Forgotten but not gone.

12 Jun

Here is a project on which I am spending a good portion of my summer weeks: the assessing and indexing of what’s rightly being called Forgotten Providence.

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Forgotten Providence is a web-based showcase of the abandoned, through foreclosure or otherwise, housing stock in the Renaissance City. Its creators speak in their mission statement of the need to document the problems plaguing our neighborhoods and “provide context for possible policy changes surrounding code enforcement, taxation, sanctions, seizure, removal, and ownership transfers of houses neighbors wish to see revitalized or removed.” They also call for institutional involvement in this effort, and understandably so. Grassroots is grrrreat, but when it comes to quantifying gang activity, addressing the disturbing balloon of homelessness that swells right along with the number of vacant houses, and creating an accurate morphology of a decaying city, all of The Establishment’s resources ought be put to work. Indeed, isn’t this exactly the sort of effort that Institutions are Established for?

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Forgotten Providence has found its first institutional collaborator in ProvPlan, the nonprofit neighborhood organization with which I started working primarily to learn to use GIS mapping software, indulge my psychogeographic curiosities, and figure out exactly how someone with GIS mapping software and psychogeographic curiosities might be Of Use to their community. ProvPlan does many good works and has developed a number of super cool software and internet applications, among them The Mapper, a web doohicky with which you can find a stunning amount of information about neighborhoods, streets, property and even parcels. Explore it! I did, and easily found out that the dude I’d approached about purchasing his tiny commercial property in the Armory was asking about $100k more than what his property had been assessed at. Cool!

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Inspired by Forgotten Providence’s ambitious early efforts, ProvPlan decided to appoint two interns (myself and Adam R.) to the task of scouring the city, street by gridless, haphazard street, to photograph, assess, record and report each “distressed” property (and thereby inevitably examine our own definitions of “distress”). This data will have a number of applications, first populating Forgotten Providence and then finding its way into public policy projects and City databases.

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Three weeks into what should be about a 16 week project, I can officially register my amazement. For one thing; wow. There are a lot of streets and entire neighborhoods in this city-I-thought-I-knew through which one would never pass were one not equipped with a map and a mandate. For another, wow. This urban variety of abandonment is unlike any abandonment I’ve explored before.

I have a long and storied history of infiltrating, enjoying and documenting abandoned and decaying chunks of decrepitude. By the time I was 16 I’d all but moved my bed and collection of Factsheet 5 magazines into the small, vacant and ghost-ridden carriage house that my friends and I found and dubbed “Sleepyhouse” in the deepest woods of my home town. That sort of sub-suburban and rural abandonment is of a special variety that thrives on the leaf mold of New England’s old dirt roads, and the still expanses of midwestern flatlands. The ghosts in these old houses wear anachronistic clothing and their newspapers are yellowed, and we explore them like foreign countries, expecting time capsules and hand-written letters and secret cats. These houses are diffused with a safe amount of dust that motes prettily in the sun, even if there is a smell of rot around the sinister corner of an erstwhile staircase. In the soil behind an abandoned house of this sort I once found what must have been an old dumping ground, the dirt pregnant with antique bottles that I dug out barehanded, coming away with (a nasty case of poison ivy and) a collection of glass treasures that looked as if they’d hold snake oil and outmoded balms; anything but the relentless malt liquor and schnapps found in the houses of Forgotten Providence. Rural abandonment is, more simply put, easier to romanticize.

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My interest in abandoned properties led me (totally unsurprisingly, for my age and my place in time and geography) to abandoned industrial. I lived mere yards from the 300-acre horror fairy tale of the closed Northampton State hospital. I lived a few blocks from the dramatic subterranean relic of Fort Wetherill. I ran through the basements of Royal Mill when it was still in a state of blatant disrepair and not a condo development, grinding loose the ancient scabs of fabric dye from the groaning concrete floors and marveling at the slow erosion of load-bearing walls brought about by the gush of a decades-broken water main. Abandoned industrial is legitimately edifying and hugely fascinating, full of labor revolution and neato nostalgic technology. An abandoned factory holds the same appeal as a piece of letterpress art– elegant, time tested, outmoded but so eager to be interpreted anew. Industrial abandonment is, yeah, easy to romanticize and also rightfully educational. Sometimes a symptom of blight and unemployment to be sure, but by this point in history a symptom that’s already been displaced by new industry, re-use and renovation, the hope of green technology and the re-pointing of historic brickwork.

This is all to say: the urban abandonment plaguing cities like Providence is of an entirely different breed than the intriguing abandonment of rural or industrial America. The houses that stand empty on the South Side or in Silver lake have no softening patina. Their vinyl siding doesn’t even allow for the comforting symbol of a wind-weathered shingle. These houses are raw empty. They were emptied not by some mysterious whim or the gradual shift of a country’s manufacturing practices, they were emptied just yesterday, or last week, by the dirge of our exploding unemployment and by the outrage of mortgage fraud and the now-burst housing bubble. The residents of these houses didn’t wander off into a fog of western migration or move their families up the hill; they suffered fires and foreclosures, gang violence and institutional negligence.

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Seeing someone sweeping the front steps of a house that stands defiantly and precariously between two other foreclosed, burned and unsecured houses is enough to make one immediately embarrassed of one’s formerly touristic fascination with pretty, vacant things. Adam and I have both admitted being acutely concerned that we not be misconstrued for art students (ummm…) trying to make a thesis out of other people’s suffering. We have also been lobbying to get some badges, or at least a piece of paper that says “Official Business” for my car’s dashboard, and we’re finding our initial, ballsy attitudes a little bit dampened by the reality of these neighborhoods. I’m not, for example, entering the empty houses we find. The reality and necessity of squatters is too real, and the potential danger was emphasized by A.M. last night when he told me about the practice by squatters in Kansas City of booby-trapping properties against other squatters and cops. “It’s like some Home Alone shit,” he said “but less funny, because you end up with a needle in the eye”.

And I’ll end on that note. I’ve been trying to break my habit of being heavy-handed and preachy, and “needle in the eye” is a gift of a closing line way better than anything else I’d have put here. Just check out the site, will ya? www.forgottenprovidence.com

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5 Responses to “Forgotten but not gone.”

  1. Myles June 12, 2009 at 6:16 pm #

    Wow. Great post Josie! We are happy to having you working with us on FP. Thanks for the help so far, great to know we have some more help trying to open people’s eyes to what’s really going on in Providence.

  2. Mark Bechler July 30, 2009 at 6:04 pm #

    This is so true, as a contractor I see a lot of these homes. You should try to get in contact with some of your local non profit organizations like the American legion and such maybe even churches, and see if you can not come up with some funding, then contact some local contractors and see if you can find ones willing to help the community and fix or tear down the bad homes.

    Maybe start a non profit org that deals with the removal of vacant homes.

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