Thursday, April 28, 2011

Raison d'Etre

From Dave Brigham:

In Joe Viger’s excellent post from earlier this week (see 4-24-11, “Five Gallons at a Time”), he mentions that a friend who is a fan of The Backside of America recently asked him, “But do you ever feel like it’s a bunch of rich folks gawking at the poor, decrepit parts of society?” Rightfully so, Joe said it’s a reasonable question, considering that some of what we post here falls under the rubric of “ruin porn.”

While Joe concedes in his post that, “there is someone’s tragedy inherent in the ruination of these buildings and objects that somehow we find so pleasurable,” he also correctly points out that much of what we do here “transcends ruin porn.”

Seeing as how we’ve just passed the 100-post mark, this seems like a good time to talk about the reasons I launched this blog.

First and foremost is a desire to document the history in our midst. Every dilapidated building was once new, each abandoned and rusting car in the woods has a story of how it got there. For every stretch of railroad track overgrown with weeds there are thousands of rail cars that once carried freight or passengers to important destinations. Amusement parks left to rot once brought smiles to the faces of children and adults alike. Stores that fell victim to changing economic times and new shopping behaviors, once provided steady paychecks. Drive-in theaters whose screens are slowly falling victim to vegetation creep once brought in carloads of teenagers to watch double features such as “Last House on the Left” and “Slumber Party Massacre.”

I’ve lived in New England nearly my entire life. Vacant buildings don’t stay that way for long. Space is at a premium, so developers swoop in on abandoned or long-neglected properties and knock them down to build something shiny and new. By taking pictures of such properties before their destruction or renovation, we preserve a piece of the past, telling the public, “Hey, there used to be a factory on that spot, and immigrant workers from last century made watches there, and it was world famous.”

Archeology is another major interest of mine. Through this scientific pursuit, we learn about cultures and peoples by what they left behind: foundations of buildings, cooking and hunting tools, pottery, bits of clothing, and, perhaps most tellingly and voluminously, garbage.

I was amazed during an Amtrak trip last week to New York City at just how much garbage there is along the route. Pawtucket, RI, in particular struck me as a place literally lined with dumps, junkyards, run-down houses and endless streams of trash dumped over the sides of small hills and cascading down toward the tracks. Noticed it just north of New York City, too – tires, appliances, clothing, food packaging, newspapers, you name it, the stuff was tossed over fences by uncaring people.

I wonder what will become of this stuff. Will anyone every clean it up? Or has it become so much a part of the landscape that people don’t notice anymore? Archeologists and anthropologists of the future will have a field day, that’s for sure.

I found myself repeatedly during the three-and-a-half hour train trip wishing I could get off the train, and walk the tracks with my camera to document it all.

And not just the garbage. There are so many decrepit industrial and housing complexes along the route in Bridgeport, CT, for instance, that I just became numb. Yes, there is a rubbernecking attitude inherent in what we do. Having been raised in a comfortable middle-class town in Connecticut, and currently living in a similar place outside Boston, I can’t relate to life in failing mill towns and run-down industrial has-beens.

But I don’t document these places, and ask contributors to this site to do the same, because of some prurient interest. I do so in hopes of showing (as we have done on occasion) how low a place can get before it gets rescued. For instance, last August, Dave Hill posted pictures of abandoned buildings that were once part of Fort Andrews on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor (see August 27, 2010, "Shuttered Island"). Then, this past February, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation announced plans to rehab roughly half the buildings on the island, with an eye toward turning the facilities into a public campground, and possibly in the future, a place for corporate retreats, a bed and breakfast and festivals (see February 24, 2011, "Shuttered Island: Update").

Last October, we updated the status of the infamous Butt-Ugly building in Hartford, Connecticut (see October 28, 2010, "UPDATE: Butt-Ugly Building"). The city purchased the building and began soliciting developers at that time. This is always what we hope for here: document a place that looks beyond help, and that fascinates us in its decay, but that ultimately gets rescued or, when need be, gets removed and the area gets revitalized.

