Prologue: All-American Ruins

All-American Ruins
9 min readDec 30, 2020

Well, we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down

Allentown, PA (1872)

I should start with an admission: I’ve never actually been to Allentown. I drove through it once.

If someone says they’ve been somewhere, I’ve always taken that to mean that they’ve spent more than a passing moment, immersing themselves in that place, letting their bodies experience the newness of it, allowing their minds to feel the uncertainty and unfamiliarity.

For me, to say I’ve been somewhere indicates that I’ve peeked around the corners of that place, into the alleyways that draw divisions between the backsides of buildings. It means I’ve run my curious little fingers along the walls that line the streets, stooped off sidewalks to inspect odds and ends that litter the corroded concrete, stared into the shallow puddles, made eye contact with myself in the reflection of the unfiltered water, permitted myself to wonder what life would be like if I, too, lived here. It means I’ve asked the locals all kinds of questions, inquired about the history and meaning of the place. It means I’ve tried to figure out why it’s important to them.

How long have you been here?

Have you always wanted to be here?

Is this what you call home?

This past summer, Allentown became a portal into a lifelong fascination of mine; a catalyst key that has rapidly unlocked an intense curiosity I’ve possessed, ever since I was a kid, for unknown, unfamiliar spaces.

Well — I should say, the Allentown that Billy Joel describes:

Well, we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down

In May of 2020, I was helping out my boyfriend Eric with an arduous task. He needed to take a drive down to Maryland in order to intercept a used Hyundai from his mom. I offered to take him, and thus kicked off a six-hour caravan down to Cumberland, a mountain town that rests quietly on the border of Maryland and West Virginia. To get there, we had to cross a large chunk of Pennsylvania through a substantial portion of the Rust Belt. It was a small slice of the country I hadn’t seen before; and admittedly, didn’t know much about, aside from the teeny-tiny bit I could muster up in my memory of AP U.S. History. As we whizzed by dilapidated after dilapidated factory on I-81, I felt my brain start to churn. What the hell happened to these places? Who let this happen? And why do I feel like I remember them somehow?

Cumberland, MD (1906)

The more I gazed intently out the window, the more this familiar sort of nostalgia began creeping into my belly. It’s really difficult to describe the feeling. Perhaps you identify: an almost-longing in my tummy for a place I’ve never seen, a history I’ve never known, likely borne out of an overactive imagination. It was and is a feeling all-too familiar to me, something I’ve known for a long, long time.

I grew up in Colorado Springs, nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. At the mouth of the very suburban neighborhood where I took my first steps, there was an abandoned dairy farm (which has since transformed into a bleak plot of land, packed to the brim with too-close-together condos that look completely out of place, occupied mostly by Californian and Texan transplants). Many long sunny afternoons were spent traipsing down a steep hill to a field, where ruins from a time long before mine were tucked away, protected by palatial ponderosa pine in the shadows of Suessian sandstone shapings. I was always drawn to this property by an unknown source of energy. I wouldn’t call it paranormal, though it did always feel like something ethereal was calling out to me to come explore the wondrous decay of it all. Going to the abandoned dairy farm brought me a sense of inner peace, right in my gut, grounding me in a way that I didn’t feel anywhere else in the world. Not in my bedroom, not at church, not on a playground, not in the woods. It was in this aging, decomposing spot, where real people used to live, that I felt centered and calm and safe. I felt connected to it, like I was aching for a time and place I’d never known but felt I did.

The abandoned dairy farm, pre-fire (courtesy of Lindsay Fenton, Peregrine HOA)

Recently, I’ve come to discover that this undefinable sensation has a name — almost. In many offbeat, online philosophy circles, it is often referred to as anemoia, “a deep feeling of nostalgia for a time one has never known.” But looking further, I discovered that C.S. Lewis championed a German term that also vaguely describes it, sehnsucht, “a yearning, wistful longing.” I also found someone on a Reddit thread who coined the phrase vicarious nostalgia, which seems to sort of fit the bill. Ish.

