Our only chance to escape the blight of mechanization, of acting and thinking alike, of the huge machine which society is becoming, is to restore life to all things through the saving and beneficent power of the human imagination.– Clarence John Laughlin
In August of last year, during a freakish storm that hit Baltimore, the building next to the Chicken Castle, a corner restaurant/store at Greenmount and Preston, was struck by lightning and caught fire. The fire quickly spread to other rows on the block. I felt a little sick seeing the smoke and wondering how much was going to be lost. This is a neighborhood that experiences fire on a regular basis, most of it man made. Sadly, the damage done to these rows was extensive, but luckily no one was injured. While Chicken Castle is still recognizable, at the moment, the building it occupies has been condemned. A short time after the fire the sidewalk was roped off because bricks, dislodged by the fire damage, were falling from one of the damaged rows. Over the winter the roof collapsed. Occupying the western edge of the neighborhood of Johnston Square, these buildings will almost certainly be torn down. What will replace them is uncertain.
This neighborhood has been increasingly eyed by developers. There have been some surprisingly good things going on here; a revitalized park, new playgrounds, row homes that were fixed up and made available for low income renters. Such things have only rarely happened in other “revitalized” parts of the city. But, of course, there are also business interests and the large impersonal institutions who play a major role in how this neighborhood evolves and how it will look and feel both aesthetically and in terms of population. Such development is usually a mixed bag. The power dynamic is always one sided. Those with money to invest sometimes present options to those who might be impacted or displaced, but it’s clear who is in control. Too often, this kind of development requires the slow removal of people who have stuck it out in a neighborhood that has experienced some of the worst structurally imposed racism and poverty in America. And, of course, these neighborhoods also lose population to murder, overdose, malnutrition, etc., facts that are usually only given a surface level analysis with little penetration into general consciousness of the deeper problems that got us to this point. It’s also important to point out that, in Baltimore, deconstruction is a big deal, with businesses competing with each other to take buildings down and lobbying for that privilege. Deconstruction outpaces construction (for those who most need it) by a wide margin. Meanwhile the problem of homelessness and inadequate housing continues.
I know I am in a minority when it comes to people who are especially saddened by the imminent loss of buildings like Chicken Castle. I’m sure the sentiment would be laughable to many. These buildings are easily described as dilapidated, well before the fire, and this corner has been the site of a lot of crime over the years. Two years ago a man threw two Molotov cocktails into a nearby home that killed and injured several. For a few days that man was the most wanted in Baltimore, until he turned himself in. He was eventually acquitted for his alleged crime but then, he too, was murdered in violence that may have been related to the firebombing incident. The surface details of these events were relatively well covered by the news. However, most of what happens in this neighborhood, and other parts of Baltimore, are not covered, or covered well, by the news. In July of last year, Anita Cheek, was murdered, allegedly by her partner, who set fire to the vacant row home they were occupying at the time, just a short distance from the Chicken Castle. I only discovered the fact that this occurred by looking at the Baltimore Sun’s “Murder Map,” which I do, from time to time, where there is an all too brief mention of this horrible event.
So, who cares about the buildings!? The demise of any building means nothing next to the loss of human life. But the loss of these buildings, the constant risk to others in this neighborhood, has a connection to the loss of life, both in terms of mortality but also in terms of daily life on these streets; people sitting on steps, kids playing on sidewalks, community. Even when the destruction of a building doesn’t directly involve loss of life, the situation destroys a sense of stability and makes life in these environs even more precarious. The loss of these buildings also links to a general lack of care for these spaces and a lack of imagination over what can be done to keep them and the neighborhoods they occupy whole. Destruction at this level, whether organized or haphazard, reflects a collective choice that follows the typical lines of discrimination based on race and class. A fact that can be learned about through reading and statistics but also viscerally felt by anyone walking through these neighborhoods, as long as you don’t walk too quickly.
