Wilding Places

When the wild creeps into the human spaces, the fear crawls along with it like a wounded animal, snapping at anything that moves. From time immemorial, bandits have hidden in the forests, even if only metaphorically, and a tangle of trees and brush ignites a spark deep in the brain. An instinctive reaction to an ambush. Who knows what the shadows hold?

Blighted land, it’s called. The places where once all was orderly and productive, but with the onslaught of time, they have slipped into neglect and poverty. Abandoned places in the hearts of cities, that have become wild. Wilder than they were before the city grew over them, because as the tide of human development retreats, it leaves detritus in its wake, and the scavengers slink in, using the shadows to hide.

“RUSL never sleeps” by Mark Alger

A broken window in an empty house. The house ablaze in the night, no-one particularly concerned because it wasn’t lived in anymore, anyway. Who cares about a house no-one wanted? The morning and the wet blackened shell crouches on the lot like a lumpy beast with empty eyes and gaping jowls. In time, the city workers bulldoze it, and the land is empty again. For a little while, anyway. The tide of nature washes over it, with a predictable succession of weeds, brush, and young trees, all creating pools of shadow in which trash lurks like tiny larvae, ready to hatch out into mosquitoes. Only here, the pools also harbor sharks. Sharks with knives for teeth, and guns tucked in the sagging waistbands. Monsters in the urban ghettos are as cold-blooded and uncaring as any deepwater predator, and as attracted to the blood of the city where poverty has wounded it.

“Burned out service station” by Mark Alger

The shadows deepen, and the warm lights of nearby houses blink on. Inside those houses are families, people who live here because they must. Because even though the wilding places fill them with fear, they have no means to flee the coming shadows and the sharks that fill them up. Families who want the same thing any of us do: warmth, security, food… a chance to walk through their neighborhood without a spectre of fear nipping at their heels. They might not be able to say what they feel, or why, but still, it’s there.

The blight creeps in, and brings fear with it. But there are ways to combat the night terrors, and one is very simply to dive into the urban jungle with machete in hand – not to fight off the sharks directly, but to bring light where there were shadows. Take care of the wild tangles full of hiding places and trash, and the tense shoulders of the people who live there will begin to come down and relax again. The innate fear of the woods, a human reaction captured in tales from the dawn of time, is a fear of the dark. Of what might be hiding in the dark, waiting to pounce, and then to run back into those shadows when they are pursued, able to escape with impunity. I know I’m mixing my metaphors, sharks in dark forests, but wolves are warm-blooded and socially acceptable. Sharks are not imbued with false perceptions of loyalty and nobility the way wolves are.

And really, this is all about perception. It’s not simply the first broken window on the empty house, or the first dropped piece of litter that swells into a tide of filth, crime, and malaise. It’s about how the neighborhood sees itself. Clean areas foster the light, and eliminate the lurkers in shadows. Hacking down the jungle to replace it with gardens, picking up the trash, working in tandem with others, these things create a certain glow that banishes fear… and as that happens, crime rates drop.

Without hope, why bother pushing back against the sharks who are constantly circling, looking for blood, for the young and the weak and the injured? Not, that’s not just wolves that hunt in that fashion – a school of fish presents a solid wall to the predator, just like a herd of bison does. But the human crowd loses the children who are hobbled by broken homes and parents who have succumbed to addiction. The injured are those who learn to self-medicate their mental illness with drugs and alcohol. And the lame and halt fall to the sharks, some becoming sharks themselves.

The rehabilitation of an empty lot is more than simply making a wasteland into productive, beautiful space again. It is a metaphor, however unconscious, for the wakening of the human heart to hope. Hope is a small thing, with feathers, and it takes wing in the light. Huddled in a nest all through the night, when dawn begins to break, it can sing and soar again. It’s a small thing, mowing and picking up trash, and mending the small broken bits. But it makes a real difference, and it’s worth doing.

“Old warehouse” by Mark Alger

And a big thanks to my friend and fellow author, Mark Alger. He generously allowed me to choose some of his urban photos to illustrate this essay. He’s not only a good photographer, he’s a good writer, and you should check out his fun work at his Baby Troll Blog. Hey, Mark, we should do some urbex together when you have time… 


8 responses to “Wilding Places”

  1. Poetic description of urban decay, mixed metaphors and all. Prolly more prevalent in cities like Detroit or Chicago or other haunts of the Rust Belt, not that Texas does not have its analogs. It does, but they seem to have a different flavor. The ghosts sing in a different key. (to likewise mix metaphors)

    1. The photos are of Cincinnati, the study I was inspired by was done in Philadelphia. But yes, culture varies wildly across the US, which is fascinating, and something the elite and mass media doesn’t seem to understand. There is a core of humanity that reacts in similar ways to stimulus: a baby is to be coddled, a crime is to be punished. But how they define ‘coddle’, ‘crime’ and many other things is different, and it’s not possible to stuff them all in one box and call it the same. But they try!

  2. They should be building community forts. ;o)
    The woods aren’t scary unless there are people in them.
    Funny that people fear them. Even up here where most everyone “lives in the woods,” few of them ever leave the pavement.

    1. In a city, the woods are usually trashy tangles of brush and scrub trees, and they give criminals places to lurk and evade police in pursuit.

      I’m with you – I’m far more nervous in a city than I am in the deep woods. But in a city the places where the wild things are – those are scary.

      1. When I was a city dweller I would seek those places out. It’s true they tend to draw a dubious crowd, but also wildlife. :o)
        They must have thought I looked dubious, too. Or maybe just cog-dis to find me there.
        Those places provide some insulation, in the center, from the massive psychic load of the city. Parks can’t cut it.
        I’ve seen lots of cities. We could do with fewer.

      2. I’m not arguing with your premise. :o)

  3. The old warehouse is the small building at the west end of the Longworth Hall parking lot, just off Gest Street. It was built at an odd angle relative to the rest of area’s buildings to accommodate a railroad track that once ran directly in front of the facade while winding its way down to the might Ohio River. Now the track is gone, the roof is gone, and there are trees growing inside. Up into the sixties it was a bustling area.

    It was home to some of railroad freight houses and produce yards and team tracks, and hordes of men working hard. Freight was handled by hand, by hand truck, by forklift, shifted out of box cars, out of refrigerator cars, off of flat cars and up from gondolas. Some of it went into the freight houses, railroad-owned warehouses. Much of into horse-drawn wagons, pickups, panel trucks, and box vans. For a few decades, it was even loaded into the larger trucks that eventually largely took that sort of business from the railroads.

    What we have now is more efficient. It takes fewer man-hours to move each piece of freight from point A to point B. The cost to transport it is lower. But instead we dodge 18-wheelers on the road as we drive past the largely-silent wastelands of abandoned warehouses, factories, and breweries.

    It isn’t just the railroad-related buildings that stand, silently decaying and ever-so-slowly crumbling as they lay vacant. Urban taxation policies, efficiencies, and changing land use and residential patterns have largely exiled industry from the urban core. Active manufacturing and warehousing operations are no longer brick or concrete buildings towering above city streets. Instead they are sprawling buildings that however tall they stand, often have but one floor in the production areas. It is more efficient to not to have shift widgets, boxes, and crates between floors.

    Now the decaying relics of a past age stand silent sentinel to flight of industry from our cities.

  4. […] has a new post up on the subject of broken windows policing. You know, the way Rudy Giuliani is credited with cleaning up New York. The neat part is that she […]