Friday, November 20, 2009

Loving Ugly

A few years ago I wrote an issue of FaithLink, “Just Shopping” (Nov. 27, 2005). We raised the issue of box stores that expand to larger facilities but leave behind empty buildings that sit vacant for years. (My hometown has a Wal-Mart super store but the former store has been unoccupied for years.) A difficult issue! Economic well-being sometimes involve facility expansion, but what happens to the disused place? Earlier I researched a similar theme for the FaithLink issue, "Saving Main Street" (June 11, 2000).

The topic is larger than just box stores. Drive through many small towns and you’ll encounter vacant store fronts in the business district. If the stores become occupied, the business may be just a shadow of the place’s former self, for instance, a nice small-town clothing store that had sold good brands for an appreciative clientele becomes a thrown-together antique mall. That's not always the case, and some amount of commerce may be better than a completely disused store. You also see deteriorating commercial buildings in many communities; they’ll never house anything and will someday be torn down.

A haunting building that I once encountered was an old church. The words M. E. CHURCH were set into the concrete steps in front. The paint had worn away so that the building was mostly bare wood; it leaned slightly, the glass of the windows was long gone, and an auger was backed up to one of the sanctuary windows. Not far away was a brick building that, I was told, had been a bank that closed during the Depression. It was vine-covered but structurally solid. The small village was a few miles off “the hard road” but, nevertheless, had been an economically busy community at one time. At least the church was in use, although as a storage place for corn.

The other day I purchased and studied two books, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by Michael Eastman (New York: Rizzoli, 2008) and Approaching Nowhere by Jeff Brouws (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006). Both books of photographs documented disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas.

Now, if you’re like me …. you want to look through these books again and even to go exploring deteriorating landscapes yourself! What is the appeal of such places?

Familiarity is part of it. In his classic book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “Familiarity breeds attachment when it does not breed contempt. We are well aware of how a person can become deeply attached to old slippers that look rather mouldy [sic] to an outsider” (p. 99). If you’re from a particular kind of location, your emotional response to a landscape may be very positive even though the landscape may not be attractive at all. Tuan quotes another author to describe a nearly mystical response to unappealing environments: “I still remember walking down the Notting Hill main road and observing the (extremely sordid) landscape with joy and astonishment. Even the movement of traffic had something universal and sublime about it” (p. 99).

Tuan also writes, “Intense awareness of environmental beauty … is least affected by received opinions and it also seems to be largely independent of the character of the environment. Homely and even drab scenes can reveal aspects of themselves that went unnoticed before, and this new insight into the real is sometimes experienced as beauty” (p. 95). I experienced those feelings as I leafed through Eastman’s and Brouws’ books; these aren’t attractive scenes, necessarily, but there is a lonely appeal to them, a poignancy of human habitation that has changed because, after all, economy changes and our human needs change.

I enjoy a book called Small Town America by the photographer David Plowden (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) in which he chronicles locations and business districts with a melancholy appreciation for the way modern America has bypassed smaller communities. His earlier, angrier book, The Hand of Man on America (Riverside: The Chatham Press, 1971) also decried the loss of distinctive environments, but I found myself disagreeing with him on which of his pictures depicted ugliness and which depicted unexpected beauty in the homely and drab. He loved a soon-to-be-razed railroad depot that I found hideous, while he criticized a tourist landscape that I found attractive both in its ugliness and its glum evocation of its original 1950s era.

What I struggle with, and haven’t resolved, is the contradiction between the strange attractiveness that abandoned and disused landscapes can have, and the real and painful economic failures, the economic expansions, the waste, and the failures of stewardship that lead to discarded places. David B. Jenkins explores this paradox in his book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996), in which he loves the old, faded barns but sadly realizes that their quaintness and deterioration indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.

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