It is filthy and crumbling, its foundations cracked on the faulty promise of equal opportunity. The idle, vacant factories, the abandoned homes, the burnt-out, broken-in storefronts. It’s so gritty and real… It’s another world, and I’m a born adventurer. It should be a playground for urban exploration. But I can’t bring myself to enter many of these shells…
Oh, it would be easy – the boards have already been plied away, the windows broken out, the locks forced – but I am scared witless to go in. Someone has already been here. It was no historical Lincoln or long gone nineteenth century seminary student. Even the brave developers of the self-styled, Metro-branded “NoMa” (est. 2004) haven’t ventured this far up New York Avenue.
Maybe television has taught me hysterics and paranoia, instilled in me a falsely inflated fear of neighborhoods like these. But even the local police precinct has a twelve foot razor wire fence. And thirty six hours after my visit, a drive-by wounds thirteen.
The people who have blazed trails into these bombed out structures weren’t here to play or make money, they were here because this is where they’ve found themselves. Looking for a quiet, relatively safe place to rest, shelter from the rain, reprieve from predators, be they in uniforms or in imaginations they can’t quite control. The people who found their way inside these buildings were almost certainly victims and survivors of one kind or another, the marginal looking for cover from the next raid. They were the poorest, the most disturbed, the most disadvantaged inhabitants of the most blighted neighborhoods in our city.
If I followed them into that boarded up building, with no windows or light inside, I’d be facing them alone.
And frankly, I don’t know what I’d say.
I might stammer a feeble, “I’m sorry to disturb your rest. I’m sorry to intrude. I’m just here to play. For me all this squalor and decay this is just for fun. It’s a hobby for me – a chance to escape my everyday life, where the walls are always painted and the windows are usually clean. I’m a tourist here, and these photos will soon be online, on the website I curate. You should really check it out. This is your home. This is my playground.”
That’s the dilemma that keeps me from writing about certain other ruined DC sites, and for a while I thought that it had stolen my tongue on the subject urban exploration… But now I’m pretty sure that what looked like a roadblock is actually a detour to a new, more challenging place.
On my jog up New York Avenue, I encounter the movable but unmoved ruins of a society in disrepair. The crumpled evidence of a fender bender covers cracked concrete. I nearly trip over a discarded floral print canvas purse, rifled through by the eager hands of an indifferent man. Its remaining contents – some make-up, an unused condom, a fast food coupon – telling the fractured tale of some young woman’s story, are strewn in the spotted winter grass, devoid of any items that could be spent or resold.
I see the shells of commerce, warehouses and storefronts standing like tombstones over blue collar America, an America where people did their business face-to-face instead of online. They stand as memorials over jobs that aren’t coming back, over middle aged men who know only one trade, and over families struggling to make ends meet. The tasteless epitaphs splayed across their edifices read “Prime Location For Lease.” In truth, the neighborhood’s best hope for revitalization probably lies in their complete demolition. NoMa: Phase Two. NoNewYo.
That has absolutely no ring to it at all. And if it came to pass, would it help the current residents of this neighborhood, or simply displace them to some new urban periphery?
Urban exploration throws light upon the darker side of capitalism – the dimension of economic and social disparity that lets me have fun in someone else’s part of town and then go back to my cleaner, safer side before the sun goes down. It’s a dramatic enactment of the economic and social forces that govern our very divided communities, those that allow me to go back to my high speed internet connection in order to upload these photos as a trophy of my brave foray to the wrong side of the Amtrak.
For me, at least part of the thrill of urban exploration comes from visiting another world – one that’s crumbling, one that’s prime has, arguably, past. There is a degree of cultural imperialism here, in which I appropriate the toughness of another neighborhood to sharpen the blunted edges of my own. In fact, I began to explore when I began graduate school. I could no longer afford to travel. It offered all the thrill of third world travel right in my own town. Each visit is transgressive, and therefore thrilling – society has taught me to value the clean and the new, and growing up in the suburbs during the 90s, that’s mostly what I’ve had the fortune to experience.
We all have free will, sure, but so much of life still boils down to the accident of where you are born. Our system perpetuates itself. To what degree we are passengers or agents of change within that system, I don’t know… Not everyone on New York Avenue is just visiting.
Should I feel guilty about my interest in urban exploration just because I grew up with relative economic privilege? Because I now have a middle class job and home of my own? Would I even be so interested in decay if I lived in it every day?
This gives me pause. As I stand on this curb, I can feel a steady wind at my back. Bright and shimmering, newly-leased cars race the red light behind me, teasing the traffic cameras the intersection of New York and Montana Avenues. Air rushes into their wake, eager to fill the pockets of low pressure left in the violence of their passage.
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning, and I’m standing out here asking myself, “Should I or shouldn’t I go into these shambles?” Undertaking a moral exploration alongside my urban one. You probably think this is much too heavy. I just came out here for the thrill. To poke around. I just came out here for some fun, but…
There is value in meditating on the social forces that make one man’s ruins another man’s home.
The American dream is bigger, faster, newer, and shinier each year. Yet there are those among us – the poor, the ill, the indigent – who live a life wholly at odds with each one of those ideals. There are also those of us who have the power, privilege, and means to access those ideals – we, the beneficiaries of capitalism, who are taught by commercials and by our parents to dream of something better and nicer.
Some of us are still drawn to the squalor. It is a tacit, dawning acknowledgement of our national mortality, one that collectively we are not yet ready to articulate. We worship Silicon Valley. Yet we sneak peaks at a vacant and demolished New York Avenue. Urban exploration – on some level – is the pornography of destruction. It is a snuff film for the American dream.
1400-2000 blocks of New York Ave, NE
DCinruins Volume 2: Local Witness published by Insignificant Press.