Peter Feinman On New York’s ‘Ruin Porn’


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Ruin porn is in. Ruin porn is hot. Ruin porn is sexy. Ruin porn is the term coined by Jim Griffioen, who writes a blog about his life as a stay-at-home dad in Detroit.

As part of that effort he periodically posts photographs he has taken of the more than 70,000 abandoned buildings in his city. Such images included (as reported in the New York Times) “‘feral’ houses almost completely overgrown with vegetation; a decommissioned public-school book depository in which trees were growing out of the piles of rotting textbooks”. The term has become a familiar one in the city not without some misgivings by the locals as they watch tourists take souvenirs of their city back home.

Ruin porn isn’t exactly new. Think of Pompeii. That ruin from natural causes has been an object of fascination ever since it happened. On the man-made side, think of the Coliseum in Rome. Undoubtedly many of you reading this post have engaged in ruin porn in some form or another in your travels throughout the world. Going to see the wreck of where something built by humans once stood proud is an essential part of the tourism business. Sometimes these ruins are object lessons from Plato’s tale of the ruined Atlantis to the collapse of Assyria which had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and ravaged the southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian ruins brought to light in the excavations of the 1840s were viewed as proof positive of the biblical prophecies of pending destruction of Nineveh.

New York is home to ruins but as to their tourist potential, that is another matter. For example, the book Hudson Valley Ruins by Thomas E. Rinaldi and Robert J. Yasinsac catalogs industrial and residential ruins along the Hudson River. Recently on a dark and stormy night Yasinsac, spoke on the demolition of the Shea and Yankee stadiums complete with pictures documenting the destructions of these modern coliseums.

I am not aware of ruin porn tours be given along the Hudson River although Bannerman’s Castle in the Hudson River, which already was a ruin before the recent collapse of a wall, might be considered an example. For that matter, if one looks out the window on the Metro North Hudson line or Amtrak train one can glimpse some of the ruins documented in the book. For that matter, when I took the train from Albany to Niagara Falls last summer for the Conference on New York State History I saw ruin porn along the rails, also visible along Route 5 if driving, but less so from I-90. A recent New York Times Magazine cover depicted the same perspective headed south. The Mohawk, the Hudson, and New Jersey all deliver the same ruin porn experience.

Sandy brought ruin porn closer to home. In fact, it brought tourists to the homes of people in Staten Island and other portions of the coastal area hard hit by the storm. After the storm subsided, people with electricity in their own homes became day-time tourists in the areas which did not and which had been devastated by the storm. The collapsed homes had become macabre tourist sites since the homes did not belong to people long since dead for centuries or millennia but to living people struggling to get their lives back together. And since there is no place like home, to have one’s home destroyed rips the heart and soul of the people who once lived there never to be able to restore what once was.

Perhaps of one of the greatest examples of ruin porn in New York State history occurred not from ruins observed but for ruins imagined, a prophecy of what was to come. The prophet was Thomas Cole who in 1833-1836 painted a five-painting series entitled Course of the Empire. The Empire was New York State which had acquired that moniker as a result of the Erie Canal. The bright future heralded by the Canal would come to a crashing collapse in the Panic of 1837 but even before that Cole had painted this series with the final two paintings titled “Destruction” and “Desolation.” For Cole, like Scrooge’s ghost of Christmas future, the paintings were a warning of the future he wished to avoid. While his plea was not successful and the Panic occurred, Cole’s effort reminds us that ruin porn has been part of our culture not just from ancient times but in New York as well from the industrialization of the 19th century to Sandy in the 21st.

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences, the development of Paths through History, and a Common Core Curriculum that includes local and state history.

3 thoughts on “Peter Feinman On New York’s ‘Ruin Porn’

  1. Anonymous

    Ruin porn feels the same way about you, Peter, as you know. Wouldn’t it be great to have a feral house in the backyard for wildlife? Green Mansions revisted.

    Reply

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