Recently I started to watch the BBC series Civilisations with my son. The series starts off with the destruction of Palmyra and the murder of Khaled al-Asaad by ISIS in 2015. Khaled al-Asaad, who was 83, worked to try and save artifacts from the site and was publicly executed for his trouble. After he was killed his body was hung among the ruins (ruins of ruins) with a placard that called him the “director of idolatry.” While Palmyra was extensively destroyed by ISIS, al-Asaad and others were able to save a great number of antiquities (objects that were small enough to be transported or hidden) from destruction.
It may be a colossal leap from a bridge too far to come anywhere close to equating the destruction of Palmyra to the destruction of neighborhoods in Baltimore. But I believe there are parallels between the losses experienced in Baltimore and Buffalo and Oakland and so many cities and towns, even if these places don’t quite carry the thousands of years of history that an ancient city at the junction of three continents might. Of course, given the fact that there is so little record of the native inhabitants who lived in what is now Baltimore, much is left to the imagination when it comes to what it may have been like over the millennia. It’s difficult to have a sense of history when it gets erased for something “better” at regular intervals. But places like Baltimore and Buffalo and Oakland are not ancient remnants, but real living human places and they don’t have to be replaced. It’s not about resistance to change, it’s about taking care of each other and every community, the whole community, not just the ones that are privileged.
The slow accumulation of these losses has had a significant impact that goes beyond a sentimental attachment to old buildings. I feel a sense of loss when these places are destroyed and something generic takes its place. Sometimes something better comes along, but in these long decades of urban renewal and free market development, it is rare. The connection between these places and the space they take up with the people that live, work and walk through them, makes the loss feel much greater. It’s not just erasure of buildings but erasure of people and culture. The disappearance of hand painted signs, or a small business or a style of architecture isn’t just about novelty, but individuality, expressions of individuals, past and present, that are forever lost when they are torn down, burned down or allowed to fall down.
The photographer and writer, Robert Adams, when comparing/contrasting photography and writing wrote:
A still photograph … rarely by itself does justice to complex moral issues, whereas a book of essays might. Essays rarely do justice to a tree, whereas a photograph might.
There aren’t any rules, just the final test of whether a specific piece of writing or picture-making is effective. Assuming that the main challenge of life is to love life — to see it clearly and accept it and be thankful for it — then any activity that helps us to do that is worthwhile, and its form is the right form.
I don’t know if by writing or photography I can effectively convey what I feel is special about a place called Chicken Castle (and other independent ramshackle corner stores like it). There’s the Formstone that isn’t made anymore, the hand painted and mishmashed signage, the metal doorframe. It’s incredibly humble but also unique. It’s the kind of place you can see all over Baltimore and yet it’s also the kind of place that is regularly lost all over Baltimore.
The work of Robert Adams makes me think about trees and old buildings and people, not as numbers but as individuals. Some trees get a lot of attention but most, of course, are humble and unnoticed as individuals, much like old buildings. We don’t necessarily recognize an individual loss but we can see it and feel it when dozens or hundreds are destroyed. Often we don’t feel that sense of loss until years later, when we realize that what once seemed permanent and ubiquitous is all but gone.
When I was a kid, Earth Day was a big deal and one time I received 50 redwood tree seedlings to “grow my own redwood forest” in my yard. Living in the dry foothills of the Sierras, my yard was not at all suited for the growth of these trees. My surroundings were dominated by twisted oaks and scrubby conifers and a beautiful Ponderosa pine in my backyard that I regularly climbed. But I really really wanted those redwoods to grow and so I planted them around the house and watered them daily for weeks. Some were eaten by deer and the rest withered until they were only desiccated sticks in the ground. Of course, even if they did manage to grow, it would take more than my lifetime for them to become a redwood forest, which is something I knew, but not something I wanted to accept. I didn’t learn this right away but I came to learn about the limits of what one person can do to “save the environment.” Planting trees is good, but healing ecosystems is much more complex. It goes beyond the personal responsibility narrative that is so popular because it is so accessible. Progress takes community and civilization, beyond the limits of a single individual. It also involves a generational approach, a passing down of knowledge from one person to the next.
