Vikki Warner

Vikki Warner
Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Editor, writer, book nerd, bike rider, trash browser, road tripper, street sweeper, investigator of abandoned places.


Vikki Warner's Links
Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 23, 2008 9:35PM

Modern American Ruins

Rate: 16 Flag

Vacancy produces a haunting feeling. In historical context, we see this as beautiful: we flock to see evidence of deceased communities and civilizations. We imagine we can feel the vague presence of people who are no longer alive, in spaces that can no longer accommodate the activity of people’s lives. We dream up dramatizations to explain what must have happened to create the rambling old ruins scattered around the globe.

Old ruins: beautiful. New ruins: ugly. America now has its own class of ruin, and it falls squarely into the latter category. The desolation wasn’t created by an earthquake, or a volcano, or a migration, or a revolution. It was created by greed and ignorance, lax regulation, and an economy that didn’t think the party would ever end. Or, sometimes, through the neglect and abuse that makes it more bearable to file an insurance claim than repair or maintain a home. The ruins are not majestic; they are hollow and thoughtless. It doesn’t look like the tourists will be coming to tour them anytime soon.

My front door opens onto a mess of modern ruins. They are created at night, while I sleep. In the morning I wake to windows being boarded over.


Someone bought this place, and someone told him that was a great idea, just great, totally doable, of course you can afford it. But those easy monthly payments apparently were not easy enough. He didn’t own it for long. Now it’s boarded up, useless, home to no one, and helpless against the people who will probably soon rip off a board somewhere, break in, and steal the copper piping and water heaters. If it’s stripped—turned into a shell, by default left for dead—it will be even harder for it to be rescued and made a productive home again.


The back of this house looks onto my backyard. Around three in the morning one night this summer, it appears somebody threw a flaming object in the doorway. The flames raced up the stairs and into the second floor apartment, coming through the roof and licking at the night air. It’s been sitting sadly like this ever since. This place used to be filled with people, loud-as-hell people who never seemed to shut up, but now the piss is taken out of it. Silence.

I feel bad. I slept through the whole thing, the fire trucks, the yelling, the commotion. I guess I feel like the least I could’ve done was to wake up.


Coming to the stop sign at the end of my block one early morning, I looked left to see this house on fire, its inhabitants standing on the sidewalk, looking up in shock as flames shot out of the upper level windows. I’d again heard nothing from my house, which is only half a block away. As usual, I came home that evening to find the windows plied over, and it’s been sitting for a long time like this. The taggers have visited, genuflecting at the foot of their newly claimed domain as though they now own it.


Another fire casualty, this house is very slowly getting reoutfitted, only now with smaller windows that fit well inside the holes left by the old ones. Not that there’s much of a view in my neighborhood, but whoever lives here next will have even less of one out of these tiny, off-kilter vinyl windows.

At least there’s some progress being made here. Otherwise, the neighborhood sits, pleadingly, its boarded facades and burned planes an invitation to abuse.

It used to be so loud here at night that I couldn’t watch a movie without turning the TV volume all the way up. As more and more people are driven away, though, the neighborhood assumes the ghostly quiet of a modern ruin: where people once were, but can no longer be.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
thanks for the first-hand view. it really brings it home. I wish I had words of encouragement or wisdom now, but I'm afraid they would just sound trite.
"The piss is taken out of the place."

This is my favorite post since I started reading posts at OS. In what city is this neighborhood?
I remember a long time ago coming upon a house enveloped in flames--turns out it was deliberately being taken down for a new mall, and the fire department was using it as an exercise. Anyway, my two little boys and I watched from a distance and just cried, inexplicably. I mean, it wasn't a danger to anybody, nobody was being hurt, it wasn't an accident, blah, blah, blah. Just the mere burning down of a house--the actual act of consumption--was incredibly, profoundly sad. I will never forget that feeling. In our minds, this erasure was inextricably linked to mortality
I grew up in the South Bronx in the late 60s and early 70s, when large swaths of tenements, I mean entire blocks, were gutted by arson fires and abandoned. Some areas looked like Berlin at the end of WWII. What I remember most clearly are the gaps where individual tenement buildings collapsed or were demolished, leaving patches of brightly painted wall on the sides of the remaining buildings. Each patch was once a part of a living room or a bedroom, color chosen by the tenant, a reason once to be cheerful. One of the saddest sights to see.
Sorry, lost in reverie. Meant to say: great post, Vikki.
Thanks, Vikki. (Marco, I too grew up in the South Bronx projects in the '60s and '70s! Tremont and Story Avenue. Never went out after dark. Went to Holy Cross.)
Vikki, this is a great post. I have to say how depressing to see what is happening to this part of Providence. The building that my classmate lived in on the western end of the city after graduation was similar to the ones you show here. A few years after he moved out of Providence, in the early '80s, the building he lived in burned to the ground. It's interesting how two people can post stories about the same city, yet the theme is just about 180 degrees different.
Tremont and Story—— will have to Google Map it, but I think you lived near my grandfather. I lived in the McKinley Houses on Tinton Avenue and 163rd St. As we used to say: "Vaya, bro!"
Thanks for the comments, everybody. It's really gut-wrenching to watch this whole mega-bailout business while my "average" urban neighborhood is in fast decline, and going ignored. Sorry, I can't spare 10 bucks, never mind $700 billion.

Thanks for the kind words, all. There's more to this topic, and I'd like to keep writing about it.
One of the things I love about this place -- the ability to hear the news work itself out on real people, as opposed to being words pouring out of the mouths of too-well-coiffed anchors and reporters. Thanks vikki, and welcome to the OS!
Great post - I live in a similar neighborhood in Chicago, where there are plenty of places boarded up that will never be fixed. The same goes for some of the businesses in the area. Since it's mostly sidewalk retail space with apartments above them, lots of places change hands very quickly - and plenty of them lay vacant.

The interesting thing to me is that this is another failure of the "market." There's still plenty of demand for apartments and housing, but not at the current prices. So many owners of buildings would rather let them lay vacant and rot rather than lower their rents and get people in them. They wait for that magical developer to come by and bail them out by taking the property off their hands and building condos, raising the rents for the rest of us, and pushing us out even further, eventually leaving more vacant buildings.