Monday, March 29, 2010
The Backside of America hasn't featured a photo of a person and you might think it never will. Old and decaying buildings make nice photographic subjects. They're interesting, evoke a mood and are mostly charming. People on the backside aren't always quite as welcoming or as pleasing to look at. But, their story should be told as well.
Ocean Beach, CA, is a great little seaside town north of San Diego where parents in SUVs and minivans line up at the beach waiting for their kids to finish surfing the way the rest of the country picks up their kids from soccer practice. I had just finished one of the finest cheeseburgers and tastiest onion rings I've ever had at a fantastic joint called Hodad's and was walking off my power supper by roaming around town taking pictures. As I stepped back from a street corner to frame a photo of a couple of surf kids across the street, I almost stepped on these two guys.
They immediately began heckling me with "What are you taking a picture of!" Soon they were saying "Take our picture. Take a picture of the homeless. Get a picture of the 13's". I didn't understand and thought maybe they were just baiting me. I braced for confrontation, but they clarified they wanted to me to take a picture of them and their tattoos. The 13's. I talked to these guys for 15 minutes or so and took several pictures. They talked about multiple tours in the military and first-hand knowledge of Iraq and Afghanistan. I learned about their distaste for President Dubya and their hope for Obama. Dropped out and disenfranchised, they were living the Backside. I felt lucky to take their picture.
Friday, March 26, 2010
From Chris St. Cyr
Who doesn’t love a ten-foot-tall shoe or six-foot-tall letterforms? Well, one of the only places to see that part of the backside of America is in Las Vegas -- The Boneyard at the Neon Museum to be exact. The museum is a wonderful collection of old electric restaurant and casino signs from the heyday of the Strip. Some of the signs you might recognize come from Caesar's Palace, Binions Horsehoe, Golden Nugget, and Silver Slipper.
Walking through the Boneyard, the tour guide recounts the history of the signs -- the designers, manufacturers, and the entertainers who played the rooms. I was transported back to a time before LCD and plasma screens when you could hear the hum of electricity as you walked under one of these massive emblems. One of the more interesting facts about the Boneyard is that you can see the giant Treasure Island skull on Google Maps.
As a graphic designer and design educator I’m always looking for something new and interesting to show my students. Finding this collection of signage during a diversion from a conference in Vegas last March was a great find. All the broken lightbulbs, the faded colors, exposed wiring, and of course giant typography made the trip well worth it. At times the backside of America can be hard to find and then sometimes there are curators like the Neon Museum that preserve it for the rest of us.
Monday, March 22, 2010
From Dave Brigham:
I was definitely born in the wrong decade, and, quite possibly, the entirely incorrect part of the country. Although born in 1965 in Connecticut, I have long felt drawn to the neon signs of the '50s, and the landscape of the Southwest. These two passions would have been served well traveling Route 66 behind the wheel of a '55 Cadillac Coup de Ville, neon signs of blue swallows, teepees and giant cowboys luring me in to beautiful chrome-filled diners and motels with Magic Finger beds.
In 1988, I did in fact travel through Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, and walked countless times along historic Route 66 during my three-month stint in Albuquerque. I ate at the Route 66 Diner, where one of my traveling buddies, Pete, worked, and passed many old-school motels, many of which I'm sure are long gone 22 years later. I took a bunch of pictures during that trip, but alas the camera I had was defective and nothing ever got developed. So I have no record of that trip, and of my brief time living in Albuquerque. This bums me out to no end. Some day I'll return.
I go to diners every once in a while around Boston. One of my favorites is the Rosebud Diner in Somerville. I just love the beautiful neon signs of these old diners. Thanks to a local guy named Dave Waller, many of the old neon signs from around Boston and elsewhere in the country have been saved, even if the restaurants or motels they once adorned have been lost to history.
The photo above is of the neon sign from Fontaine's Chicken, a restaurant in West Roxbury, MA, that closed in 2004 after more than 50 years in business. Waller bought the sign and put it alongside numerous other reclaimed and restored neon signs in his Malden, MA, home, a restored firehouse (the photo below shows another sign from his collection). I interviewed Waller a few years back for an article I wrote in a publication put out by the Society for Commercial Archeology.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
From David Burke:
The former Skee's Diner (above) is located near the downtown area of Torrington, CT. The restaurant has been closed for about five years. The photo below shows the neon "Dine/Dance" sign above the entrance to The Hemlock Restaurant, remotely hidden in the Drakeville section of Torrington. The Hemlock has been closed for an indeterminate number of years. The property is now tightly surrounded by a corral of trailer homes.
These photos obviously show the present -- abandoned eateries that are well on their way to decomposition. They will soon, if not already, be considered eyesores by the townspeople. The needs of the public are now being served by Applebee's, The 99 and a multitude of fast food chains.
