Recently I read an article describing a brand of tourism with a focus on visiting sites of urban and industrial ruin. It would seem that there are many people in the world who wish to pay a lot of money to see human civilization at its lowest and most distressed. Some go to see the devastation that follows huge waves of water that smash through towns and cities. Others wish to see the rusty, crumbling infrastructure of industries that have long since shuttered or gone overseas. As the penultimate example of this new, extreme tourism, tour companies now bring visitors within the danger zone of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The bravest among these tourists sign waivers so they can—for a brief few moments—walk up to the reactor site to see the epicenter of the catastrophe.
The thought of such an adventure caused me to pause from reading for a moment. I sat and mused that my home city of St. Louis might be a strong contender for such tourism–even when compared to the more well-known areas of ruinous distinction. Chernobyl only produced power, but the Armour meat packing facility in East St. Louis produced millions of hot dogs. The area that was once the Weldon Springs Ordinance Works is similarly dangerous in its radioactive contamination. The many abandoned buildings on the campus of Parks College provide the atmosphere of an abandoned government instillation. The St. Louis Centre is at least twice as ugly as the protective steal and concrete sarcophagus that covers the Chernobyl reactor.
As I read on, I became concerned with the tone of the article, in that it treated people who visit these sites a little roughly. The author insinuated that people who seek their adventures among the ruins of recent civilization are reckless thrill seekers, or ghouls who are bent on lavishing in destruction and misery—that their interest is lascivious and grotesque. I disagree.
I have known a few urban explorers, and I gather that they do not look at these places because they are taboo or titillating. I think they are drawn to urban and industrial ruin because there are more interesting stories to be told by dilapidated buildings rather than new ones. They look at them because they say something about who we used to be and what our culture once was. Beneath the dust, behind the rubble, is the grandeur and ugliness of a recent past that belonged to our parents and grandparents. And while one may not like all that there is to be seen, seeing it can give hope that we are people who still can build beautiful and productive things.
I am glad that there are those intrepid souls who climb over cyclone fencing, or crawl through broken walls to see and document our endangered architectural history.
By the time I finished the article, I reckoned it not wise for St. Louis to foster tourism of failed industry and urban decay. I wonder if the scale of our dilapidation and abandonment is something for which my home city should be proud. It is true that Italy is better off for capitalizing on the ruins of the Pantheon, Trajan’s Market, and Caesar’s Forum. But each of these sites are surrounded by vibrant human existence. They do not drip with asbestos and lead paint, and they have long since been preserved for safe visitation by tourists. Their surroundings continue to bustle. As fond as I am of the Griesedieck Brewery in South St. Louis, no continental ruler spoke there, and no Christians were thrown to lions within its walls. I am afraid its environs will never bustle if it is left to its current state.
Thankfully, among these urban explorers there is an ever-growing group of people who seek to preserve and restore these sites of architectural significance. They work tirelessly to research and document these places, and they share the stories in their books and blogs. I invite you to follow these modern preservationists :
St. Louis Preservation