While in elementary school I also learned a little about the civilization of the First Peoples who had once lived all around where me, my family and friends lived. You could see small traces of their presence. Boulders near my house had indentations where acorns were pounded into flour. Finding arrowheads seemed a real possibility, though I never found one. One thing I didn’t understand about the First People’s role in California was their work in maintaining the environment. Controlled burns, sustainable agriculture, settlements that left little impact. As Ursula K. Le Guin describes, “They owned their Valley very lightly, with easy hands. They walked softly here.” Theirs was a way of life that we only know bits and pieces of today. Le Guin’s father A.L. Kroeber worked with Ishi, who was the last survivor of the Yana people. Ishi was actually “found” in my hometown of Oroville in 1911, just a few houses down from where I would live, 70 years later. He was one of the last survivors of the California Genocide. It’s easy to romanticize First Peoples but that’s not what I wish to do here. I only wish to point out that it is impossible to calculate the loss of diversity, whether those losses took place over a century ago or are taking place as I write this text. My minimal connections to the peoples who lived before me relies on these small traces. The fact is I will never be able to know just how much I don’t know about them.
Jane Jacobs wrote extensively about how those in power have chronically undervalued the human ecosystems that exist in cities. Whole neighborhoods have been destroyed in the name of “progress.” Large Robert Moses-style urban renewal projects have been criticized extensively by now, but urban renewal efforts continue under various guises largely because the “intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole” in a city, which Jacobs writes about so convincingly, is still very much underappreciated. There is little effort to even try and understand. Sometimes I wonder if we even lack the capacity to understand what we might be missing. I don’t want to believe that though.
Again, people, buildings and neighborhoods can be dismissed by a quick drive by. So much could be understood, perhaps, by simply having more people on the sidewalk (in cases where there is a sidewalk to walk on), by more border crossings between neighborhoods so that some arbitrary economic, racial, class or political line loses its meaning. We are hemmed in by borders that were drawn out by segregationists and told it’s ok to cross once those neighborhoods have been transformed into something new (the land has been cleared) by the amorphous wealthy corporate interests that are largely responsible for why these neighborhoods have struggled for so many decades to begin with. We need a new approach.
The loss of the Chicken Castle at Greenmount and Preston, does not necessarily amount to much, by itself. It was, after all, damaged by an “act of God.” We can’t immediately put the blame on some neo-urban renewal project with gentrification fonts. But the fact that this loss, and the loss of thousands of other buildings and people, gets so little mention and appreciation, should be troubling. Michelle Alexander describes in The New Jim Crow how slavery and Jim Crow segregation, which seem so obviously evil today, were, of course, normal at the time and that what we struggle with as a society is being able to see the new segregation that exists today when it comes to our justice system and the prison industrial complex. Similarly, I don’t think we realize that what is happening in neighborhoods all over the country, and certainly in Baltimore, is similar to the kind of “land clearing” that existed during frontier times. The construction of the nation’s interstates is a more recent example of the kind of clearing out of African American and other minorities who didn’t have power. Those projects continue, perhaps on a quieter and slower scale, often under the guise of university expansion or biomedical jobs or some other reason that makes it all seem reasonable and good.
It’s hard to get a sense of scale. I feel like I’m always struggling with this and struggling with how best to position myself and my actions to make things better. I struggle with whether that is even possible. But delving into history is an important part of understanding and not just the history we read but the history we observe through walking and interaction. What we read and what we observe complement each other.
Death is always a difficult thing to truly comprehend, but it’s all the more frustrating when those deaths, both of individuals and of cultures, are lost on the scale we can continue to see today in places like Johnston Square in Baltimore and all over the country. And I think that even if we are able to gloss over these things in some way and immerse ourselves in distractions and latch on to knee jerk conclusions as to how we got here, we all lose in the end when we let our neighbors and neighborhoods die because we fail to see their value within some kind of destructive end stage of capitalism. It’s like a kind of collective suicide, when we can’t see value in each other and can’t see each other as individuals. When the fabric of our built environment is purposely or arbitrarily erased, we lose connections and history.
