“Ruin Porn” Leaves Us Forlorn

 

Charles R. Drew Elementary, 3724 Warren St. | Photo: Katrina Ohstrom

We want to thank our respected colleague at the Inquirer, the architecture critic Inga Saffron, for helping us promote our exceptional schedule of fall tours and events. Yesterday, Saffron sent out a tweet, linking to our tour program, that read: “Ruin porn tours are big in Philly this fall. Sadly.”

Well, there is quite a lot of sadness in the world, but I’m not sure this fits the bill. Nor is an event program that started with a multifaceted insider’s tour of Wayne Junction, and includes a photography workshop and tour of the rapidly changing Navy Yard, a bike tour to bring attention to the issue of empty school buildings and their impact on and potential for city neighborhoods, a positivist and counter-intuitive tour of Camden, and a birthday party for Frank Furness is anything like ruin porn, which presupposes detachment and objectification of the material evidence of complex societal issues.

Ruin porn it ain’t.

In fact, Hidden City’s commitment to taking people inside sometimes forgotten places and activating them even temporarily (which started with the 2009 Hidden City festival) has led to real action–case in point the promising new relationship between developer Eric Blumenfeld and the owners of the Metropolitan Opera House.

Metropolitan Opera House during the 2009 Hidden City Festival | Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott

This kind of touch-and-feel relationship to the city is exactly our goal at Hidden City; excellent writing and strong photography don’t suffice to alter longstanding narratives, but learning, advocating, and exploring do.

We are certainly more than willing to give Saffron, who is truly the dean of urbanist journalists in the city, the benefit of the doubt here. She saw that our Navy Yard workshop is being given by the photographer Matthew Christopher, who edits a website called abandonedamerica, and who has written at length in these pages on the issue of ruin porn. But Christopher is more interested in documenting working places undergoing change–isn’t that the essence of understanding cities?–than taking pretty pictures of ruins. Saffron may have thought the school bike tour was tantamount to visiting the Lower Ninth Ward, but then she would have missed the entire point of Katrina Ohstrom’s schools project (of which the bike tour is a part), which included thinking at length about education reform, government funding, and changing demographics, and which included a panel discussion at Temple University on the future of schools.

Camden? This tour was intentionally designed to avoid the pitfalls of categorizing a complex and complicated place as a “ruin” or a “ghetto” or a “wasteland.” Who amongst us has had the opportunity to look beyond these easy labels to get even a glimpse of the human beings who reside in the poorest city in America? Well, here’s your chance to do so. And to eat some good food too.

Undine Barge Club locker room (building designed by Frank Furness) | Photo: Daniel Cox

This bring us to the last item on our tour list (look out for additions to the schedule, they are coming), the second annual birthday party for Frank Furness. One of the greatest weights for any city to carry is that of what’s been lost. New York is still trying to undo the loss of the “late, great Pennsylvania Station.” And Philadelphia carries the missing oeuvre of Frank Furness–and especially the monumental castle that was Broad Street Station.

But what if we had had the power to take people inside threatened Furness buildings? Urban exploration is an act of seduction, and slowly, slowly, we might have built love for what were considered the city’s relics. Would we still have the wonderful Furness Provident Bank at Fourth and Chestnut instead of the 1980s lump of an Omni Hotel? Maybe not, but you never know until you help people become alive to the possibilities. That’s what our tours are meant to do, and with any luck they will in some small way.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.



3 Comments


  1. A very sorry statement from a respected city writer. Sad? Hardly anything
    sad about the tours themselves. They’re bringing people out that are
    sincerely interested and thrilled to see the behind-the-scenes actions
    of these establishments.

  2. I have no respect for Saffron, who obviously doesn’t understand the nuances of architecture, no understanding of history and the significance and meaning of architectural change. I’m not surprised, though. Journalism has never been so shoddy across the board as it is today. Most journalists today can’t write, let alone think imaginatively.

  3. I also think that visiting the Ninth Ward can be instructive if done with a sense of humility and acknowledgment that this is one of the most hallowed and harrowing spaces in America.

    It’s unfortunate that an architectural enthusiast feels as though she’s got the exclusive rights to “knowing” the changing urban landscape.

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