Another factor I take into consideration is anthropology. I’m a shy guy, always have been, always will be, and feel most comfortable among friends and family. Still, I am fascinated by various subcultures, from bikers, hobos and carnies, to private school kids, European royalty and supermodels. While I’m not confident enough (yet) in my photography to approach people, rather than buildings, I would love to document folks from these walks of life. Joe Viger has to date posted the only picture with actual living, breathing human beings here, in an early post titled “Backside People”. Consider this notice to all current and future Backside contributors that I’d really like to see more of this type of work at the blog.

I also like to explore the borders of society, where often things get shoved from public view. Where the train tracks meet the gated community; where a dilapidated factory sits between nicely fixed-up houses; where machine shops butt up against rivers; where rusting cars meet wildlife, that’s where I like to tread. I don’t get to do that as much as I’d like, and often times such areas are hard (or illegal) to access.

Certainly behind many of the places we’ve documented here, there is tragedy: lost jobs, crushed dreams, environmental damage, perhaps even illness and death. Trash-filled school buses used as shelter by homeless people; graffiti-covered, abandoned military facilities hidden behind chain-link fences; one-time thriving race tracks gone to seed.

None of us would deny that. But we capture these images because they are unusual, or graphic or beautiful or thought-provoking. Why did people stop going to watch the nags? Which skateboarder first had the idea to start doing ollies, boardslides and boneless moves in a drained pool next to a shuttered motel on Cape Cod? When did that coal breaker go silent, and how many people lost their jobs?

When I see a former watch factory complex in Waltham that a friend told me was supposed to be turned into condos, I envision the people who worked there 100 years ago. I see a thriving business that employed dozens or even hundreds of people, many of them likely immigrants. I think, “Those immigrants were probably Italian or Polish or German, and probably lived lives similar to the Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants who now live near the old plant, and who work hard every day doing landscaping or restaurant work, trying to make it in a new country and afraid of being hassled or deported, just like immigrants down through time.”

Of course, not everything on the backside of America is ugly or rusty or falling apart or dangerous. I have always intended for this blog to also document the beautiful elements that are off the beaten track, the hidden gems such as diners tucked into quiet neighborhoods on Cape Cod (see July 28, 2010, "Two Hearts Beat As One"), solitary fireplaces standing sentry along walking paths in Connecticut (see June 17, 2010, "Smoke Signals From the Past") or anachronistic, but operational, phone booths (see April 6, 2010, "Drop a Dime?" and April 11, 2011, "The Dough Boy & the Phone Booth").

OK, that’s way too many words without pictures, I know. With spring upon us, I’m gonna get back out there and start snapping.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Five Gallons at a Time

From Joe Viger:

A friend recently told me that they loved The Backside of America blog and then asked, "But do you ever feel like it's a bunch of rich folks gawking at the poor, decrepit parts of society?" It's a reasonable question. A lot of the posts here on the Backside are what is sometimes described as "Ruin Porn." We find fascination, interest and beauty in the old and abandoned. And, if you stop and think about it, there is someone's tragedy inherent in the ruination of these buildings and objects that somehow we find so pleasurable.

Just about a year and one month ago Dave put up the inagural post of our quaint little blog. Dig into the archives and give it a read because it is a great post (or you can just click this: Take Me to the River -- ed.) Dave described a canoe trip with his Dad that brought him down a river, viewing familiar scenes from the backside instead of his normal vantage point on the main street. He wrote, ” 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."

This was essentially Dave's pitch to me to contribute to the blog and the idea has always stuck with me. It transcends ruin porn. It's about how often there is a story underneath the popular thing or the degrading building. Get off Main Street and take a look around. In America, things aren't always what they seem. It's beautiful and interesting and sometimes sad. But I like to think The Backside of America is also a tribute. An acknowledgement of past or unnoticed ideas, buildings, institutions, businesses and, most importantly to me, people. They all look different from the Backside and we don't always bother to truly see.