To me, on the other hand, I still sense the "what was." I can clearly see the welcoming neon signs lit up. I can hear the music from the jukebox and the scents coming from the deep fryer are intoxicating. In the case of The Hemlock, I know the satisfaction I will receive from my first sip of cold beer. It will most likely be a Schaefer.
Photos like these show America as it once was. Their continued (physical) existence allows us to continue the feeling that once was contained within. Therefore, I feel good.
Friday, March 12, 2010
From Mick Melvin:
The buildings of the American Steel and Aluminum Corp. in Hartford, CT caught my eye as I drove home from work one day. The buildings cover a couple of blocks in Hartford on Homestead Avenue. There is a building that looks to have housed the executive offices and a couple of buildings for the steel and aluminum that ASAC distributed. It is in a depressed section of Hartford. This part of town has lots of older houses and stores with flashing neon signs. Most streets are strewn with trash, broken glass and plenty of potholes. The ASAC is not the only abandoned business in the area, but it interested me because it covered so much space. The place has been out of business for about 2 years, even though it looks like longer. Weeds have taken over the parking areas, trash covers a lot of the site and kids have taken plenty of shots at the many windows of the buildings.
What really caught my eye and drew me to these buildings is the fact that steel was a major industry in this country. I didn’t notice that it was a steel company until I was stuck in traffic one day. I first saw the for sale sign of the main building. I then saw the sign for the company that had inhabited the site. It got me thinking about our troubles as a country right now and made me think about all the families that thrived during the time these buildings were at full capacity.
When I did finally go back to take the pictures, I could almost hear the people and machinery. Most people probably drive by places like this and don’t take a good look. The only people in the area were just passing through, like I usually do from work. It’s the backside of America we usually close our eyes to and just go back and forth to work blindly.
Monday, March 8, 2010
From Joe Viger:
Barrow, Alaska is the northernmost settlement in North America, the topside of our continent. This patch of tundra on the Chukchi Sea is home to almost 5,000 hearty souls. I’ve had the good fortune to visit there twice. Or maybe that was bad fortune as both visits were in January.
The open nature of the landscape in Barrow means that the backside is all around you. From most anywhere in town, you can see front and back layers of buildings. There are no changes in elevation, vegetation or fences to shield the view. The primary methods of transportation in Barrow are taxi, snowmobile and walking. The latter two also make the backside part of everyday life in Barrow as its common for both snowmobiles and frozen walkers to take the shortest route to where they are going and that is often between and behind buildings. These images were made as I strolled to lunch at 30 below.
Monday, March 1, 2010
From D. Brigham:
The picture above shows a staircase running from the back of a house on Farwell Street in Waltham, Mass., down to the Charles River. Most likely it used to connect to a boat dock. It's made of concrete or stone, rather than wood, like most dock stairways are. As a result, it looks more like an ancient ruin than a recently abandoned walkway that once led to a pleasure craft filled with some cold Bud Light. Curiously, this part of the Charles isn't conducive to boats bigger than kayaks or canoes, as it is very shallow and less than a mile from the Watertown Dam, so I'm not sure what purpose a dock would have served (photo by Dave Brigham).
I decided to post this photo as the inaugural picture here not because it's an especially great shot, but because it reflects the method by which I discovered the backside of America. When I was about 12, I went on my first canoe ride with my dad, putting the old green boat into the Farmington River at the Route 185 bridge in Simsbury, Conn., hard by the renowned Pinchot Sycamore, the largest tree in the Nutmeg State. While I enjoyed the sights along the banks of the river -- trees, birds, frolicking fish, garbage snagged on rocks -- what really caught my eye was the rear of various residential and commercial properties at or close to the water's edge.
I'd grown up in Simsbury, and was familiar with all of the houses along Hopmeadow Street, the town's main drag, as well as the wide array of businesses, from Mitchell Pontiac and the Weatogue Barber Shop, to the Ensign-Bickford munitions factory and Fitgerald's grocery store. But I'd never been on the river, and so had no idea how the town looked from the water.
It sounds obvious to say, but I saw the town from a whole new angle. Nothing was familiar, and nothing was as attractive from the back as it was from the front. Today I am lucky to live very close to the Charles River in Newton, Mass. There is a walking path next to the river that my family and I use for runs, bike rides and leisurely strolls. I took the above photo by straying from that path into the woods next to the river. While the trees and wildlife along the river are beautiful and fun to watch, and the path offers a quick route to grocery shopping, I am more interested in the old railroad trestle in Waltham, the lot where linemen for the local electric company practice climbing utility poles, and other places hidden from the street.