There has been a lot of focus on the fact that Baltimore’s murder rate has surpassed 300 murders over the course of the last few years. In 2019, there were 348 murders as reported by the Baltimore Sun. When I moved to Baltimore in 2002 there were 253. In 2003 there were 270. Those were the official numbers though there was some discussion, at the time, that suggested murder stats might have been altered in order to show a decline in crime in the city. When I moved away and then came back to Baltimore in 2006, the official murder rate was 276.
So, of course, the numbers have gone up and, as the population of the city has decreased, the murder rate itself, per 100,000 people, is also up. However the magic number of 300 seems to be the main focus in most reporting and discussion. Somehow it seems that if the number were 290, it would reflect something better, the status quo. What we had before when things were “normal.” What gets lost in all of this, of course, is the fact that these are individual people who are gone forever and whether the number is 250 a year or 350, it is obscene. The numbers can’t reflect the magnitude of losing Caleb Carter who was 4 years old and Terrance Whiters who was 36 and Anita Cheek who was 52 or Samuel Dietrich who was 30. I didn’t know them but I often wonder if I ever saw them on the street or at the library where I work.
I enjoy the writing of Robert Adams and what he has to show us through photography. But I’ve read enough of his work to also see some blind spots. He’s very critical of cities and even seems afraid of them. It’s always interesting to me when it comes to the dynamic between cities and nature and how important preservation of both these things are since they can complement each other. The density of the city can save natural environments. We can have both. We should have both and both should be managed with care. The seeming chaos of the city can throw off a lot of perception, especially since, at this point in our nation’s history, most Americans have grown up in the spaced out environments of the suburbs. But as chaotic and challenging as cities can be it is important to truly take on that challenge, that foreignness that we might feel, and really look at our surroundings and ask, do we really want to replace everything we see around us in places like Baltimore and Oakland and Cleveland with some homogenized suburban hybrid. Is it ok to allow the erasure and replacement of things where the perception of value is a little more difficult to find, simply because some capitalist construct insists that we keep feeding it and because our own narrow experiences prevent us from fully seeing what is around us?
I certainly have plenty of my own blind spots, one of which could be described as over romanticization of fleeting aesthetics, something I saw described as “contemporary ruin romanticism.” Certainly a truism if there ever was one is that things change. You can’t freeze the built environment in time to suit some kind of mind’s eye view of what you believe should be permanent. But while there is certainly some of that desire going through me at times, I don’t think that is why I wish Chicken Castle and other such places could be saved. These places have already undergone change in the time they have become part of my mind’s eye. What I object to is change that seems arbitrary. Change that is fueled by disregard and a lack of appreciation for what is there, change that does not meet the needs of the community. Preservation should not be about monumentalizing a place like Chicken Castle or turning certain parts of cities into preserves for tourism, gentrification or as a cool place for drinkers to party on weekends. The idea is to recognize individuality in places and people.
Moving to Baltimore was one of the most important events of my life. I came here to help and my help was appreciated but I quickly was made to understand that while my time and strength, and whatever I could give, was valuable, I had a great deal to learn. The people of Baltimore had things to teach me, sometimes directly, sometimes through cues in the environment. The people and built environment here spoke to me enough to make me want to take pictures, which are really just frozen frames taken from longer observations. These observations and the pictures taken from them don’t speak in specifics, but when you are in a place where people, over time, have been able to imprint parts of themselves on the built environment, you can feel the city speaking to you in some way, though the language is only partly translatable or transferable. You can fill in some of the blanks by listening to what the people who live here have to say. Recognize that others have seen and experienced things that you never will and that they are not just there to move over when the land they are on becomes useful to the capitalist construct.
One of my favorite things to observe in some built environments are accommodations made for trees. A modified fence, a hole in a roof or some changing of human construction in order to accommodate another living thing. There is something really beautiful about that. It’s a visual manifestation of care. When people do those things they are demonstrating how important immediate surroundings are, affirming the value of life. That such care often seems an anomaly says so much about how our society too easily focuses on the need to tear things down or let them fall down. How we so often equate people to numbers. There are so many in Baltimore, and elsewhere, who care and are doing good things (big and small, most often small) but it’s easy to miss that when you are just passing through quickly in your car or online.
