Saturday, April 25, 2009

Deer Blinds, a Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant, and the House Across the Street: Offering an Abandonment Taxonomy


I'm just back, walking around the block. It's a pretty good place, "the historic Meridian-Kessler neighborhood," Indianpolis, Indiana. Solidly middle, more so.

Across the street, at the corner, a house almost two years "for sale." Empty. Pre-subprime crisis. Grass cut by a mowing service, last winter no sidewalk shoveling after snowstorms.

Is this house more than "vacant"? Not merely "for sale"?

I was abandoned in summer 2006.

Or maybe it should be said that's when I started thinking about abandonment and when I abandoned much of what I thought to be the case.

The project that brought about these shifts: propose modifications to the house demolition process in Flint, Michigan. The goal: reduce waste hauled to the landfill. The report: "Deconstructing Flint."

In Flint, maybe 10,000+ abandoned buildings. In 2003, Indianapolis, 7,500+ abandoned houses (more today, courtesy subprime crisis.) In Cleveland 2005, between 10,000 and 25,000 abandoned properties. Baltimore (15,000), Detroit (10,000), and Kansas City (5,000) report large numbers of abandoned structures.

There's a nonheroic quality re: abandonment. Maybe that's why these architectures aren't give much thought, don't get much attention.

Preservationists aren't interested: the architecture is not Capital A -- we're talking plain worker houses (laced with lead paint and asbestos), unadorned factory and commercial buildings (ditto), and what's the fun in preserving that, in handcuffing one's self to that in front of the bulldozers?

Government officials, if anything, politick on inverted platforms -- they'll tear down the city in order to save it, and typically do little or nothing as there's no money, no will, other priorities.

Neighborhoods, chunks of cities, people are gone.

For a remaining few, Camden, south Philly, East St. Louis, Gary is home. For many others, well, these places are forgotten.

Development? Issuing building permits? Construction jobs? A vision for the future? Architectural fees?

Fuhgetaboutit!

There's nobody home. Literally.

My first Flint fly-by came months after my first Gulf Coast drive-through (December 2005) four months after Katrina; after an eye-opener to southern Sri Lanka (February 2005) four months post-tsunami. Less than a year later, October 2006, Olon Dotson and I drove the Midwess Distress Tour to Detroit and Flint, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Chicago and East St. Louis, Illinois; and Cincinnati, Ohio. (See Archinect for "Compared to What?" ediary.)

As my visits to Flint continued, including one with Nihal Perera and Bryan Finoki (written up by Bryan as "If There Is Life In Flint . . ."), in December 2007 Olon, Nihal, and I led a quick trip to the Gulf Coast, stopping to see work by the Rural Studio in Alabama, rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, and Cairo, Illinois.

That drive, those sightings, the loss focused my attention . . .

Then, the Glass Chapel in Mason's Bend, first time. In recent years, I saw it featured in Chuck Shultz's documentary "The Rural Studio," imagined the windshield cowling untold times, and read Sam Mockbee's comment that it is "as cutting edge as any piece of architecture that you can find in the United States."

When at the Chapel . . . well . . . I didn't recognize it. There were no windshields -- they'd been taken off, apparently no one could figure out how to keep fungus from growing on them. Weeds invaded the main entryway and there was dust or dirt or rubble on most surfaces. And a full-size, worn mobile home parked alongside.


A few months later, I emailed this to a friend: I said to Bryan Bell, [the current condition of the Glass Chapel] suggests to me that something was wrong, something has gone wrong, and while there may have been a lot of crying and joying when the building was completed, obviously it's difficult, just five years later, to see this as any sort of success??? He was great, he was obviously stunned to learn of the building's deterioration, and he said, well, sure, this is something we need to think about. I said, well, maybe it is a good project now, maybe better now than when it was "finished" because at least now someone in Mason's Bend no longer considers it so precious as evidenced by the mobile home right next to it. He said "no," that not how he saw it (which to me, again, was advocating really really really for the continued central, I would say "heroic" role of the architect. No matter what the locals do, it's not quite right unless it's what the architects want the locals to do, what "we" "educate" "them" to do).

(I've been told by Olon, who revisited Mason's Bend in December 2008, that the glass windshields have been replaced, but that the mobile home is unmoved. For more images from December 2007, see this onesmallproject.flickr site.)

Also, the Perry Lakes bathrooms were locked, the Hale County Animal Shelter unused, the Perry County Learning Center in Marion was in near pristine condition (almost unused, with no obvious wear-and-tear.)

I began to wonder ab0ut this quietness, this architectural overbuilding, the overstressed communities.

