Thursday, November 8, 2012

Why Ruins: A Personal Reflection on the Black and Yellow Steel City


My interest in urban decay stems from long-term exposure to postindustrial ruins. As a child the abandoned mills of Iron City and the disintegrating Erie Railroad repair shops exerted a magnetic attraction for me. I spray-painted on the worn-down brick walls of the boarded-up mills, which lined the Ohio River. Games of hide-and-seek were not played in a family sanctioned park, but were passionately played in a half-forgotten sight that once housed the mighty Chartiers Creek Railroad. In the not so distant past our shrieks and the pounding of our feet against the pavement echoed through the empty shop floors as we played cops and robbers.

Due to the unorthodox habitat of my upbringing I was exposed at an early age to people of whom society generally paints an unflattering picture as well as to a landscape that the public mostly views as a social blight. Drug dealers, tattoo artists, inhabitants of the “Bottom” Projects, steel mill workers, and members of motorcycle gangs were all daily actors in childhood life. For example, my babysitters did not use umbrellas to fly through the sky or speak with British accents; instead, they used Harley-Davidson motorcycles embellished with pinup girls and spoke with true Pittsburghese accents. 

In regards to the landscape, the area in which I played was only a shadow of its former self. Once upon a time, the neighborhood was flourishing with wealth, amenities, and expansive shopping districts—but no longer. Today the streets and avenues that once contained restaurants and libraries now contains bars, illegal strip clubs, and underground gambling. The factories and workshops that once shook with the roar of machines and the yells of workers now stand empty next to the smokeless smokestacks. A semi-ghost town might seem like an unfortunate playground—a social blight that can only foster delinquent activity. But, it was the abandoned buildings of the post-industrial revolution, which served as a backdrop for all of my passions and hobbies.

The rock’s inhabitants and abandoned structures broadened my horizons in more ways then I can ever thank them for. I learned of new music, books, comics and artists that I would have never encountered otherwise. I was taught to appreciate graphic novels, street artists, and music ranging from rappers like Formula412 to rock groups like the Buzz Poets. More importantly, I was taken to places, engaged with people, and participated in activities—like skateboarding at Mr. Smalls, raving at the Cork factory, or learning to cook a boiled pierogi with the women of the Holy Trinity Polish Church—that I would have been scared of or not interested in otherwise approaching.

Ultimately, these experiences and interactions not only molded my outlook and hobbies, but they also cultivated an interest that has come to define the course of my life: studying post-industrial unintentional urban voids with the hopes of someday better grasping how “empty” unclaimed spaces are used/understood. 

Further Reading:
  • Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1953). 
  • Julia Hell and Andreas Schonle, eds., Ruins of Modernity (United States, Duke University Press, 2010).  
  • Georg Simmel, "Two Essays: the Handle and the Ruin", Hudson Review, 11:3 (1958: Autumn) 370-384.
  • Robert Ginsberg, "Aesthetics of Ruins," Bucknell Review 18:3 (1970: Winter) 89-103.
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