By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, IT SEEMS TO ME that a municipality only qualifies as a “real” city when it becomes nearly impossible to visually identify its beginnings. Neighborhoods may begin as unified civic signatures with coherent visual styles, but let fire, war, hard times or earthquakes add their input, and those same streets start to look like jigsaws with the pieces chosen from different puzzles. It’s a nightmare for urban planners but a treasure trove for the camera.
As they age, cities become visual collision points between good intentions and unintended consequences, with parts of one era being grafted onto fragments from another. Absent a bomb or natural disaster, few streets are completely destroyed by time, just evolved into a crazy-quilt jumble of bygone trends, deaths, and rebirths.
This image shows a typical block in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district, with residential, retail and undefined space co-existing in a single building, following the general rule for the neighborhood that everything should be re-purposed and then re-re-purposed pretty much forever. Things get old. Things break. Ownerships and administrations change. Priorities shift. Some parts of buildings disappear, others are re-imagined, still others are absorbed into other visions.
This urban recycling has real benefits. As an area with the densest population concentration in all of Los Angeles county, there is no space in Koreatown to waste, and thus many priceless remnants of the Art Deco movement which might have fallen to the wrecking ball in other sectors of L.A. were saved and re-used when the neighborhood transitioned from an entertainment district to a residential and commercial area in the 1960’s. Like most of the city at large, Koreatown’s streets are living exhibits, laboratories involving all of the different “Los Angeleses” that have existed throughout the last century. And as with “real” cities in general, part of the new way for the various Koreatown’s is always marbled with what Paul McCartney calls “my ever-present past”. creating unique photographic opportunities in the process. Essentially, cameras were born to bear witness to this amazing cross between architecture and archaeology, this irreconcilable argument between competing jigsaw puzzles. It’s part of the Big Picture we all seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN AMERICA WE GET ACCUSTOMED TO SEEING OUR URBAN HISTORY REGULARLY REDUCED TO RUINS, not because our cities are laid to waste by invaders or sacked by conquerors, but because we are such paltry stewards of the architectural legacies we share in this essentially young nation. Obvious nationalistic images aside, the wrecking ball, our answer to the crushing glaciers of history, is the real visual signature of the USA. We get tired of looking at old stuff. We knock the old stuff down. And in doing so, we squander the value of things to which we once attached great importance, rendering them moot, as if we really never cared about them at all.
The change glacier usually sweeps through the vast canyons of our larger cities, cutting a swath of wreckage that levels, implodes or simply knocks down any testimony to history, fashion, flair, whimsey, and the thing we most dread, uselessness. Every town has its casualties; stadiums, grand hotels, transportation hubs, retail centers, neighborhoods…it’s simply not American to get too attached to anything. It’s all going away, all of it, and with it, any sense of continuity, memory, or a contextual place in time.
Fortunately, it is the tendency of the glacier to “think big” that keeps the crushing onslaught of “renewal” concentrated in the larger urban centers, often leaving more survivors in small towns and rural communities. That means that some things in off-track towns, being below the radar of macro-change, are simply left alone, allowed to survive, because they are neglected by the bigger sweep of things.
This means that the “in-between” parts of the country still hold some treasures, a few gentle ties to times we have largely disposed of in the major hub cities. And while no one is suggesting that we bring back the village blacksmith and the local cobbler’s shop, it’s comforting in some way to be able to see and touch what in other parts of the nation are merely footnotes in books. That is, if we haven’t burned the books.
The building pictured at the top of this post is such a survivor. Built in 1879 just as the Toledo & Ohio Central railroad was being cut across the small village of Pickerington, Ohio (just southeast of Columbus), this compact little structure was the nerve center of trade and travel for “Picktown” for more than half a century. Its three rooms included an entry area for freight, an arrival room for passengers, and, in the center, an office for the combined jobs of depot agent and Western Union telegrapher. It was not until the hiring of its first female depot agent in 1947 that the facility could boast indoor plumbing, but the T&O’s tracks, during rail’s heyday, criss-crossed the tiny town with spur lines to a lumberyard, a grain mill, a hoop factory and warehouses.
Amazingly, the depot survived an extended closure from 1958 to 1975, when private money made its restoration possible. Lanterns, tools, bottles, wall maps, schedules, freight wagons, and a fully functional Western Union telegraph key were all assembled to visually cement the station in time. And there it stands to this day, serving no other “function” than to mark where the town, and we, have passed on our way to the inevitable.
Better than my luck in finding this place was in finding it just as dusk was streaking across the sky, giving me the perfect visual complement to the passing of time. And yet, here, out of the path of the glacier, time was allowed to tick just a little slower, slower enough to teach. And remember.