And with that... I recently had a Backside experience.

Redstone Quarry-100.jpg

A while back I checked the heating oil tank in my basement and, with the weather warming, was pleased to have half a tank. Two weeks later I was on empty. Typical. Annoyed that there must be something wrong with my oil tank's gauge but thankful that my burner was still running and heat and hot water was flowing, I dove onto the phone to get oil. Unfortunately, with a spring snow storm and the weekend upon us, nobody was delivering. It would be a few days.

The last oil company I called was a local, small outfit and the kind woman on the phone said she would talk to her boss. When she came back on the line, she told me they would in fact deliver but it would be an extra $250 for an emergency delivery. "Why don't you just put some kerosene or diesel in your tank until you can get a delivery?" She said. "I work here and even I just did that. But use kerosene, it burns cleaner". I vaguely remembered that you could substitute kerosene for heating oil, but had never done it and didn't know anyone who did. You always just call the oil company and buy a couple hundred gallons.

I've built my own house, but in general I'm not a mecahnical guy and I was somehow dubious of substituting anything for heating oil. But, I dug around in the garage and found a five-gallon steel jerry can and off into the snowstorm I went. We were due for a foot of snow, I was late for work and I wanted to get this over with. On my second trip back to the store for another five gallon refill, I noticed someone was filling a container of kerosene as I drove in.

While I waited, I went into the store, where I go with some regularity. Inside I found the usual clerk, a tiny woman from Kentucky with a big, friendly personality and plenty of drawl in her voice. She said "Back again!?" as I walked in the door. I told her about my broken oil tank gauge and asked her to ring up another $18 worth of kerosene. She laughed telling me she pretty much heats her house all year that way, "five gallons at a tiiiiiiime". I laughed back and she told me that the "fella out there right now" comes in all the time to get kerosene for his house, too.

The pump slowed down as the kerosene filled my jug and it seemed like it took forever to tick off the last few cents. $17.96... 97... 98... 99... $18.00. Looking at those numbers and wondering why a woman who works for an oil company would use five or 10 gallons of kerosene in her oil burner, I realized how lucky I am. Kerosene is about cash flow. For me that day, I didn't want to get hit with a big emergency fee. But for the salt of the earth cashier, this was every week. $20 for some K1 vs. $500 for delivery of a full tank of oil. For some people, this just doesn't work and never will. I'm an atheist, but God bless the folks who heat their homes five gallons at a time. They're hard working people trying to make it and if you don't have to do this all winter remember how lucky you are.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not So Permanent Record Stores

From Dave Brigham:

This post is in honor of Record Store Day, which was held yesterday, April 16th, to celebrate music and independently owned music stores.

I used to love to shop at Capitol Records in Hartford, CT. I went there several times with my high school buddy John, once we discovered college radio. I recall buying all sorts of stuff: The Rezillos' Can't Stand The Rezillos on vinyl; a live U2 bootleg cassette recorded at Boston's Paradise Club on their first U.S. tour; a few albums by Crippled Pilgrims, a band that only I cared about; and I'm fairly certain I bought at least some of my Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and Naked Raygun albums there.

The store closed in 1985, from what I can tell via an online search. The store was well loved, and was credited by one source as the first U.S. record store to sell CD's. I have no idea if that's true, but it certainly was a great little store.

During college, I shopped at Pitchfork Records in Keene, NH, which was not as funky as Capitol Records, but was still a great source for all my punk rock and New Wave needs. I have fond post-college memories of shopping (for vinyl initially, and then CD's) in dusty record stores in Athens, GA, and Albuquerque, NM, during a road trip; in Portsmouth, NH; Somerville, Boston and Cambridge, MA; and at various Newbury Comics stores around Boston.

