Saturday, December 18, 2010
Newport News - the emptiness at the edge of cities
Once, a long time ago when I dated a Canadian girl, we went to Windsor, a dire low rise place of manicured gardens that reminded me of the English seaside. We walked through those carefully mainained gardens and stared across the river at the high towers of Detroit.
"I want to go there," I said, and jumped a balastrade in an attempt to walk across the road bridge to the US.
The girl I was with was a bit like Canada, pleasant and safe and unadventurous. She patiently informed me Detroit was all mayhem and murder. It was brooding gangsters sitting on piles of rubble fingering their firearms. It was a passport to an early death.
I still wanted to go there, but I didn't.
I never lost my fascination with the grim side of cities. I wanted to see what Ernest Burgess termed the Zone in Transition, I wanted to walk through the organic decay of a man made structure on the seedy edges of downtown and to feel the danger on the sidewalks.
My grandmother lived in the East End of Glasgow - what is it with the East Ends of cities? Her estate was gray and monolithic but the houses were solid with net curtains. But at the bottom of a steep hill lay a world of festering tenements teeming with trash, of hollow alleys that led to bleak abodes where heroin addicts looked through smashed windows at a cloud choked sky.
I slipped out to this urban wasteland and photographed a world of unremitting grey-ish green, of mean little railway bridges and electricity cables like spiders. Here the only grassy spaces were on life support and smeared with dog feces, most of the residents were on social and their hands were smeared yellow with nicotine and desperation.
I have less time today but I still like to lose myself on the hopeless blurred edges of downtowns; drawfed by concrete and glass. I like to find the decaying old buildings with black fire escapes that will spend the rest of their lives shutted up.
I took these pictures in downtown Newport News on Thursday after the snowfall with a chilly wind blowing off Hampton Roads. America's grid system can cut up its cities mercilessly, leaving empty zones like the one between Newport News' downtown, which stores moved out of decades ago, and the big impersonal port where the snow made mini mountains out of the piles of coal. Puddles of melted snow lay in the roadways and across the crumbling kerbs that nobody waked on. The traffic droned on the nearby freeway but few cars passed me by here.
The sense of loneliness down here beside the railways lines and under the freeways is palpable. To the east are mean streets that claim a steady tally of victims.
But the area south of City Hall is merely bereft and overlooked; a place to forget and remember, an urban desert in the heart of a city; a place that brings it home to us that in the final reckoning we are always alone.