Was I seeing buildings abandoned? Buildings at rest? Buildings never needed? Buildings on call? Buildings in litigation? Buildings forgotten?

Working our vans backroad through Alabama, barns collapsed, houses down, machine sheds caved. No people, not many signs of life, no use. Sure, it was Sunday morning, but all was quiet, too quiet, and little looked used. Gone graineries, silent silos, chillin' chicken coops.

I asked the, first time: how many buildings in the U.S. are abandoned? What percentage long-term vacant? Discarded? Unused? Patient?

In 1981, as cited in The Clarion-Ledger newspaper article "Farish Street prime example of Afro-American styles," architecture professor Richard Dozier (from Tuskegee University) observed the dilapidated condition of the Farish Street neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi and said that it reflected "the classic black business district's relationship to a white-dominated downtown." This point was among his arguments for remembering, reinvesting in, and restoring the place. Years later, in 1999, the Farish Street Historic District Neighborhood Foundation nonprofit organization received $6 million in state general obligation bond funding from the Mississippi State Legislature to "renovate [the neighborhood's] dilapidated conditions," as reported by The Mississippi Link. This was matched by another $6 million by Fannie Mae's Mississippi Partnership Office "in the form of equity and debt financing to be applied throughout the district."

Brought back then, today, ten years later, after an infusion of $12 million, Farish Street today is worn and ignored, with a cluster of shotgun houses that were revived, now, once again, dead.

On my last visit, in December 2007, a man asked if he could have my winter coat. He was cold. I said, "no."


In southern Illinois, at the conclusion of our December 2007 drive, we found rural Alabama's bookend, it's 'illin buddy. Cairo.

Pronounced kA-rO, this fading city is sited at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Once upon a time, this mattered. Fort Defiance is there and during the Civil War, so was Ulysses S. Grant. In the HEY-days of riverboat and barge traffic, this was THE PLACE, with 15,000 residents.

Cairo was also one of Illinois' most segregated cities: hundreds witnessed the lyncihing of William "Froggie" James in 1909 and beginning in 1969 many in the African American populace participated in a lengthy economic boycott of white-owned businesses.

Today, Cairo's location doesn't matter. Now, 2,000 people.

The main street could be straight out of a "How to Identify Ghost Towns" website: multiple buildings falling in on themselves, vacant stares and stairs, abandoned structures everywhere, zero traffic. It's a city as quiet as a library -- a really big (and angry) librarian said SHHHHHH! and everybody did and does. When an old man stopped to talk, I offered that in twenty years there would be no one living in Cairo. No disagreement.

In my final walkaround I saw a plant/brush growing along the inner surface of a storefront's glass door.

Then, as we eased out of town on Commercial Avenue--with no traffic to contend with, we did multiple U-turns and Y-turns and drove on the wrong side of the street as we took our requisite photographs--a tree growing through a brick facade, at the second floor level, pushing between a window sill and the brick wall.

Bombay Beach, Imperial County, California, 2000 population: 366. Located on the east shore of the Salton Sea, the Beach and surrounds had dreams of competing with a young Las Vegas. Rising and falling water levels in the Sea led to construction of a protective berm. The earthworks' location left numerous structures at the mercy of the high tides, shifting sands, and baking sun. Today, they sit like dead fish, bodies picked over, rotting on the beach. Photographed July 2006, revisited in October 2006 and 2007.

Abandoned barn, Cartersville, Illinois, southwest corner of the intersection of DeYoung and Pershing Streets, photographed April 11, 2009. For more images, see this onesmallproject.flickr site.

Deer blind, photographed on April 4, 2009 while driving between Lansing and Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, on U.S. Highway 127. For more M-127 images, see this onesmallproject.flickr site.

Great disasters -- tsunami, hurricane -- are rare and grab headlines, donations, first responders. That said, we continuously live and move among minidisasters without even noticing, most of us self-GPSing within our comfort zones of people, places, activities.

It is probably the case that you are within walking distance of an abandoned building, within a short drive of neighborhoods filled with boarded houses and commercial buildings, within a longer drive of a city that is shrinking, its citizens finding or imagining better opportunities someplace else, leaving behind rental contracts, ownership deeds and titles, property claims for foreclosure officers, banking officials, and demolition contractors to deal with, maybe leaving behind mortgage payments on a house not worth today the amount of the loan taken out when the house was purchased. You're probably living close to a squatter and don't know it, served by a nearhomeless person, maybe a car-dweller, at the convenience or Big Box store and there's no way to know, struggling yourself to pay rent, mortgage, car payment, alimony, insurance, child support, tuition this month. We come in constant contact with people who live lives we can't imagine evan as they serve our cheeseburgers or tacos, make our bed, all the time dreaming their dreams, as we dream ours. And we expect, we demand they do this with a smile. We demand this of each other.

