10.21.2011

Lost Places

Recently, I read a fascinating article in Design Observer, by photographer Brian Ulrich.  After September 11th, capitalizing on the rare mood of national unity, President Bush urged Americans to go shopping to help boost the economy.  In the short term, our dollars would provide the overall economy, tax revenues, and GDP with a bump; however, in the long term, we were only stealing from ourselves.  The growth of the consumer economy since WWII has led to surreal outcomes: the "standard of living" keeps increasing, but real wealth, savings, and exports keep decreasing.  


Bush's mistake was calling for an era of greater consumption rather than the shared sacrifice of thrift that had characterized the home front in previous conflicts.  That consumption compounded our problems -- all that stuff Bush was urging us to go buy was made overseas, shipped here on a river of oil pumped out of countries that don't have our best interests in mind.  We ended up in debt.  Obviously, many other things contributed to that debt, but at its core, that argument -- we can spend our way out of a depression -- is a fallacy.  It's like an alcoholic saying he can drink his way out of drinking.  


Ulrich has documented this phenomenon through photographs of abandoned shopping malls, dead department stores, and isolated, vacant houses.  Each image is an eerie note, held a little too long, slowly fading into silence.  Part of the reason I found them so compelling is that they stood out in this era of "disaster porn", as the internet is flooded with haunting images of abandoned buildings in decaying cities.  Many come from the burgeoning field of urban exploration, wherein folks explore old subway tunnels and shuttered mental hospitals.  While these pictures are beautiful, they all blur together after awhile.  Ulrich has documented a specific piece of the recession, illustrating a larger point about the illusory nature of our economy.  


My own disaster porn, taken at the old abandoned chicken factory in Greensboro, AL.



I can't feature any of Brian's photos here, due to copyright, but I can show some of my own mediocre stabs at the same genre.  What I like about his pictures is they document the gaps and seams and holes in the urban fabric, the in-between places, the forgotten spaces, the windswept middle ground, claimed only by errant plastic bags and watery artificial light.  These are places we've all been -- garages, gas stations, parking lots, exit ramps, median strips, stairwells.  These are the places where bored clerks sneak a smoke, or furtive teenagers make out, or homeless men hide out from the cold.


I know, I'm just dying to have lunch there too!
It's amazing how many of these places have to do with the car, shopping, or both.  James Howard Kunstler, in his book The Geography of Nowhere, argues persuasively about how the car has shaped the American landscape, largely for the worse.  Now, Brian Ulrich is making a similar argument, about how shopping has has also deformed our urban spaces and isolated us as people.  I don't know how to fix it all, but I do know it begins with one thing: buying less.  Less.  



The parking garage stairwell at my hometown library.  Much as I love concrete . . . 

Someone, please, throw a freaking window in a stairwell.  Just once.  Then people might use the stairs once in a while.
It's like prison.  But for cars.

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