But whatever this all-encompassing sensation was that I felt, right down to my toes, it brought me peace, and I sought it out, as much as I could. On every quest to the abandoned dairy farm (which was strictly off-limits to trespassers, and probably a no-no in my family to visit solo), I found myself engaging in made-up conversations with imaginary characters who might’ve once lived there. These inventions of dialogue made me feel even closer to the place and time which I had never known or experienced. I don’t know how else to explain it. I felt as though I’d been there before — that I belonged there. With my imaginary friends the dairy farmer, his wife, and their kids, I found kinship and safety and meaning.

The abandoned dairy farm, pre-fire (courtesy of Lindsay Fenton, Peregrine HOA)

Which is probably why I didn’t remember the day the farm was consumed by a fire. I must’ve blocked it out, but I was reminded by my mother that we went to watch it go up in flames. It’s also likely why, years later, I felt like someone had ripped my heart out of my chest when I returned once again to the site and found it had been completely bulldozed over and “revitalized” by overpriced condos that didn’t fit the landscape. I remember saying out loud, “My god, read the room, y’all!” For years, the neighborhood association had held high hopes of wiping out the dairy farm, in order to build these eyesores; so lucky for them that this mysterious fire happened, leaving them free to do just that. It devastated me. It was almost as if someone had torn down my own home, tried to dissolve the identity of a place that I knew so well, even though I didn’t. The story of the dairy farm had come to an end, and nobody seemed to care. But I cared. Though I didn’t know the actual facts or truth behind the buildings on that land (apparently it was owned and operated by the nuns of Mount St. Francis, an abbey which also found a home in my childhood neighborhood), I knew that it was exceedingly likely that someone had lived a life on that property. Toiled, worked, sweat. Felt things. Experienced loss, pain, love, joy, just trying to get by in this complicated life. Life, which is very big and unknown.

And then, it was gone. There was no memorial marker. No photographs. Nothing. Just… condos.

And as I tore across Pennsylvania, passing abandoned factory after abandoned factory, I kept thinking about the dairy farm.

And Billy Joel popped into my head:

Well, we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down

The abandoned dairy farm, pre-fire (courtesy of Lindsay Fenton, Peregrine HOA)

And I felt that same feeling of vicarious nostalgia, of sehnsucht, of anemoia, creep into my stomach. I began to wonder about all the people whose stories echoed behind the walls of these abandoned buildings. I thought about the history, their history. What it meant in the context of the country, the world. Why did it happen the way that it happened? Had people suffered, working in these factories? Were they happy? Did they feel the peace and calm that comes with a life of fulfillment? I wanted to know. I wanted to see it up-close. After all, the world was going into its fourth month of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I wasn’t about to join the masses of people who just couldn’t seem to get enough of their indoor dining experiences or maskless gatherings. No, I wanted to play hardball with this virus, and to do it, I decided to dig into this lifelong fascination and spend as much time as conceivably possible locating abandoned properties, exploring them, documenting them — but then what? Just leave the photos to gather dust and mold, just like the abandoned places I was so interested in capturing? I began to research, and I discovered that many of these haunts had little-to-no published history online about what had happened there, almost as if the stories that reverberated through the walls of these abandoned factories and warehouses and churches and psychiatric hospitals and apartment buildings and quarries and fairgrounds and homes and hotels and inns just didn’t matter to anybody.

Well, they matter to me. The imaginary dairy farmer and his wife and their son mattered to me.

This may not turn out to be anything more than a photologue of past lives, but it is my intention to collect (or invent, depending on my mood) the stories behind these places so that they aren’t forgotten. Stories matter. History matters. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that life is, indeed, precious, just as I’ve always heard. With the world feeling like it’s burning down all around us, I’ve claimed sanctuary in these spaces of the past and reconfigured them in my mind as sacred, holy places. With every passing day, we have witnessed the real-time, rapid ruin of life as we know it. It has sparked a collective trauma that will likely last for the rest of our lives in unimaginable ways.

Hi, I’m Blake.

But in these abandoned spaces, which have already experienced such drudge and decay, there is a feeling of refuge, of safety, of comfort, for they serve as sobering reminders of what is truest and most fundamental to humanity: That life is, indeed, precious, too short, and can disappear in the twitch of an eye with one solvent breath. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit states that “ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life.”

And to me, what we need now is to feel as much life as possible, wherever we can.

Welcome to All-American Ruins.