Chasing Rusting Ghosts

“Door Busters” Super K-Mart Demolition; Burlington, NC | (c) 2017 Richard J. Smith

Why do people become attached to buildings, especially ones that have long been vacant or abandoned and add no apparent value to the community? We are no strangers to these kinds of structures: anywhere that has an industrial history usually sports at least one (and often many) such sites. Small towns and large cities are home to factories and mills, offices and shops that have been defunct for decades, overgrown with weeds and looted of any valuable metals. Sometimes these properties are left to rot because demolition would be too costly and time consuming. Often the land is tied up in litigation or it has become a neglected entry in some conglomerate’s list of assets. Sometimes, I wonder, if they are left because that’s the way they have always been, at least within living memory.

The question then becomes what should be done with such distressed properties? Some (like private dwellings) might have some regional historic value and might champions who are eager to see it restored. Other places (like industrial facilities) may have once played an integral part of a community’s development and, even in death, remain important to a town’s identity. Still others might have some architectural oddity or noteworthy design feature that make the building intriguing even if there is nothing especially unique or historic about the place. There are a variety of reasons people might hesitate to tear down old structures, even if keeping them in standing offers no tangible benefit.

This came to mind after stumbling upon a fantastic (and regularly updated) blog highlighting many examples of the “urban blight” that has affected the city of St. Louis and its surrounding towns. Like many cities in the United States, St. Louis has seen more than its fair share of economic, industrial and demographic changes that have left entire neighborhood in shambles and skeletal factories in their wake. There is no shortage of snapshots of such latter-day ruins on the internet, but it’s exciting to see Chris Naffziger’s well-curated study of one city’s experience; his commentary is equal parts nostalgia, outrage and trepidation and provides a catalyst for discussion and debate.

While browsing the vast collection of photographs, I came to wonder if sometimes people imbue too much sentimental or historic value to buildings. Not every old factory is the Coliseum and not every hollowed-out mansion is Windsor Palace. This might sound like a call to raze entire city blocks and convert the land to something more profitable. That is not entirely true. As a friend of mine pointed out, many old buildings, even those in disrepair or decay “provide a sense of continuity to existence. They connect you to ancestors and history in a very real way”. The Great Pyramids and the Sphinx are remarkable human achievements but it’s hard to feel any real connection to such ancient projects that are known around the world. It’s a very different thing to see the remains of a steel factory or textile mill where your grandparents or great-uncles worked. If you’re fortunate, maybe they are still alive and able to tell you stories of the long hours, the relentless noise, the toxic fumes and the unimaginable heat. That kind of visceral history can’t be replicated by a trip to Athens.

Some might argue that such relics only stand in the way of progress and expansion, reimagining and renewal. Perhaps that is true, but what has progress given us? In most cases, uniqueness and novelty have been bulldozed in favor of sterility and pavement. This, I think, is what terrifies people like Chris Naffziger: the uniformity of post-industrial construction. With only modest differences depending on location, every Wal-Mart is designed basically the same. A standalone Dollar General can be erected almost overnight because each store is a virtual kit like 10,000 other Dollar General stores. The majority of new houses are one of a handful of templates, the materials for which come in bundles like a Lego set and can materialize in a matter of weeks. This mass-produced reality is designed, like so much of our lives, to be disposable, maybe not as readily as a razor blade or a plastic bottle, but they are still designed and built with an expiration date in mind. This prevailing sense of impermanence is why we recoil at the notion of tearing down a century-old factory shell — we want something. . . anything. . . to survive the onslaught.

There also seems to be a dominating principle of modularity, bereft of any semblance of inherent function. A storefront in a modern-day shopping center could be a shoe store as easily as a comic book store, candle store or sandwich shop. There is no meaning behind this kind of construction beyond whatever revenue can be generated. We mourn the passing of cigarette factories because we know what it is, what it stood for and the history behind it. There is no past to a modern-day shopping center or mixed-use development — there is only a completely forgettable future. We weep at the sight of once ornate government or corporate buildings crumbling from indifference. Yet we also resist the notion of destroying them. We want to walk along the graffiti covered perimeter and stare through cracked and dusty windows. We want to risk arrest or injury climbing over rusty fences to stand among the remnants of a past we have likely never experienced. There is a beauty in the rubble and being able to exist in that beauty, even for a few minutes, can be an almost spiritual event, not because of being awestruck by the ingenuity and splendor of the place, but because it hits closer to home and reminds us, if Time had taken a few different turns, it might have been part of our own story.

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