Saturday, March 10, 2007

(sub)Urban Ruins

Mt. Diablo, 1860 or 1870 I love urban ruins and the photography they inspire. I guess it stems from where I grew up, in a somewhat rural suburb (Concord, Calif.--heavy-metal capitol of the world) with hills, cows and sheep nearby. We kids used to explore the junkyard that was on the side of a hill that loomed above our dead-end street (since flattened and housed). A really old guy lived in a pink trailer house there and his "yard" was an entire field full of rusty giant-sized farm equipment, a water tower, piles of junk, rusty box-springs, stacks of soft, gray wood, and the remnants of a truck with wooden running boards and spokes.

Of course we went over there as much as possible and the added bonus was that there was a barn, leaning to the left, full of sheep further back. The problem was the old guy, who always eventually ran out of his trailer home, yelling, "Get away from there! Those sheep bite! Get out of here, you kids! I mean it--now, get!" like a villain from an Our Gang comedy.

And just like the little rascals, we hightailed it, slightly freaked out. Once I managed to sneak into a little crooked woodshed, all gappy between its boards. There was a sloping pile of treasure on the dirt floor: piles of old pre-war Christmas cards; postcards with messages fading away; assorted junk, and one baby boot, lined with buttons all the way up its ankle, like they wore in Little House in the Prairie. I looked around for a button-hook, just to see if that existed there too, but the old guy came out, yelling.

I thought about going back many times to swipe some of that great old stuff. But I never did. It didn't seem right. It all belonged to that guy, I figured, and I didn't want to steal from him. We were making his life miserable enough just by trespassing. And I also knew that if I started hoarding his stuff, I might get to be like him, just obtaining all the time and never letting it go. From what I could see, that wasn't healthy living. I did take a foot-long bolt once to show my school librarian, as proof of the historical significance of the junkyard of our humble town, but he just indulged me with a condescending smile. I guess the bolt couldn't possibly represent all the magic of climbing into a water tower with a home-made rope ladder, and discovering a wasp's nest, which sends you screaming out of the tower and across the field back to your house again, knowing that your brilliant plan of basing your secret clubhouse within the tower is dashed.

It pained me though, to think of all those postcards and Christmas and baby announcement cards, moldering away in a pile of damp and dirt. If I could get those, I thought, I might piece together a history of that guy in the trailer home.

One day, all the stuff was gone. We went back there and it was an empty field with tire ruts along the ground. I guess some developer bought the land and carted everything away from the other side of the hill, out of sight from our view. The barn was flattened (the sheep had long since disappeared), the junk was hauled away, even the water tower and the truck. The trailer home was gone. And soon after, a housing development sprung up.

That's the story of Contra Costa County, in a bitty nutshell. One day, years later, I was driving my friend, Joseph, who grew up in San Francisco, around the old haunts. I took him up the hill beside my high school. "And here's the awesome abandoned graveyard that we used to party in when I was a teenage hellion," I tour-guided. I was about to expound on the fact that the graveyard hadn't been used since the 30s, when I realized that I couldn't find the graveyard. And the reason I couldn't find the graveyard was because it was gone and covered with a new housing development. "They dug up the graves!" I yelled. What'd they do with the stones? Where's all the little rusty gates and crypts and stunted, scary trees?

Not to be an old coot, but it was disappointing to lose entire chunks of my past geography. My dad had the same feeling when he visited Detroit with my brother and found that his once-vibrant melting-pot neighborhood consisted of many vacant lots and boarded-up houses. What's my point? Everything changes. The photo is of Mt. Diablo and the surrounding foothills of Contra Costa County, taken around 1860 or 1870. This could easily be where our housing development was built, 100 years later.

Here's some urban ruins sites.

Opacity - Mr. Motts has a really good eye and uses great cameras. I love this site.
Action Squad - Minneapolis Urban Adventurers. Go Minneapolis Action Squad, go!
Boing Boing has a good link to an abandoned housing development in Taiwan that looks like background animation from "The Jetsons."
A gallery of Japanese ruins and an abandoned Japanese bowling alley.

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