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Where are good places to photograph urban decay?
January 28, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I'm looking for places around the city that display signs of urban decay for a photography project. Dilapidated buildings, plants encroaching on the urban environment, etc. I've been directed to neighborhoods like Englewood but I'm not comfortable going there. Does you know of neighborhoods that display signs of urban decay but that a single female can travel relatively safely?

— blackbirdblues, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

Let me get this straight, ma'am. You want to find neighborhoods that are really bad but nice? That could be tough to deliver on. Photographing ruins can be a relatively nonthreatening experience if you specialize in old barns, say, but even that has its dangerous side, and in the city, well, this isn't work for the timid. One appreciates that women are more likely to be crime targets than men, and some methods of capturing the urban scene involve less risk than others. But a certain amount of enterprise and skill are indispensable. Assuming you can summon the requisite resources, here are a few things you need to know.

You should understand, first of all, that you walk in the footsteps of giants — in particular Richard Nickel, the legendary Chicago photographer whose classic shot of what remains of a south side neighborhood appears at the top of this column. Nickel's thousands of pictures brilliantly captured a city that was slipping away before his eyes. He died in 1972 when a section of the building he was shooting, Adler & Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange, collapsed and buried him. (It was being demolished at the time; that's why he was photographing it.) His body wasn't found for 28 days. An excellent introduction to his work is Richard Nickel's Chicago by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams (2006). You should read it. He's a tough act to follow.

But not an impossible one. Photographing the built environment in decline is a thriving specialty that has produced some extraordinary images. One current exponent is Camilo Jose Vergaro. His best known book is American Ruins (1999), which includes a number of shots taken in Chicago and environs. More recently he published Unexpected Chicagoland (2002), co-authored with Tim Samuelson; he also did a series on public housing in the city for Granta's 2009 Chicago issue. One of Vergaro's favorite techniques is a photographic series showing the deterioration of an urban place over time. Here's a slideshow he did for Slate that includes some shots from Chicago plus many others from Detroit. (Detroit puts Chicago in the shade in this respect; more on this below.)

There's a lot more where that came from. Flickr, the online photo sharing service, offers thousands of images of modern ruins from around the world, which have been gathered into "pools" (galleries). Here are a few:

Some of the photos are haunting or sad; others are weirdly pretty or just gorgeous. All of them are fascinating. For background, you might want to take a look through the Atlas of Shrinking Cities (2006), published by a German consortium, which gives a sense of the phenomenon behind it all, or much of it: while many cities are growing, a surprising number, not just in the U.S., are emptying out.

One thing you'll notice is that many of the photos required a lot more than simply standing on the sidewalk and taking a snapshot. Often the photographer had to do a lot of hiking, climbing, and clambering about to find a good vantage point. This raises a delicate issue. Taking pictures of ruins goes hand in hand with the somewhat disreputable practice of urban exploration — prowling around places you're not supposed to be. A lot of times this is illegal or dangerous. The parent in me recommends against doing things like this. My inner kid recognizes why somebody would.

You don't sound like the type who's going to push the envelope, blackbird; I raise the subject simply to make two points. First, getting a memorable shot typically will require some combination of preparation, quick thinking, risk taking, and luck — frequently all four. Second, it can be intrusive, in multiple senses of the term. You need to be prepared to deal with all that. One doesn't want to be a complete asshole, but if you think there's an easy way to do this, I'm sorry, there's not.

Now, where to shoot?  In Detroit you can just walk out the door, but Chicago is tougher than it was. A good spot used to be south of Roosevelt between Ashland and Damen, which had almost entirely returned to prairie. But there's been some construction in recent years, plus those ridiculous parking meters. I venture to say there's still a photo there, though.

Other shots may require more scouting and planning. Some of the following opportunities have come and gone, but they give you an idea what others are doing:

  • Michael Reese Hospital. This series is on flickr. The shot of brains in bottles is especially unforgettable. I'm told demolition is now pretty far along (I haven't been down there lately). Unless you got permission, which isn't likely, you'd likely be risking injury or arrest for criminal trespass, so this isn't the place for you.

  • Cabrini Green demolition. The deconstruction of the last highrises is currently underway.

  • Washburne Trade School and other locations. These were done a while back by a fellow named Matt Tuteur, and I presume most are now gone.

  • Gary, Indiana. Is it safe? No, it's dangerous and scary, but also beautiful, beyond a doubt.

  • Abandoned coke plant. One of many derelict industrial sites on the south side. Still there, as far as I know.

None of this sounds like your cup of tea? There's still hope. I commend to you the example of Pat O'Neil, who provides most of the photos featured in this column. Believe it or not, Pat isn't a professional photographer; he simply has an exquisite eye. His flickr photostream is an education in photography. Remember that your charge is simply to find signs of urban decay. These are to be found everywhere, even in neighborhoods that are perfectly safe. Pat's gift is to be able to walk down an ordinary city street and see sights that are invisible until he shows them to you. Many of these involve the ceaseless process of decomposition that's your ultimate subject. Whether you have a similar talent you'll have to discover for yourself. All I know is that Pat does it again and again and again.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Richard Nickel. Used with permission of the Richard Nickel Committee

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