First, our lives are abandoned. Families, friends, partners. We empty the storage unit, hold the rummage sale, give our books. Dreams, plans, careers, on hold, at best, lost forever at worst. Only later, maybe last, are buildings left empty.

According to Encarta, "to abandon" is: 1) to leave somebody or something behind for others to look after, especially somebody or something meant to be a personal responsibility; 2) to leave a place or vehicle, especially for reasons of safety and without intending to return soon; 3) to renounce or reject something previously done or used; 4) to surrender control of something completely to somebody else; or 5) to stop doing something before it is completed, usually because of difficulty or danger.

We might abandon a pet at the Humane Society, a beatdown car at Goodwill, course notes from a class we can't remember, allow someone to buy-our our company, or you might resign a job because it's become too difficult.

Seen in the context of the built environment, "to abandon" becomes complicated. Quickly.

Is a van or a car that served as a residence, is it an abandoned house? A falling pavilion built thirty years ago to protect cattle from snowstorms -- is it a building? How long until a vacated house, like the one down the street from me, how long until it is considered abandoned? When does a treehouse become a house in a tree? A cardboard box lived in by a pavement dweller in L.A.'s Skid Row, is it a house?

I like here the Urban Dictionary's definitions (and uses) of "fuhgetaboutit!" as inspired by Johnny Depp's character in "Donnie Brasco." These categories capture the tired conditions one finds in so many abandoned landscapes and buildings, the widespread dulled responses of the citizenry, the American way of moving on, of moving forward, of envisioning a future, often with little or no concern given to those moved over, those without such a glorious future.

From Brasco and Depp, fughetaboutis! as 1) it doesn't matter, 2) fuck you, 3) no way, 4) to enhance a previously stated clause, and 5) you should drop the subject entirely.

IT DOESN'T MATTER
"Living in a tent? No place to go? Fuhgetaboutit!"


New Orleans, December 2007, Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall and Mayor Ray Nagin's office, dozens of small tents, more than one hundred people living in them, a post-Katrina tent city, residents unwilling, unable, unaware of other housing options. But they need to go, on this prominent spot, the City's representatives have their act together. I mean, the Lower Ninth Ward is a mess, Brad Pitt is doing what he can, so are local people, but so much more needs to be done, imagined . . . it's difficult to imagine. But in Duncan Plaza, well, there's a plan, or at least a "beard" of a plan to replace the State Supreme Court building and an adjacent 9-story building. So the tents, must go, and their residents too, at least the ones that can be seen from the Mayor's Office. On the day we were there, columns for the chain like fence were already in place.

New Orleans, August 2008, Duncan Plaza, abandoned. All that's left, a sign, changed to say: Duncan Plaza is being closed to let us ignore the homeless"

FUCK YOU
"Poor? Displaced? Need a house? Fuhgetaboutit!"

In Alabama, 2007, then Mississippi, south on I-59, we stop for gasoline at exit 589. This is Purvis where two years earlier we saw thousands of full-size FEMA trailers awaiting deployment in the Gulf region.

And our jaws drop. Well, more like, I start jawing to Olon: "What the hell, Olon?! The trailers are still here!"

I'm off though . . . this silent village has grown. Even more white gleaming boxes are lined up neatly, like fat, really fat contours, dashed lines drawn by a landscape architect's thick white marker on the Earth's face and across the face of the recovery effort. Estimates vary, but there are thousands of trailers here -- in "temporary" storage, can they be considered abandoned if they were never used?

My on-line dictionary defines a disaster as "somebody or something that fails completely, especially in a way that is distressing, embarrassing, or laughable (informal)."

I wonder: Can there be a disaster if nothing happened?

On-line explanations for what we see: maybe some trailers were returned after service as emergency shelter in southern Mississippi, maybe most never left Purvis and sat there with coffee makers and DVD players at-the-ready, still other might be discharged in a coming natural disaster.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation newsletter, in its Winter 2006 issue, called a FEMA staging yard in Hope, Arkansas, with its 10,000 trailers, "America's largest mobile home park, inhabited by no one."

Purvis is a serious challenger.

NO WAY
"Burned out Frank Lloyd Wright? Lost Bucky Fuller? Fuhgetaboutit!"


Gary, Indiana, circa 2006, is Athens, or Pompeii, or Mayan ruins on the Yucatan, or Anasazi ruin sites in Chaco Canyon.

