by Joe Bonomo
Click to hear the author read the first part of Abandoned Cities.
West Village, Manhattan. River West, Chicago
I prefer images of abandoned places to images of people. “The most difficult thing for me is a portrait,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson. “You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” It’s easier to avoid the psychological and emotional messiness of entering another’s space. Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, a river’s edge: skin-shirt boundaries are already erased, or nature is in the process of erasing them. I trespass in a different way, across fading civic boundaries, past DO NOT ENTER signs, into the ghost past rather than the animal present. Something different lives in the abandoned or the tossed away; the world, which was never far away, is on its way back. That there are no people in these photos doesn’t remove the human from them. Bodies’ remnants are everywhere, transparencies in hotel lobbies and rooms, unlikely now but once flourishing behind boards in windows, or imagined sitting in a green chair in an empty city lot.
The Keller Hotel opened in 1898, and in mid-century was home to one of the city’s first leather bars. A block below Christopher Street, as far west as you could get without plunging into the Hudson, Barrow and West Streets drew many to its hideaway center. (Next door was Badlands, the leather bar featured in the movie Cruising; some have described Keller’s as ground zero of the disco movement, as the Village People were photographed here for the cover of their 1978 debut.) The building has been shuttered for twenty years. Abandoned buildings are highly interpretable: in shutting down, they open up to conjecture, imagined lives, sentimentalizing. “HOTEL” is an appealing word, commonly so inviting, but on a weathered sign which has lost its meaning, it’s tragi-comic, spent, if stubborn.
Click to hear the author read the second part of Abandoned Cities.
Milwaukee and Grand Avenues and Green Street, River West, Chicago
I took these photos in a neighborhood that was once heavily Italian, and where The Outfit, Chicago’s crime syndicate, once flourished. This is a hulking gray-blue wood and brick relic, empty now for years, sturdy above the rumbling underground CTA trains. There’s no discernible sense of its older purpose—no ghost signs hawking other-century wares—or of the faces that might have gazed out of this window. When I look at an abandoned building, I actively imagine the livelihood that once made it hum, doors opening and closing, voices raised and fading, the warmth of a place intensely, actively lived in. A narrative loop plays in my head. The line between was and is hasn’t yet snapped.
River West, Chicago
I’m on the outside looking in, again. A green chair is framed by matching grid of an iron fence and the unseen green taking root and moving, slowly, in a diorama both utterly ordinary and surprisingly surreal. The chair could’ve been thrown away, or it might be serving a purpose. Its use is vague, yet it looks beautiful, aesthetic, differently meaningful. Obscurity is the only certainty that emptiness gives me. I’m attracted to empty spaces in the middle of urban noise because they narrate the past but also what’s coming, whether it’s steel and glass, or more wilds. Pulled in opposing directions, a vacant lot is stuck in a dire present.
Joe Bonomo is the author of numerous books, including Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band (2007), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found (2009), and, most recently, This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began. In 2010 he edited Conversations With Greil Marcus. He is an Associate Professor of English at Northern Illinois University and the Music Columnist at The Normal School, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was and @BonomoJoe.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 0 • November 2014
Image credit: all photos by Joe Bonomo.