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.


  1. Excellent! Doing what we do makes me appreciate what I have even more. I often think about the lives that have touched the subjects we capture. I'm honored to be able to document our history. To date, my favorite was taking pictures of Dearfield, CO. Being a black history enthusiast, the thoughts that went through my mind as I stood in that ghost town are unforgettable. Thanks again for getting this started. Just like you said, "my head is always on a swivel" in order to capture the Backside of America. Here's to many days of capturing history!