For she loves you for all that you are not

23 05 2009

I love a good ruin. They rarely disappoint.

Buildings, I mean. Edifices. Material constructs: walls, gates, jetties, fences. Anything built to last, which crumbles.

I was perusing a book today on abandoned places—factories, mostly, but a few schools—and all I could think was slowly flipping through the pages was Oh, I want to go there.

Not that I have anything against visiting functional places. Or living in one: I like having heat and hot water and plaster which stays on ceiling and walls rather than spitting down on my head. And if you buy me a ticket to the Tate or the Louvre or the Prado I will very happily mose my way through them (tho’ a ticket to the Hermitage? I’d take that one first of all).

But after making my way through what I could of the Hermitage, I might ask if it’d be possible to check out Chernobyl. Suit me up and lead me through the plant itself, then mose with me through the near-empty streets and in and out of abandoned buildings. Let me see the overturned desks and pictures on the walls of the schools, the dust on the windowsills and the paint peeling up in waves.

Let me see all that is no longer there.

Do I find ruins romantic? Not exactly. Haunting, perhaps. Thrilling. A little spooky. It’s as if by everything being laid bare, something even more is hidden. There is the evidence of stories, with the stories themselves—gone. The silence whispers.

I remember as a kid going to Disney World and wanting more than anything to explore the castle at the center of the Magic Kingdom. A castle! What could be better!

Castle—pfft. It was a big damned hallway. I still remember walking into the joint and looking around and looking around and looking around and thinking. . . this is it? This isn’t a castle, this is just. . . a big building. A big damned disappointing building.

More disappointments followed. I’d see a building with a magnificent edifice and enter and then. . . nothing. Or, worst of all, suspended-tile ceilings, florescent-tube lighting, and gray carpeting. (Ever been though the buildings on the quad at Duke University? Gothic exteriors, seventies interiors.)

FelineCity had a good mix of old, still functional buildings and places going to seed (sometimes they were the same places).  They also had a series of ports, some of which didn’t do enough business to justify more than a chain strung between two rusted poles and a vague intimation that trespassing was not allowed, which I freely explored on my bike and on foot. There were floating rustbins and dilapidated offices and crumbling walkways and not really anyone around to shoo me away.

GradCity was also on a river, and the industries which had clustered along the waterway had largely taken leave of the city, their factories left behind for the homeless, the punks, and restless students like me. City officials have since refurbished these areas, inviting the regular folk to enjoy the scenery. I can’t really complain, not least because I no longer live there, but I do miss the kind of furtive exploration these abandoned spaces allowed.

There are seedy and abandoned spaces all over New York City, but I haven’t done much poking around them. Security is tighter here, of course, and it is more likely than not that these derelict places are nonetheless inhabited. But still, if I could get a guide. . . .

And oh! That place on Long Island, the old mental hospital? Totally off limits. I want to go.

This city is built on ruins. Yes, history is constantly erased in this Land of the Developer, but just as often it is merely hidden, built over or around, odd nooks or old mosaics or peculiar stonework all that’s left to signal that there was once something else, here.

Perhaps this is why ruins exhilarate in ways that Main Attractions! rarely do: The magic castles are so often filled with nothing but the lure of the Magic™, where the excitement is in the anticipation, not the exploration. All pitch, no promise.

But ruins pitch nothing, and that they promise nothing other than ruin is what allows one to consider not what is to come, but what has been. They are literally throw-backs to another reality, and they tempt precisely because they are present markers of the absence of another present, and presence.

Something else, something other, something more.

Gone, but not quite.