Monday, November 26, 2012

Abandoned Landscapes

My photo of an abandoned
gas station near Pana, IL 
The start of the holiday shopping season made me think again about some of the cultural-environmental impacts of our habits, in which I'm part of the problem, too. 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.

Several months ago 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 document disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas. Approaching Nowhere begins with a variety of photos of empty parking lots, empty store fronts, fading motel signs, neon signs on restaurants and filling stations, and wide spots on the interstate. His chapter “Franchises” depict current types of businesses, like Wal-Mart and McDonalds, while “Discarded Landscape” portrays abandoned and decaying commercial buildings and lots filled with rubble. In a concluding essay, Brouws reflects on the meaning of these landscapes, while William L. Fox in his essay discusses the way that the American impulse for mobility doesn’t always lead to success and, in fact, as Brouws’ photos show, can lead to ruin.

Eastman’s book, meanwhile, provides series of photographs of “main street”: theaters, churches, hangouts, doors, signs, stores, services, automobiles, hotels, and restaurants. Many of the depicted places and things are representative of the forlorn small towns through which you pass if, like me, you enjoy traveling the two-lane roads when you can. (If you love those forlorn small towns, you’ll certainly enjoy Vanishing America!) But not all of Eastman’s subjects are fading relics; some are functioning places in good shape.

Abandoned alignment of
U.S. 51 in Fayette Co., IL 
I remembered a book I purchased years ago in a used bookstore in Flagstaff, David Plowden’s The Hand of Man on America (Riverside, CT: The Chatham Press, 1971). Plowden, a long-time observer of the American Landscape through his black and white photographs, similarly depicts both pleasant and ruined, bypassed landscapes in his travels. He also decries the environmental and cultural wreckage to which our love of mobility brings us. What he calls (in the last long essay in the book) “the great sorrow of the automobile age” is that we ruin the land by constructing more and more roads to see the land’s cherished sights.

There is a lot of food for thought in these books. Right now, Douglas Brinkley’s introduction to Vanishing America includes a strange attractiveness in such landscapes: the photos “are like field reports from Main Street, dispatches meant to trigger our frayed historical imagination. You could view these photos as valentines of goodbye.” Poet William Carlos Williams saw “beauty in the refuse” of his native Paterson, NJ; the broken bottles of the tenements he described as “gems... It’s a matter of your eyes looking at them right” (p. 11). It does seem odd that someone (like me) would leaf through the sad landscapes of Approaching Nowhere and feel a deep sense of nostalgia, an eagerness to return to the road and embrace the sorrow of which Plowden writes.

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