s house, the wish house, the George-lassos-the-moon house.
If you think about ruins this way, you get somewhere interesting. They’re not just about the romance of the past. They’re about different ways to see the future, portals for imagining an alternate present, one in which we as humans are only a part of the story. And when we see a vacant lot fill with wildflowers, or tiny trees wiggle themselves through the floorboards and clapboards of a home, we see a different way of imagining nature in our city. We see it as powerful, as conquering, as even resisting that care and control we think is so important. We see that flies and ivy and pigeons and mold have a story in our places, too, a story that would go on without us, that exists and persists and resists in spite of us. And we see a different kind of beauty.
Diana Limbach Lempel is a PhD student at Harvard University. She is the editor of Cultivating Places and can be found on Twitter @publiccurator.