Failed Cities

6 November 2009

Friday


chaco

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

The city is the central exhibit of civilization, crucial to the origins, development, and continued vitality of civilization. And as history is littered with now defunct civilizations, so the landscapes of the world, from arid deserts to tropical jungles, from broken cliffs to the shores of the world’s oceans, are littered with defunct and abandoned cities. And even in their derelict state, these cities continue to exercise a power over the landscape and over our imagination. Is there anyone, anywhere in the world, who has not heard of Babylon? Babylon is a city perhaps more famous posthumously than during the years of its glory.

Promyshlennyi, in the Vorkuta area, was abandoned as services were cut off with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Promyshlennyi, in the Vorkuta area, was abandoned as services were cut off with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And Rome. What city has exercised greater power over the historical imagination of Western civilization than Rome? Consider the famous passage from Edward Gibbon’s Autobiography:

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire…

It was the experience of the ruins of Rome, of Rome in its derelict state, that inspired Gibbon to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Detroit today

Detroit today

As we have observed above, the globe is littered with failed cities. Most were small, but there is a significant number of larger remains as well. Some failed cities are remembered only by pot sherds and broken roof tiles and the remnants of terracing (I have walked through a site like this in the hills of the Turkish coast) while others have left more considerable remains, some to the point of almost appearing intact, so that one can easily imagine moving in to the abandoned structures and taking up life almost where it left off, as though seamlessly recovering a lost history.

Abandoned buildings in Pittsburgh, since redeveloped into soi-dissant lofts.

Abandoned buildings in Pittsburgh, since redeveloped into soi-dissant lofts.

The question of exactly what constitutes a city is as difficult as the question of what exactly constitutes a civilization, and indeed the question of how one knows when it’s love. Well, even if we can’t define a city precisely, we can usually recognize one — or the remains of one — when we see it. I suppose we could specify some quantitative measure in terms of population, area, production or consumption, but this would only be an oblique admission that we cannot get at the essence of the city… at least not yet…

The Lee Plaza Hotel in Detroit.

The Lee Plaza Hotel in Detroit.

The ends of great cities are as mysterious and as varied as their origins and growth. In so far as a city is like a king among the lesser human assemblages of villages and towns, the manifold ends of cities remind me of a passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act III, scene iii):

For Heauens sake let vs sit vpon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of Kings:
How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,
Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,
Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,
All murther’d.

So it is with cities: there is no single pattern of urban dissolution Of course, we know much more about the decline and fall, the decay and ends of great cities, because there were people, many people, present to chronicle the events — unlike the obscure years of their rise to prominence. Yet there remains something compellingly inscrutable about how a grand and thriving metropolis ultimately meets its doom.

San Juan Parangaricutiro, buried under lava and ash, was abandoned during the eruption of the Parícutin volcano in 1943.

San Juan Parangaricutiro, buried under lava and ash, was abandoned during the eruption of the Parícutin volcano in 1943, claimed by a natural disaster.

Every successful city has spawned a literature devoted to it. Many authors are closely identified with their chosen city, as Joyce with Dublin or Baudelaire with Paris. Unsuccessful cities, that is to say, failed cities, have not the same paper trail to document them. As dying men often find themselves isolated and lonely, so too dying cities are left only with those who cannot leave, and once the city is utterly dead, no one but an archaeologist or an historian has anything to say about it: the authentic voices the city, those who partook of its life, are as dead as is the city itself.

An abandoned train station in Buffalo, New York

An abandoned train station in Buffalo, New York

No city is a failure in its inception. A city begins with a pre-city nucleus, perhaps a town or even a mere village. It is precisely due to the success of such a nucleus that it grows into a city. But it is often the case that the first thought inspired by the ruins of an abandoned city is how and why the city was ever built in the first place, and how it ever came to grow to its apparent former size. Many abandoned cities are to be found buried deep within tropical jungles, far from contemporary civilization, or stranded in the midst of a desert like the toppled statue of Ozymandias in the poem by Shelley.

Atlantic City, New Jersey

Atlantic City, New Jersey

A failed city is not the same as an abandoned city, although failure and abandonment obviously overlap. On the one hand, cities might be abandoned for many reasons, most of which have little or nothing to do with the intrinsic failure of a given city as a city, while, on the other hand, a failed city may continue in existence, much as Rome was never completely depopulated even at its nadir. Many cities are abandoned due to natural disasters. Pompeii is perhaps the most famous example of this, buried by the ash of the eruption of Vesuvius, but more recently, much more recently, there is the example of San Juan Parangaricutiro, buried by the lava flow from the formation of Parícutin volcano in 1943.

