The Abandoned Periphery

The recent fascination with abandonment porn has tended to emphasize the decline of urban areas and the decay and collapse of the once monumental urban infrastructures that supported centralized industrial activities. Less common are discussions of abandonment at the periphery. Some abandoned North Dakota landscapes have attracted attention for the picturesque character of abandoned farms, rusted vehicles, and collapsing fences. 

Chris Hedges’s and Joe Sacco’s new book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt offers another perspective on abandonment. Rather than the picturesque visions of days-gone-by or a center that did not hold, in the third chapter of the book – Days of Devastation – Hedges’s prose complemented by Sacco’s art looks at the destruction and abandonment in rural West Virginia where the coal that powered the now-abandoned factories was cut from mountains.  The ruins of communities, towns, buildings, and the landscape shed devastating light on the cost of prosperity.  Interviews punctuate almost archaeological descriptions of the communities left in ruins by the changing fortunes of the coal industry showing how the romantic abandonment of the failed-center drew down periphery through the long tendrils that connect monumental industry to rural communities which provided them with power.  

Here’s a short excerpt describing the town of Gary, West Virginia:

“Gary’s rutted streets are lined by empty clapboard houses with sagging roofs. Porches fall away from the buildings. Wooden steps are rotted. Rusted appliances, the frames of old cars, tires, and heaps of garbage lie scattered in front of rows of deserted dwellings or clog the brackets water in the creeks, where low-lying branches are tangled with plastic bags and bottles. Broaded-up storefronts, neglected chutes, the bleak brick remains of Gary High School, and the shuttered, flat-roofed stone bank building give the landscape the feel of a ravaged war zone. The spindly remains of chimneys jut up and out of the charred timbers of burned houses. The guts of most buildings, as in Camden, have been stripped of piping and copper for sale in the scrap yards. The gold dome of the empty Orthodox church disappeared one night when a thief somehow commandeered a crane. The train station, the restaurant, and the old company store, meticulously planned by Judge Albert Gary, the architecture of J.P. Morgan’s U.S. Steel empire and the man for whom the town was named, are skeletal remains. Mobile homes stand empty along the side of the road, their siding and torn insulation flapping in the wind in tattered strips. There is no supermarket. Canned or packaged food, high in sodium, sugar, and preservatives, and fat along with cheap bottles of liquor, are sold at the local convenience store and gas station, located across the road from the drug market.”

2 Comments

  1. The same could be said of lots of places in eastern PA. The coal boom ended in the 1940’s and those towns just died.

    Reply

    1. Mark,

      Indeed. Bleak towns. The only advantage that Pennsylvania has is that someone, somewhere, invested in higher education. So when some percentage of people went to college and moved east or to Pittsburgh or wherever. West Virginia is not as a happy a scenario.

      Bill

      Reply

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