These camera phone photos document three decaying structures located near a major highway in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Due to the nature of their surrounding environment, these “dead” buildings become clearly discernible to passersby only when the weather turns colder and after leaves fall from the trees. Their re-emergence creates a subtle but unmistakable unreality due to how they alter an otherwise predictable landscape - “Where did that massive rotting house come from?!”
Following geographer Tim Edensor (2005), I contend encountering these types of semi-relict structures allows us to have broader, more complex, and richer engagements with not only the built environment but with the geophysical world in general. While abandoned and vacant homes have long been utilized in the likes of horror films and supernatural tales due to their “spooky” cultural valence, these sites move beyond functioning as rote narrative devices and let us question how we conceive of death, decay, temporality, safety, and the cyclical nature of existence.
The de-centering of human subjects here is intentional, but is not done to disavow or negate the importance of people confronting and questioning their surroundings. Instead, I invite viewers to use these images as prompts to re-imagine spatial links to the past and the future. This requires reassessing how we look at buildings, dereliction, and ruination. Drawing on ideas from Garrett (2013), Massey (1994), and Muñoz (1999), I maintain that the “darkness” here is superficial despite its pronounced power; these sites do evoke death, but they do so in a manner which prizes the vital, complex part it plays in life. There is indeed a lot of life in these photos; it just happens to escape the narrow constraints that have come to define it in the present moment.
Edensor, T. (2005). Industrial ruins: Spaces, aesthetics, and materiality. Berg.
Garrett, B. L. (2013). Explore everything: Place-hacking the city. Verso.
Massey, D.B. (1994). Space, place, and gender. University of Minnesota Press.
Muñoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of color and the performance of politics. University of Minnesota Press.