Trees growing out of a second floor window in Gary, Indiana.

Trees growing out of a second floor window in Gary, Indiana.

We all know that particular technologies outlive their usefulness. I have written about this in The Law of Stalled Technologies and More on Stalled Technologies. Because of the succession of technologies, one technology and its infrastructure may have to be abandoned in order to move on to the next technology. This does not mean that the society or civilization that produced the first technology has collapsed; on the contrary: the abandonment is a consequence of the vigor of a society that can leave behind the past. However, when an entire life of a city is based upon the infrastructure of a particular technology, and that technology is abandoned, or has changed so rapidly that older production facilities are without value to the contemporary iteration of the technology, then that city must enter a most painful decline.

Pripyat, near Chernobyl, was abandoned not due to natural disaster or to changed economic conditions, but to a man-made disaster.

Pripyat, near Chernobyl, was abandoned not due to natural disaster or to changed economic conditions, but to a man-made disaster.

The most obvious examples of the process of abandonment because of obsolescence due to technological change are to be found in the industrialized “Rustbelt” of the United States, although examples can be found in every industrialized region of the world. In the Pacific Northwest, a similar process has occurred in connection with the timber industry. Small towns dependent on a single large timber mill were reduced to not much more than a minimart, a gas station, and maybe a bowling alley once the mill closed. I have long thought it would be an excellent topic for an academic study — whether sociological or economic or cultural geography — to write a thesis on After the Mill Closes. We could call this process industrial succession, by analogy with ecological succession, understanding that cities are a petri dish of the ecology of civilization.

Oregon Business timber towns

There is a sense in which this process of industrial succession is predictable and an obvious consequence of social and technological change, but there is also a sense in which it is striking and remarkable. Even in a middling-sized city like Portland, where I am somewhat familiar with the commercial and industrial real estate market, a relatively small structure in the industrially zoned area of the city (and I understand that not all cities have zoning laws) costs a million dollars or more, and this represents a significant investment for a small business. If you cross the bridges over the Willamette in downtown Portland and see a panoramic view of the city, thick with small and large buildings, and you realize that each one of these properties may be worth millions (some of them worth tens of millions), you immediately understand how valuable a contemporary city can be. The amount of money represented by a urban landscape is staggering, and we aren’t even talking New York, Paris, London, or Berlin here.

The barren and desolate National Stockyards at East St. Louis

The barren and desolate National Stockyards at East St. Louis

That anyone can afford to abandon commercial or industrial urban properties is remarkable. And yet it happens. Perhaps the property is owned by a corporation that goes bankrupt, the property tax bills go perpetually unpaid, and the city has other, more pressing needs and will not spend the money required to raze or refurbish such properties. Where the decline of a particular city is terminal, this process escalates and turns into a vicious circle of declining property values that drive further bankruptcies and abandonments.

The pod city of San Zhi, Taiwan, abandoned before completion.

The pod city of San Zhi, Taiwan, abandoned before completion.

Industrial succession is a force as relentless and as inevitable as the Industrial Revolution itself. We could say, in fact, that industrial succession is part of the Industrial Revolution, and that the civilization that has emerged from industrialized societies is a civilization that must reckon with the industrial succession that comes with the Industrial Revolution. The rational approach to this would be to plan for cities to emerge around particular technologies, and for these same cities to be abandoned gradually as that same technology inevitably becomes obsolete. This has been attempted in some highly controlled and managed economies, but cities cannot avoid becoming the domicile of our dreams and our aspirations at the same time as they grow rich, just as they become symbols of failure and decay as they decline into poverty.

An abandoned high rise in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

An abandoned high rise in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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2 Responses to “Failed Cities”

  1. Martin E Williams said

    I seem to find myself dealing with the decline of Eugene,Oregon and must count myself amongst those currently unable to leave. Thanks for some of the clarification brought about by reading your article.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Martin,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I would be very interested to hear more about the decline of Eugene. I never much cared for Eugene myself, though it is certainly preferable to Salem. Like many college towns, its demographics are skewed by the presence of the University of Oregon. That being said, I know that some people are quite enthusiastic about Eugene, and I believe that the contemporary anarchist writer John Zerzan lives there. As a representative of “anti-civilization” thought, he is the antithesis of my own point of view, and for that reason alone I have cause to view Eugene with suspicion, though I would much rather hear directly from a resident of Eugene than rely on my own suspicions.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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