I’m struggling a bit, as is obvious at this point, with how to tie all of this together. Long-windedness is something I struggle with in writing, like trying to squeeze too much into the frame of a photograph. But what I’m trying to say has something to do with attention to detail and appreciation for people and things (things that show a connection to people) that are chronically underappreciated, even a place as comically named as Chicken Castle. It’s easy to look back at history and see how people are pushed around and dispossessed and to condemn that kind of oppression. It’s harder to see how those workings play out today and, more importantly, how to work against them.
In March, another bolt of lightning struck a building in the Johnston Square neighborhood. This time the victim was the 256 foot tall steeple (the second tallest in Baltimore) of the Urban Bible Fellowship Church. A neighbor alerted me to the fire as it was happening and I could glance out one of my rear windows to see the spire glowing, a nauseatingly beautiful sight. Later I saw the spire partially collapse. Now, months later, it’s jarring to look towards the spire and see it stunted. Even though this old church, one of the most prominent in the city, has a long history, its fate, like that of the Chicken Castle, is unclear. It stands on the wrong side of a divide. Another “act of God” so easily helped along by disinvestment and/or the wrong kinds of investment.
As I try to finish this essay, lightning has struck again in California, causing numerous fires. Fire has swept through parts of the redwood forest, causing extensive damage to Big Basin State Park, the nation’s first effort to try and save the giant redwoods from extinction. While it appears most of the trees, which have evolved to withstand some level of fire, are still standing, the future of these trees and the tiny forest preserves in which they stand is uncertain.
I keep coming back to the thoughts of preservation and the needs of people and I believe very much that it is possible to meet the needs of both and that, in fact, those needs are complimentary. Perhaps even more than complimentary, but almost one in the same. The United States was born with a frontier mentality. Land was for the taking, expansion needed to happen and it needed to happen quickly. The mentality was so extreme that people were murdered and enslaved on a scale rivaling anything else in history. It was a manic mindset. It’s a mindset that has not gone away. Now we are told we have to keep the economy going. It’s not about simply accounting for food, land, housing, healthcare for everyone, but a kind of cult. Politicians say “I believe in the free market” in much the same way a religious figure speaks of a higher power. Like living under a theocracy it has become almost impossible for us to think any other way. Even after the slaughter of First Peoples and the degradation of the land, we are still thinking in terms of “new frontiers” to conquer and exploit even if we don’t call it that (though we often still do, frontier fetishism is as popular as ever). This is very much how swaths of cities are considered. East and west Baltimore are being “discovered” for development as if they were blank slates just waiting around for someone enterprising to come along. We need to be more careful. The poet Pádraig Ó Tuama writes “when have I been the person who, whether I admit it or not, has been out to steal the paradises that keep people alive?” How often have we dismissed the value of people and places for which we have no personal connections or understanding? The fires caused by nature are helped along by the fires of runaway capitalism, over which we claim to have no control.
Scale and time are difficult concepts. We measure them but it’s much harder to feel them. Even by scientific measurement we could do a lot better by thinking in terms of decades and centuries, rather than the so very short term gains that have been the dominant way of life for the central vein of American civilization. We can start by trying to break free from binary ways of thinking when it comes to how we evaluate people, cultures and places. A really good way to do that is to walk around and walk in places where you might think you have no reason to walk. Maybe take a picture or draw or write or just be present and look for value because it is most definitely there and it will be lost when it is lost.
Patrick Joust is a Baltimore based photographer, librarian and occasional pontificator. To see more photos, go to my flickr page. I’m on Instagram and facebook. You can also find a more manageable portfolio on my web page. If you like my Baltimore photographs, check out my wife’s tumblr, Glitter Beneath the Rot, to get her perspective on life in Baltimore City schools.