Editor’s Note: The photography of Abandoned America’s Matthew Christopher is breathtaking and heart-rending. His work speaks of both a time when the country enshrined its ambition with grand architecture and of our present day, profit-driven era of leveling the past for indifferent, place-holder development. Christopher’s photographs of hulking industrial complexes rusting into oblivion, gilded church alters crushed under the weight of time, and moldering school auditoriums are as emotionally affecting as they are an education on the diminishing value placed on the country’s built character. Christopher’s new book, Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences, offers an intimate view into these fading relics of industry, worship, and institution decaying from the inside behind crumbling walls. Each series in the book includes written context on the buildings past with personal insights and a first-hand account of bearing witness to a rapidly disappearing world.
Hidden City co-editor Michael Bixler spoke with Matthew Christopher about his new book with a discussion on the disintegration of American identity through the loss of its bold, historic infrastructure.
Michael Bixler: The book really pulls your work and philosophy together. The sincerity of your photography comes across in your prose and vice versa. Tell me a little about how you distance yourself from the world of “ruin porn.”
Matthew Christopher: Mainly I think the difference is in what someone is trying to convey, if anything, and how they are trying to convey it. In the introduction to the book I talk a little about the necessity for treating this subject with respect and dignity, as the places are fundamentally dead and often meant many things to many people. “Ruin porn” has a great many connotations, but I see it as a sort of aestheticized, voyeuristic romp through the losses of others without context or meaning. Approaching these places in terms of their significance and value to our culture has never been more important, and while I think art can and should be able to be appreciated simply for its own aesthetic merits, we shouldn’t present such a vital subject as something little more than eye candy.
MB: What was the first building you shot, and what was your motivation at the time? How has your drive and perspective changed since then?
MC: Philadelphia State Hospital (or Byberry) was the first large campus I visited. I did photograph it, but with a point and shoot film camera and not well at all. I will always regret not getting a chance to take good pictures of it. I worked in mental health and the history of asylums was something I felt, and still feel, is tremendously important. I think since then my interests have broadened, and I realized that asylums are far from the only places we are throwing into the trash without a second thought. The sense of racing the wrecking ball has only deepened with time.
MB: As someone engrossed in examining Philadelphia’s built environment, it is hard not to project my own feelings onto inanimate objects, especially those that are bound to end up a heap of rubble. You visit so many unique places where there is no hope that the building will get a second life or survive. Being immersed in decay and abandonment yourself, do you ever internalize it? How does your work affect you emotionally?
MC: It affects me quite a bit, although I think I was drawn to ruins because they are an externalization of something internal to begin with. Having struggled with severe depression my whole life, I think I can empathize with these spaces in some senses. In many ways they are a frank and honest look at mortality, grief, hopelessness, failure, and loss, but confronting these subjects through imagery of abandoned buildings makes it about more than just myself. Losing sites to demolition is like losing friends, and it never gets any easier, but the peacefulness of being at work in places that are like those I’ve dreamed about since I was a child and that I feel more at home at than I do in the waking world offsets it.
MB: What would you say were the most heartbreaking sites you have visited in Philadelphia? What is one that had the most uplifting outcome?
MC: The churches in Philadelphia are the most difficult sites, in my opinion. St. Bonaventure was arguably the worst since I went in as it was being destroyed. It’s one thing to say, “The Church of the Transfiguration was demolished,” which is sort of an abstract concept. Watching a work of art get ripped in half is a lot more visceral and sickening, yet it is so important to bear witness. We consign these places to the landfill as a culture without, in a manner of speaking, having the courage or integrity to stare them in the eye as we erase them. It is and should be upsetting to see this happen. The question then becomes, why are we allowing this to happen and what can be done to stop it? One of my favorite Philadelphia success stories is St. Peters Episcopal in Germantown, which is currently being rehabilitated by Ken Weinstein for use by the Waldorf School. I had thought that one was a lost cause and I got to see the progress they’re making on it. It’s amazing. I included it in the book specifically because it’s such a good counterpoint to the “Everything abandoned is doomed” fatalism that is so prevalent.
MB: In the book you suggest that America is in decline, as evinced in our crumbling infrastructure and abandonment of some of the greatest built achievements of the last two centuries. Tell me a little bit about the subtitle, The Age Of Consequences.
MC: The Age of Consequences is a sort of imagining of what future generations would view our era as, if they are charitable not to call us “The Age of Pollution and Garbage.” I think of our society as one that is like a large group of people eating at a fancy restaurant. Everyone thinks someone else is picking up the check so they eat and drink as much as they can. Then the check comes and they realize that even together they are all unable to pay it. Our decisions in terms of government, urban management, the environment, preservation, outsourcing jobs to other countries with poor labor and environmental laws for our own cheap goods, erosion of civil liberties and privacy, increasing income disparities and eradication of the middle class–none of them are sustainable. The places in the book aren’t just the canaries in the coal mines, they’re the entire mines and the entire towns around them, and they’re slipping into economic oblivion. We look at Detroit as the poster child for urban blight, but most major American cities are struggling with the loss of the industries and social infrastructure that defined them and the lack of identity, direction, and funding that inevitably follows. I believe we’re already well on our way to becoming a third world country and it seems many people are aware of it, but everyone’s afraid of it and nobody really knows what to do. These places are the ground zero points for a major shift in our identity as a nation, and one that I don’t think we’re taking control of.
MB: In your series on St. Bonaventure you talk a bit about the end of great architecture in America, and how low aspirations and uninspired, temporal design is beginning to define us as a society. You touch on this again in your passage about Huber Breaker, where you say that we are cannibalizing our own past so it can no longer stand out in the open and challenge us. Explain.
