Desolation Row

Chrysler Corporation’s recent “Made in Detroit” advertisement campaign is both a nostalgic appeal to the patriotism of American buyers and a feeble attempt to restore the image of Motor City, the birthplace of the automobile industry. In recent years, Detroit has been the subject of countless books and exhibitions sensationalising the ruins of its former majesty, as it declined from being the country’s fifth largest city to a battered shell of its former self.

Like motorists attracted to an accident scene, visitors (real and online) have been flocking in the thousands to gape at the gory glory of its abandoned churches and theaters, deserted libraries and high-rise buildings. And yet, are we not surrounded by the ruins of history all around us? Are not signs of urban decay hidden just beneath the surface of our immediate surroundings? Do we not encounter the ghosts of beautiful bungalows torn down to make way for ugly utilitarian flats?

I have walked the streets of Liverpool, past boarded up boarding-houses awaiting demolition, like death-row inmates who have been denied clemency. As the gateway to cross-Atlantic commerce (including the lucrative slave trade), almost half of the world’s business used to pass through the city’s port, a function that has limited relevance two centuries later. Today, despite brave attempts to reinvent it as the European capital of culture, it peddles primarily in its past.

I have walked the streets of Newark, marvelling at abandoned drawbridges left to rust because their sale as scrap metal would not recover the cost of dismantling them. Once the biggest center of manufacturing industry around New York, organised crime and race riots have taken their toll on the rapid loss of people and businesses. Today, a handful of companies stand amidst the sprawl, providing the city with a tattered fig-leaf of respectability.

I have walked the streets of Howrah, tripping on unused tram-lines that stick out like the ribs of an emaciated corpse. Once the hinterland of the second city of the British Empire, it has long since seen trade decline as its river silted up and unionism and lethargy sounded the death-knell to its symbiotic city, Calcutta. Today, the conversion of its old mills and factories into warehouses and cold-storage units is celebrated with a zeal that reflects an absence of pride in its history.

There is death and desolation all around us, albeit masked by shiny structures in their place. And while politicians wax poetic at the inauguration of these state-of-the-art projects, it is just a matter of time until, abandoned and despised, they too are tossed into the dustbin of history for the next new thing.


There are places I remember
All my life:
Though some have changed—
Some forever not for better.
Some have gone and some remain.

The Beatles, In My Life


Altamont said...

Riveting account Incogrito... more hard hitting and 'brutal' than your earlier posts, but what you say is very true.

I am somehow reminded of a musing of Dr. Watson when, after many years, he meets his old acquaintance, whom he had known as a top class rugby player in his youth, and now finds him old and haggard.

"There is surely nothing in life more painful than to meet the wreck of a fine athlete whom one has known in his prime."

incogRito said...

Altamont, Thank you for your comment. Your references to the Holmes canon are always delightful!

Perhaps we can hope that the sickness surrounding our old familiar haunts are only as serious as the master's illness in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective".

For those uninitiated with this story (lucky, lucky you!), let it be reminded that "The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he [Sherlock Holmes] became a specialist in crime."