But over the last few years I've become a complete and total online music convert. I love sampling and buying stuff from the comfort of my own home, and being able to put my entire collection onto my iPod. Do I miss the gentle sounds of one LP bumping against another as I peruse, or the "thwack thwack thwack" of CD's banging against each other in sales racks as I rifle them? Yes, I do. But I have much less leisure time since my kids came along, and it's so easy to search for obscure stuff online, so I've turned my back on record stores, although I miss them a great deal.

So count me among the hordes who are responsible for the decline, and in too many cases, outright disappearance of, mom and pop record shops.

My buddy Jay Kumar, who's one of the bigger music heads I know, recently tipped me off to this....depressing slab of Backsideness: 40 Sad Portraits of Closed Record Stores.

Of course, there are still plenty of record stores across this great, music-loving world of ours. And vinyl is making a comeback. So, don't be like me -- get out there and hit a brick-and-mortar shop!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Backside for Your Backside

The primary guideline for contributing to this site is to interpret "backside" in any way you like. I don't pass judgment on how the members of the Backside Gang do that. Still, I wonder why Joe Viger and David Burke are the only ones who've turned in photos of toilets. -- Dave Brigham

No Further Explanation Required

(photo by Joe Viger of an airport bathroom, Anytown, USA)

Out of Order

(photo by David Burke of an abandoned train station head, Torrington, CT)

Bathroom at the Bukowski

(photo by David Burke of a loo at Bukowski Tavern, Boston, MA)

Redstone Quarry Wash House

(photo by Joe Viger taken at old Redstone Quarry, Conway, NH, and seen previously in 12-16-10 post, "Granite Foundations on the Backside of Walmart")


(photo by David Burke of a bathroom at the abandoned Great Barrington Racetrack and Fairgrounds, Great Barrington, MA. He swears he didn't set up this shot. For more on the racetrack, see 2-20-11 post, "Lose, Place or Show")

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Dough Boy & the Phone Booth

I'm happy to welcome to the Backside Gang a friend of mine from college, Heidi Waugaman-Page. Like the rest of us here, Heidi likes to explore beyond the beaten path. "Sometimes I like to just drive off of main roads that I've driven a million times to see what's on the side roads," she explained to me. I hope you like her pictures as much as I do. -- Dave Brigham

From Heidi Waugaman-Page:


The doughboy was at a Quick Stop store in Newbury, NH, that my husband and I stopped in while driving back roads home. It was so strange and so Americana that I had to take some pictures of it. No one working knew anything about it. How could you work there and not ask lots of questions?


We were coming home from our friend's house at night, and were near Massabesic Lake in Manchester, NH, and as we went through the town, this phone booth stuck right out in the dark and I made my husband turn around so I could capture it. Surprisingly it still had one phone that was still hooked up and in service. The other side was empty. I remember being on vacation as a teenager and using all my quarters to call my boyfriend just to talk for a few minutes before the operator was asking for more money (I'm sure all of us of a certain age have memories similar to that -- ed.).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Could've Saved Myself Some Time...

From Dave Brigham:

I dropped my daughter off at preschool today, and then set out to take some pictures. I hadn't taken any in a while, and was excited to get out and explore. I had one location in mind that was just a few minutes from her school.

I drove past the spot, on Recreation Road in Weston, MA, but found the parking lot blocked with Jersey barriers. The site is near some highway department facilities and there had been construction nearby for a while, but I couldn't figure out why there was no access. I was hoping to explore the small reservation and the foot bridge that crosses the Charles River.

I drove on.

After driving aimlessly through Weston, Wellesley and Natick, I stopped in Dover at Chase Woodlands, a Trustees of Reservations site that connects to Peters Reservation. After a few minutes it started to rain, and since I didn't have a raincoat, boots or hat, I hied back to the car.

I decided to head back toward home so I could do some grocery shopping before picking my daughter up. After shopping and unloading the foodstuffs, I thought about where I could go to snap some pictures on the way to the school.

Then I looked into the backyard and found my quarry.

Backyard chain


Chain close-up