Abandoned Chicagoland: rust on the prairie
By Jerry Olejniczak
I’ve always been attracted – and repulsed – to demolition sites. Crumbling walls, shattered by a wrecking ball, reveal shards of past lives and lost work. And if it’s a building that I knew and loved, tears can flow too.
This new book by Jerry Olejniczak is filled with pictures of places that have been demolished, transformed by decay and sometimes overtaken by nature. Olejniczak (pronounced Oh-Lay-KNEE chalk) is an urbex photographer – a photographer as an urban explorer. The job can involve legal risks (if a photographer trespassed) and personal risks (photographer and activist Richard Nickel died in 1972 while taking pictures in a partially demolished Chicago Stock Exchange).
But the urbex photographer is persistently looking for these sites and photographs them for posterity. The term “ruin porn” is sometimes used mockingly to describe this work, but these images can hardly be described as obscene. They are images of great beauty and rich in symbolism. They also remind us of how dilapidated we are as a society when we build great buildings of wealth, education, and worship and then let them deteriorate when we are fed up with them.
Churches, theaters, post offices, hospitals, factories, schools. Olejniczak takes us on his city, suburban and land excursions, mainly through Chicagoland, but also to other cities in the Rust Belt. Its introduction is a brief history of Chicago as the economic engine of the Midwest and of course includes an excerpt from Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago”. He reminds us that “today’s glittering skyline and sterile yuppie neighborhoods” belittle the fact that Chicago was the appropriate setting for Upton Sinclair’s Stockyards documentary novel. The jungle; Lorraine Hansberry’s piece, A raisin in the sun; and Richard Wright’s tragic novel, Native son. Each of these works describes communities where poor black people or European immigrants lived and worked.
In his introduction, the author speaks of other Rust Belt central cities that have been turned into ruins. Something similar happened in Chicago, he says, except that “the slide into urban decay happened on the outskirts, in the outskirts, and suburbs, where it was easier to miss.” The south side, southern suburbs, and south lakeshore all the way down to Gary, Indiana, receded far from downtown, and the decline affected people who were politically ineligible and therefore easily ignored.
“Chicagoers might think of their city as a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods,” says Olejniczak, “or a burgeoning business and mall, but essentially it remains a rust-belt working class city that has been done well.”
Each of Olejniczak’s nine chapters contains his commentary on the nature of the spaces, their surroundings and how he made them accessible. He is a photographer who knows that even impressive photos need to be embellished with a few hundred words.
His photographs range from desolate interiors characterized by objects left behind to destroyed exteriors or broader landscape views of buildings in the context of their territory or âthe built environment is slowly being reclaimed by natureâ. One series features Monet-esque views of the abandoned Gary, Ind., Tennis courts at different times and seasons.
Corridors, doors and stairs come into the spotlight as âparticularly potent subconscious symbols of transition and ascentâ. In an urban exploration context, they symbolize all the risks that are taken on the journey. “
Places to explore aren’t always grand or ceremonial, however. Olejniczak explores spaces that he names Tableaux vivants or living pictures. The term refers to an early form of entertainment in which scenes were carefully lit and staged with props and sometimes people; they should be works of art or biblical stories. For the Urbex photographer, ruins with a riot of color, furnishings and debris left behind are modern Tableaux vivants. Former schools are sometimes examples of this, littered with desks, books and rubble, as are factories and workshops, abandoned department stores, private homes and churches.
âOh the Places You’ll Goâ is another chapter on Olejniczak’s foray. These rooms are usually locked and allow you to think that you are the last person on earth to see them. They can be prosaic like an abandoned back room in the office or cheesy like the bathroom of a house that no one has lived in for decades. The attic of a high school turned out to be a gallery with student signatures and graduating years scribbled on wooden walls and ceiling for decades. A huge poultry feed mill next to railroad tracks in the southern suburb of Riverdale had been abandoned since the 1970s. “It was a thirteen-story monster made of reinforcing steel and grate.” Floors were drilled with holes and filled with the remains of conveyor belts, pipes and machines. And photographers who dared a trip to the roof found breathtaking views of … well, nothing really. You could see the Chicago skyline 20 miles away, but not much else. “But roofs are their own reward.”
Olejniczak’s stories and captions are just as fascinating as his photos.
My only criticism of the book is its format. It’s vertical and 6 inches wide and 9.5 inches high, which prevents the photos from being seen at their best. Photos that would be greatly enhanced by a larger format are displayed on half a 5.5 x 4 inch page. A larger format would certainly be preferable (the classic illustrated book), but this size could be better used. I’d rather see the book lying horizontally with its spine on the short side. This would allow at least some of the photos to be displayed full-page. With his 145 photos that would mean more pages than the current 96 and thus a higher price. But the result would be a superior book.
Urbex in other art forms
Urbex images can also be found in other art forms. Several documentaries, for example, describe the visual plight of Detroit, but few as dramatic as the 2012 documentary Detropy, Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (streamed on AppleTV for $ 3.99). Detropy portrays the decline of a great American city through the eyes of its citizens, politicians, and the business community; his people struggle to cope with a city with a broken economic system. The pioneering Urbex photographer Camilo Jose Vergara once demanded that the center of Detroit be set up as a park of ruins, which he called the “American Acropolis”.
Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 romantic vampire film Only lovers are still alive, takes place in a derelict mansion in the middle of the devastated Detroit countryside. Adam and Eve, the centuries-old vampire lovers, played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, occasionally travel in Adam’s vintage Jaguar XJS through the crumbling Brush Park neighborhood, past abandoned car factories and abandoned theaters. Adam is a moody rock star; The first five minutes of the film are a glorious tribute to vintage guitars. (The film is available on Prime Video.)
This month the Wrightwood 659 Gallery in Chicago opens a new exhibition entitled Romance to Doom: Two Lost Works by Sullivan and Wright. The exhibition will use 3D models, salvaged ornaments and artifacts, and archive photos to help guide the design, construction, and destruction of Sullivan’s Garrick Theater on West Randolph Street (demolished 1960) and Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, NY (demolished 1950) to document ).
Abandoned Chicagoland: rust on the prairie by Jerry Olejniczak is part of the America Through Time series from Arcadia Publishing; it is available in bookshops and on the publisher’s website. Arcadia publishes other historical and regional books, including the popular Images of America series.
All images courtesy of the publisher.
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