MC: When St. Bonaventure was built, the prevailing architectural ethos was to build structures that would define us for centuries and hopefully rival European monuments. Now we build places that are deliberately disposable and anonymous; strip malls and chain stores/restaurants that can be flipped to something else when that business goes under. In most cases our built environment is eroding, something James Howard Kunstler goes into in much more detail in “The Geography of Nowhere.” This was why I asked him to write the introduction and why I was so thrilled and honored when he agreed to. In my opinion, progress is replacing something with something better, and I would argue that we are absolutely failing to do that. There’s enormous profit to be made in stripping out older buildings and demolishing them, and, periodically, rebuilding at that site. Much of this is at taxpayer expense and the profit goes to demolition and construction firms. As a culture we agree to this because we find ruins sad, so rather than addressing the problems that led to them becoming uninhabited we let someone else destroy them because they challenge us with our own failure to save them. As one of the last major remaining coal breakers, and a tremendously significant part of Pennsylvania’s past, the Huber Breaker could have been an excellent preservation site and tourist attraction, much along the lines of what Rivers of Steel has done with Carrie Furnaces–a counterpoint also found in the book. Instead, we sold it to a company that ripped it apart for scrap. St. Bonaventure will likely wind up like Transfiguration–a trash strewn vacant lot. Better in the eyes of some to wipe them off the face of the earth than admit we are doing a terrible job of saving the places our ancestors worked so hard to build.
MB: Your opinion of viewing churches as works of art, rather than a house for dogma, is a great one. When historic churches are demolished, the impact on the cultural and historic identity of the community and neighborhood can indeed be dramatic. You touch on this idea again in the passage about Scranton Lace Company, wherein a small town’s identity is erased when industries leave and their huge facilities shutter and are left to decay. It’s like watching everything you know, your heritage and identity, slowly collapse in front of your eyes, like a small apocalypse in slow motion. What are some examples of this that you have witnessed both in Philadelphia and nationally?
MC: Philadelphia has gone through a horrific swath of destruction in terms of historic churches. Another area where Philadelphia is absolutely abysmal in terms of preserving its heritage is its movie palaces, which are pretty much all gone. This culminated last year in the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s bewildering, inexplicable decision to allow Neil Rodin to purchase the Boyd Theater from Live Nation and destroy it despite the fact that another purchaser was going to match the price and preserve the building. The best part is that aside from the destruction of the interior, no progress has been made at turning it into anything else! As in this instance, the PHC, whose mission is stewardship and preservation of Philadelphia’s historic resources, has paved the way for the economic hardship applications to be used as an axe to smash apart historic treasures, leading many people including myself to wonder what incentives are being offered to them to make such counterintuitive and costly blunders.
Nationally, the examples are too many to even find a place to begin. Asylums are being torn down left and right despite a real need to memorialize what those who were committed to them endured and to educate the public about the history of institutional care. Factories that defined whole towns are erased without a care or a thought. It’s too overwhelming to try to narrow that down. In essence, that’s what the book is designed to do.
MB: It’s evident that unprotected sites are vulnerable to vandalism and arson, but explain a little why you conceal sites and refer to them by their pseudonyms like Atlantic Avenue Power Station, Harmony House, Fox Hotel and Ocean Vista. Is this a fear of developers or irresponsible explorers?
MC: People often get bent out of shape over the fact that I try to keep vulnerable places “off the radar” as far as naming them on the internet or in print. The toll people take on these places is terrible, though. Vandalism and theft are huge, and by theft I even mean people removing major architectural features or stripping off copper from the roof. I’ve seen a number of beautiful places burned to the ground by idiots or by scrappers, who cut out copper with acetylene torches that throw off sparks and often start fires. People argue that these are “locals” but I know of people who go or have gone pretty substantial distances to destroy places. Even if 99 people have noble or neutral intentions and do no harm, the one person who burns it down means it’s gone. These places are unprotected. It’s not like, say, a library where if you start breaking windows a patron or librarian will catch you and report you.
Also, my work has never been intended to be a shopping list for curiosity seekers either. They cause problems for property owners and the police and increase the chances of people getting hurt or arrested. I frankly think that people who publicize locations that are vulnerable on the internet to get publicity are selfish and destructive themselves because they prioritize their own profit over the good of the places in question. It’s a philosophical debate, but the repercussions are very real and very costly. I feel perfectly entitled to keep my own information to myself and let people figure out on their own or through other means. I’m the minority, I think, in my beliefs here, but I’m pretty stubborn about them too. As far as developers go, they find out about them through their own means and if someone with deep pockets wants to tear a place down there’s not much I can do one way or another to stop them except bring attention to it and publicly opine about the damage they’re doing.
MB: I love the idea of abandoned industrial sites as being accidental museums, time capsules of bygone eras frozen in time. Do you think some of the places you have seen could live again as “low investment” tourist destinations?
MC: Of course. I just visited the Tenement Museum in NYC, which is a terrific example of this. Eastern State Penitentiary is one of Philadelphia’s best attractions and also a fantastic example of what can be done when you stabilize a ruin and allow the public to visit it. The Fairmount Waterworks is another regional example. Carrie Furnaces is a wonderful example. The museum of Ellis Island was once a ruin. The public is tremendously interested in these places and when they are given access to them in a safe and managed manner the interest levels and return is incalculable. It is just a matter of finding people with the means and vision to put together such an effort as opposed to selling them to the profiteers who see our cultural artifacts as things merely to be ground up and harvested for a few dollars while the community’s heritage is lost forever.
Hidden City Philadelphia hosted a book release party for Abandoned America: The Age Of Consequences at the Gershman Y in December, 2014. To watch the full discussion on C-Span, click HERE.