If Words Could Change Our Nature: An Abandoned America Blog
07th January 2013
It's hard to explain the experience of visiting an abandoned place like the Thomas A. Edison High School in Philadelphia. You can break it up into components: the day was beautiful, the sun was shining, but it wasn't so hot as to make the trip uncomfortable. Or, as I photographed the old school I could see dozens of demolition workers tearing apart the other side. They loaded up wheelbarrows full of textbooks and dumped them out of the charred third floor into the courtyard below, which was already a wasteland of floorboards and wood paneling, chairs and debris. The place had already turned into a trash pile and I was just another ant crawling across it.
Or I could tell you about how surreal it was to see the place so stripped, yet still clinging on to bits and pieces of its identity here and there. Dust and dirt swirled in the air everywhere, and when I exited out onto the roof into the light again it blinded me for a moment. The rubber panels laid flat against the roof were dotted with scraggly plants growing rather improbably from cracks and corners, and as I walked out onto it it felt as though I were treading on a waterbed. Rain must have collected for quite some time underneath the rubber, and with every step it sloshed around beneath my feel, seeping out through holes only to be swallowed back up again when I moved. It was disorienting. Ahead of me the newer, Art Deco section of the school loomed with empty eye socket windows and a yawning door, its geometry broken up by decay and graffiti.
I could tell you about trying to find a balance on the ever-shifting rubber roof for my tripod to align the shot or how I chose my camera settings. I could tell you about the history of the place, the year it was built and how many people had worked or studied there. I could tell you about the things on my mind as I stared ahead, thoughts and feelings now washed away into the same all-devouring chasm of the past that the school was being broken apart to fit into. None of that really mattered at this point. I was standing on the literal embodiment of failure and death as it sat out in the open on a bright fall afternoon, unashamed.
These are all fragments, taken out of context in such a way that they can never be reassembled into the whole that was that time. Much like the dismantling of the school itself, which could never be reconstructed even if anyone cared to, the pieces would never again equal the whole they had been torn from. In this sort of strange limbo, the building was neither what it was nor what it would become. The awkward 'moment' of transition had stretched out since its closing years ago, perhaps even longer, and culminated in this point of final recognition that all it had been intended for was over and now it was trash to be discarded.
There's a lesson in there, maybe, something wise and profound to say about who we are or where we're at. Some days I try to find that truth buried amidst the rubble. Other days it seems like it's something we already know and the effort of coaxing it out with words is a fruitless endeavor, as ill-fated as the places I photograph. What does it matter what the weather was, what the motes of dust looked like swirling about in the air? Is there some arcane pattern in the wreckage that can alter the course of time and heal the ragged wounds of destiny? If the answer is what I think it is today - of course not! - and my only purpose is to serve as a wandering eye transmitting scenes from the aftermath to be consumed as entertainment, why bother trying to reassemble anything from the litter strewn about?
Why not just look at it for what it is, a massive laceration that cannot heal, whose face we gaze on not out of love but fear and morbid curiosity? It is a reflection of all that is monstrous, capricious, and wasteful in ourselves, and if words could change our nature, I feel they would have long ago.
To see the full gallery of images from the Julia de Burgos Magnet Middle School (or Northeast High School or Thomas Edison High School, if you prefer), click this link. 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 Tracy Stoner (or Homer): Your writing is well played in "if words could change our future" ...Hope you are doing great! Do my emails get lost in your spam folder?!? ;) No worries, hoping to catch one of your upcoming shows!