Saturday, December 18, 2010

Newport News - the emptiness at the edge of cities

I have always harbored an inexplicable fascination with 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.

12 comments:

  1. Your descriptive detail is impressive and realistic. Interesting that the East side of cities is frightening, on both the East and West coasts. xo

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  2. An interesting post David. I have never explored Newport News very much, always heading to VA Beach where my father-in-law lives. Thanks for stopping by. I lived in between Paignton and Torquay. In fact I have a post showing the village where I was living when I met my husband. Interesting that you worked for the Herald Express for a while. We read that newspaper for years.

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  3. Newport News looks a lot like the outer edges of Detroit! Except the entire city of Detroit is like an east London council estate because everyone that has money in Detroit moves north! Have you ever seen 'Bowling for Columbine' where Michael Moore is stunned to discover that the citizens of Windsor don't lock their doors? Funny place, Windsor. Beautiful post!

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  4. Very well written, David. You really portrayed the edge of cities well. I felt like I was there.

    I am a small town, or even, take-me-out-to-the-country girl myself, but I know for some the pull of big cities is strong.

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  5. This post is full of great lines David, my favorite being,

    "It was brooding gangsters sitting on piles of rubble fingering their firearms."

    The quality of the writing is what sets this blog apart David, and this post is a prime example. Keep up the great work!

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  6. Thanx Robyn, never worked out that east side thing. How cool that you lived in Torquay, Denise. Downtown Newport News isn't worth stopping in at but old town Portsmouth's worth a trip. Sure Lidia, but I like some degree of bleakness. Thanks Daisy, lived in small town North Carolina for a while but it felt claustrophobic. You are too kind Tim, you too.

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  7. Really love this post ... I enjoy "urban" or "metropolitan" vacations - seeing big cities - all aspects of them. I went to Boston for the first time, last summer (it is now my favorite place and am going again next summer), and some of the photos above remind me of parts of Boston I walked through ...

    BEST,

    PMT
    http://thisthattheotherone.blogspot.com

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  8. Nice blog. :) Your articles are interesting and well written. I'm with you on the big city love. There are so many interesting things to look at and photograph in them. Urban decay can be really interesting.

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  9. a bit like Canada, pleasant and safe and unadventurous

    Love this and the rest.

    I agree with a couple of your other commenters; I actually READ your blog rather than skim my way through. The words are balanced and prosaic.

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  10. Thanx Lidia, really PM - would love to go to Boston. Cheers and thanx for the follow Alyson. Most kind Deborah - I must admit I skim read many blogs.

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