I was making my way through the internet this morning and came across a couple articles highlighting old and abandoned places. Not at all unusual here, but for some reason they got me thinking - thinking about our complete fascination with the images that show those places off. You know, the photos of caved-in houses and old train depots with long-shattered windows and graffitied hallways. It's almost become an industry unto itself, yet the photographs - limited by their frames - rarely tell the full story. What does the surrounding neighborhood (or lack thereof) look like? What political decisions have made these places fail? Who is still there, struggling to create a sustainable future?
(Photo: Flickr user tibchris)
Why are we so fascinated by pretty pictures of needy places? Until this morning I've brushed them off as a largely insensitive well-framed, grungy counterpoints to the mediums in which we usually see these images: glossy magazines, bright computer screens, or crisp, white-walled galleries - and there's something to that. There's an artistic draw to the broken, and with it, the temptation to keep the images out of context. Entertainment over investment.
(Photo: Flickr user Jon Bradley Photography)
For three years I lived in Washington, DC's historic Anacostia neighborhood. The neighborhood has its charms: dollhouse Victorians (albeit many in need of repair), open spaces, and active neighborhood groups. But it's better known for the things that bring it down: the drug busts, bullet-proof glass retail, the crumbling facades, and the severed connections to the rest of the city. But the neighborhood doesn't want it to stay that way, and is actively seeking solutions to repair and restore. There's much less romance in boarded-up buildings when they exist, not printed in black and white, on your own block.
(Photo: Flickr user sebastien.barre)
But rather than disparage the "pretty pictures of sad places" craft I'd like to offer a more hopeful explanation for our fascination with them. These images get more screen and gallery space than positive images. And while it would be wonderful if there was a greater journalistic and artistic effort to highlight the good, there are reasons we are drawn to the falling down: they get our hearts pumping faster and we are connected into needs without any expectation that we'll follow up and do anything about them.
(Photo: Flickr user Howzy)
There are at least two ways we can respond to this phenomenon. We can see the pictures and go on: Leave the gallery, turn the page, click away. Or we harness their energy, allow them to become inspirations, and become doers. These images serve as an important reminder that there is still a lot left to restore before more needs to be created. And we're the only ones that can do anything about it.
David Garber is the blog editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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