Where Hope Has Failed: An Abandoned America Blog
19th December 2012
One of the defining myths of our culture revolves around success and how it is attained. The exact definition of success is nebulous (one's actions achieving desired results), but it typically involves money, position, success, power, acclaim. Even though there are those who seem born into it, we like to believe that if we work hard enough we will find our way there. Without this incentive, what reason is there to suffer through the indignities and problems life throws at us? Our entire social system is built around this carrot/stick relationship, and in its absence the reason to work, to persevere, to simply be, collapses on itself. If you can struggle against the current and still get washed out to sea, why not resign yourself to the inevitability of it?
Fatalism (the acceptance of fate) is often accompanied by defeatism (pessimistic resignation), but unlike defeatism it doesn't rule out the beneficial effects of action. It does, however, acknowledge unanticipated reactions and an overall lack of control that destabilizes the action/success/reward model. The concept of failure not through lack of effort but rather from forces beyond one's power or from one's own ill-informed actions is in my opinion one of the most terrifying facets of life. One can follow all the steps laid out by society as the framework for success - hard work, education, adhering to a code of ethics (or conversely acting in ruthless self interest) - and still wind up destitute and miserable. While following these prescribed paths may improve one's chances of desired results, they guarantee nothing. Worse, the greatest failure of all, death and dissolution, is inevitable.
Seeing a triumph of architecture that was once a part of a thriving and prosperous community left to rot is indicative of something much worse than failure on an individual level. It speaks about the failure of a community, and when you broaden the view to encompass the thousands of communities struggling with blight, abandonment, and poverty, in my opinion it is clear evidence of failure as a society. Since a society is defined by both its actions and the ethos that drives them, this deficiency lies in both what we are doing and the very belief system that informs our actions. When you view a church or factory or school that I have photographed, you must remind yourself that what you see is not an anomaly. It is a pattern repeated again and again, ad infinitum, across the American countryside. There are thousands of sites like this one, millions if you include individual residences, and I believe what we are looking at is a new baseline rather than an exception to the rule.
Simply put, failure is an indicator that change is needed. It is easy to look at ruins and shrug your shoulders and say, "There but for the grace of God, go I," or to simply view them as a picturesque representation of mortality and the days gone by. I see them as an epidemic, a symptom of social disease that is ravaging our countryside. Our joy in pointing fingers and blaming others is one of the causes of this illness, I believe, and exacerbates the problem. Defeatism and helplessness also fall into this category. What we need to understand when we look at a beautiful building that has fallen into disrepair is that we are collectively responsible by virtue of perpetuating a lifestyle that creates these phenomena.
The failures are not contained, and they are spreading rapidly. I'd like to think, because I try to be realistic in my assessment rather than pessimistic, that we still have the opportunity to correct our course before it is too late. However, one of the lessons that the places I visit teach is that being well intentioned means little, and that repercussions are swift and severe. There was a point where the workers at an abandoned factory or school thought if they just tried hard enough it could be saved. They were wrong, and the collateral damage to their community is frequently catastrophic.
Nobody should view abandoned sites with idle detachment. Now, more than ever, we need to examine these locations under a microscope and ask hard questions about why they failed and what changes are required of our own actions and beliefs to avoid repeating them. This work, my website, my very reason for being is not to present you with pretty pictures so you can tell me I do great work, or to make you feel sad and hopeless. It's to tell you to wake up and change, to analyze the things you do out of habit and make tough decisions about what you might need to do differently. It's to tell you that as a society we need to make radical changes, and soon - and that even then, we are still going to have to deal with the damage our actions have caused.
Someone else isn't going to fix this place or the town it resides in. Someone else isn't going to come up with the answers for you. Lamenting these losses changes nothing and accusing the Powers That Be of negligence is little more than a convenient way of sidestepping your own individual responsibility. If you don't start looking outside the dwindling comfort of your own home, critically evaluating the problems around you, and actually take action to do something about them, then my work and the disaster sites I photograph are of no consequence.
The only thing that can possibly turn such a tragic occurrence as this into something approaching success is if it spurs change. If you care about my work, don't let it be reduced to empty words and images. Don't let this place fall apart for nothing. Soon it will be your church, your school, your workplace, your home, and when it is all the pleas and prayers in the world won't fix what your efforts now perhaps could have. Even though the road to failure is the easiest one to find yourself on, there is always the fleeting, uncertain possibility that through hard work, unselfish motivations, and critical self examination we can find success. Maybe it's our only chance: our only hope is by analyzing where hope has failed.
Follow this link to a full gallery of abandoned churches. Image and text by Matthew Christopher.
If you like this page, perhaps you'll enjoy my Abandoned America page on Facebook and my upcoming book.
By Jenna Bean: So nice to read your words again, Matthew. Thinking of you... Miss you... Love, JB