24 March 2013

Some Lateral Thoughts, I (Playing Through)

Speaking of Cartographies of the Absolute in the prior post, I see that a while back they posted the above clip of reporter Charlie LeDuff golfing through Detroit. Which was a bit of a plate of shrimp, since I recently hear an interview with LeDuff where he was discussing his recently published Detroit: An American Autopsy. I found the interview heartening in some ways. Sure, one might disparage his sense of optimism in the face of Detroit's more-likely futures as being more a matter of denial than defiance. And his argument about "if you're boring, you're dead" might seem a bit wrongheaded if you're inclined to think of how factuality has become such a slippery and superfluous thing in the age of "new media." But whatever the case, I could connect with his earnestness and dogged commitment to his home turf.

As far as the matter of "ruin porn" and Detroit are concerned, I come across Steerforth at the blog The Age of Uncertainty saying a few words about "Abandonment," accompanied by some photos of derelict fisheries structures in Iceland...

"It is shocking how quickly buildings fall into decay. As the roofs of these structures rust, the late rains will seep into the walls, freeze and create fissures until, eventually, the inside is hard to distinguish from the outside.

Every ruin is a reminder that even the most solid-looking building is in a state of flux. We struggle to maintain the illusion of permanence, but the moment we abandon the fight, we find ourselves in Detroit."

Perhaps this has something to do -- albeit tangentially -- with my fascination with the topic of "ruin porn" as a recent cultural meme/trope/morbid fixation/whatever. Because I grew up in a place very much the opposite of Iceland. In the Deep South subtropic region of the SE United States. Where anything and everything constructed or devised by human hands was immediately pitched in a battle against the climate and the elements. Recently-laid roadways and sidewalks cracking, greenery sprouting through. Or sporting huge fissured bumps and ripples from the tree roots sprawling out underneath. The cloak of kudzu that -- during its non-dormant seasons -- rapidly grew to consume entire treelines, abandoned roadside shacks and homesteads, telephone poles, and the like. (If if was stationary, if was fair game.) Driving through parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and upwards into Indiana and Ohio, where the abandoned barns and silos sinking in on themselves -- sitting out in a field with a hundred yards of so from the highway -- were a common sight. Houses that had burned down, with only their foundation and chimney still standing, which sat that way for years afterward. There were constant reminders that entropy, decay, and calamity held all the cards -- were inescapable, inevitable.

I remember my mother making disparaging remarks about some of our relatives out in the rural portion of a neighboring county in Alabama; expressing incomprehension at things that they did. Mainly that they would abandon a house and just let it "fall in," not bothering to aggressively -- and at great expense -- properly maintain it, choosing instead to build a new home directly nextdoor within the limits of their own plot of land. On those few occasions that we visited these relatives, this was common sight. A new two-story home, painted and fairly pristine (by the standards of the "backwoods" community) flanked by a derelict twin. The latter with all its paint and color bleached and blasted off by the severe sun and relentless humidity and rain, all its planked woodwork warped and wonky, the roof sporting a series of gaping holes -- or in more advanced states of collapse. It was a common and redundant sight in those parts. It was the result of both the climate and the economics of the region. Everything was underwritten by a sense of shrugging fatalism, an acknowledgment that -- given the environment and the resources available -- there was only so much that you could do or rely on, and plenty more you could expect. The "built environment," such as it was, being subject to all variety of erosions and undoings by the natural environment. Only so much that could be done.*

To say nothing of the bouts of severe weather that plague parts of the region. The tornado-spawning thunderstorm that routinely rip through portions of the Cotton Belt. Or the remnants of hurricanes blowing inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The drags along the coastal territory that periodically become ghosttowns -- the rows of abandoned high-rise hotels along the shoreline or (foolishly) situated out on some barrier island. Each rendered unusable and uninhabitable after a direct hit from a hurricane, left standing for several years thereafter. Gradually stripped of it copper or plumbing or whatever by scavengers. Eventually torn down, and -- a couple years later -- a new set of hotels goes up in the same place, because the economic lure of revenue from tourists and vacationing "snowbirds" is too strong to let languish. Up until the point that the same location takes another direct hit from a hurricane, with this same cycle repeating many times over the course of decades.

More tangentially: Growing up in that region of the South meant being dead center in the "Bible Belt." Which meant that you were frequently subjected (involuntarily) to a lot of evangelical dispensationalist End-Times worldviewing. Dealing with people couldn't refer to the future -- even if they speculatively speaking of what might happen five years down the road -- without habitually prefacing it with the qualifying expression "If the Lord tarries...". Which plays out in a rather wryly amusing fashion, some years later; when, in some sorta post-An Inconvenient Truth fashion, you see a parallel trend to all the ruin porn -- that of the varied "secular apocalypse" scenarios, always replete with images of a post-human landscape in which nature has crept in to reclaim the ruins, reasserting its domain after the human races had factored itself out of the ecological equation. Yes, it's a cliché...and already had been for a long time. But there was still the same level of told-you-so self-satisfaction to be taken from such imaginings, be it from the Book of Revelation crowd, or the late-waking neo-"green" eschatologists. In the latter case, these vistas were bound to seem trite, especially to anyone who had grown up anyplace where the "urban" or built environment was fighting an uphill battle to begin with.

But then there's Detroit. where the matter of being reclaimed by nature is only the last in a series of forces that have run roughshod over the city. Which maybe brings to mind Rose Macaulay in The World My Wilderness and The Pleasure of Ruins, contemplating the blossoming "bombweed" that sprouted throughout the rubble of WWII London in the wake of the blitzkrieg. The greenery having come after the fact, as part of the denouement of a different cycle of destruction.

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*  And I suppose it goes without saying that this sort of thing was mostly a product of economics (as opposed to, say, any alleged "laziness" or ignorance. The economy in the SE region having always been weaker than that of other parts of the country. This being compounded by the fact, in those years that I was growing up, that the national economy wasn't in the best of shape as a whole. In some ways these sights of rural dereliction echoed the ubiquity of abandoned car dealerships that you'd see dotting the landscape of most urban areas throughout the series of economic recessions that occurred throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Add to all this that any sort of historical preservation in the South is such a tough row to hoe that it is often limited to a few select things. Mostly antebellum mansions. Which is, as I understand it, often absurdly expensive, since the local climate is the great erosional equalizer of all things great and small. Thus, it's usually dependent on how many deep-pocketed benefactors (if any) can be tapped to live in the surrounding community. (Of course, this sort of prioritizing speaks volumes about what aspects of the regional history are considered worth enshrining and preserving and remembering, and to the underlying rationale that motivates such efforts. But I suppose that's another topic altogether.)

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