Houses gone, abandoned houses standing (and falling, slowly), overgrowth everywhere -- nature is winning, reeling in the buildings. Churches are abandoned, congregations gone; this is serious distress. To add insult and gravity, the Wynant House, as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is burned out too, an old friend now charred and ringed with chain link. We slide through a seam in the chain link, climb broken stairs, and stand among the charred fallen beams. The fireplace stack -- Wright's hearth -- provides little warmth, no comfort. In a 1957 interview, published in the 1994 book The Oral History of Modern Architecture, Wright said: "I love the fire. I love to see that element. I love to feel that I am using it, that I have access to it, or control of it.

Others, it seems, share Wright's fascination.

The only house that Bucky Fuller built for his family was completed in 1960 in Carbondale, Illinois where he was a professor at Southern Illinois University from 1959-1960.

Imagining what that might have been like . . . oh . . . the Jetsons, the leisurely life of the family of the future, one envisions, easily, the great man grilling hamburgers over some locally refined carbon, watering the grass, guests sipping highballs, shouts of laughter . . . all dreaming dome dreams.

Reality intervenes, 2009, standing in the R. Buckminster and Anne Hewlett Fuller Dome Home, the dream not only denied, but enclosed in a temporary waterproofing dome, covered with layers of "faulty" asphalt shingles, an interior column brace resists gravity's pull and water's corrosion, a 4x4 holds an air conditioner aloft.

Dymaxion as daMinimum.

TO ENHANCE A PREVIOUSLY STATED CLAUSE
"Nuclear meltdown? Radiation discharge? Fuhgetaboutit!"

Homer Simpson is undoubtedly our country's best-known nuclear power plant employee. But the worst accident in the history of nuclear power generation in the United States doesn't happen every night in the opening credits of "The Simpsons," it happened at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979.

A partial core meltdown in Unit 2 (shown above in a photo taken in October 2009), the result of both mechanical and human failures, released radioactive gases into the air, although it is widely believed that there was and is no increase in cancer incidence among local residents.

Only twelve days earlier, "The China Syndrome" movie was released. Starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, the post set out what might happen if a meltdown at a U.S. nuclear power generating plant occurred -- the core would melt through the Earth until it reached China.

The combination of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown, the total meltdown outlined in "The China Syndrome," and the confusing and conflicting trail of official communications that came out of various oversight agencies at the time of TMI led to a complete stoppage in the start of new nuclear power plant construction in the U.S.

Today, according to the website of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "the TMI-2 reactor is permanently shut down and defueled, with the reactor coolant system drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, radioactive waste shipped off-site to an appropriate disposal site, reactor fuel and core debris shipped off-site to a Department of Energy facility, and the remainder of the site being monitored."

YOU DROP THE SUBJECT ENTIRELY
"Failing neighborhoods in Indianapolis? Lots of new abandoned houses? Fughetaboutit!"



"So, let us try a creative experiment: Suppose that the worst has happened. Human extinction is a fait compli. . . [P]icture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow. . . Look around you, at today's world. Your house, your city. The surrounding land, the pavement underneath, and the soil hidden below that. Leave it all in place, but extract human beings. Wipe us out, and see what's left." (From The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, 2007.)

In March 2009, bouncing around west Indianapolis on a Saturday, with graduate student Derek Mills, between 10th Street and Michigan Avenue.

Boarded houses, abandoned houses, vacant houses, three, four, five in a row, some freshly decommissioned, so much so that even a practiced eye (like mine) can't tell until looking around, hanging on, being close. Others quiet, "for sale" signs in windows. Still others aggressively boarded, dates of plywooding spray-painted, some houses with different dated on numerous shutterings.

In 2005, Ball State graduate students went door-to-door in the city limits and found nearly 8,000 vacant houses. Eight thousand. Derek has looked at those maps and says there's a lot more abandonment and vacancy now. Lots more.

At 921 Tremont Avenue (shown above) the Vine Family has moved in, a hostile takeover.

I began to think of Weisman's bestseller "The World Without Us." The idea that there is great benefit to this line of thinking -- Bill McKibben is quoted on the book's front jacket as saying it "is one of the grandest thought experiments of our time, a tremendous feat of imaginative reporting!" sound important, sounds edgy, sounds like something we need to think about.

Weisman and McKibben need to come to west Indianapolis.

Imagination? They won't need it.

Experiment? We're living it.

Grand? Try mundane.

Tremendous? Try commonplace.

Fughetaboutit!? You can't, abandonment is everywhere, in all of its forms.

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