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.
31 STEPS FROM MY DOOR
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.