Linda Grashoff's Photography Adventures

Ambivalence in Downtown New London


April 11, 2021

This is the most difficult blog post I have ever created. How can I present the photos I took last Saturday with fairness to the subjects and to my own visual interests? I’ve tried but may not have succeeded.

Seeking a somewhat unfamiliar built environment, I drove last Saturday to New London, Ohio, a small town (population 2,461 according to the 2010 census) about 23 miles southwest of Oberlin. Usually I delight in finding buildings and objects that have seen wear and tear, even ruin. There can be beauty in the resulting textures and colorations. There can be humor in “improvements” to period architecture. Degraded environments can inspire romantic imaginings of how they were before degradation settled in. But finding dilapidation last Saturday soon became too easy. Maybe it was just my mood that day, but instead of feeling happy that I had found interesting deterioration, I felt increasingly sad to have found it in such abundance. I know New London is not alone in having fallen on hard times. Small towns all over the U.S., but perhaps most in the Northeast and Midwest, are in trouble—from poverty, unemployment, opioid addiction, intimate-partner violence, dwindling populations, or other factors. Some hope has been reported, on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and elsewhere, that increased working from home may give new life to some small towns, but I doubt New London will be among them. A recent Wall Street Journal article cited other reasons some people have moved to small towns. Might New London look forward to home-grown children returning?

If you view the photos in this post with ambivalence, know that that is how they were photographed. I don’t mean to be judgemental about the town, and I hope the citizens of New London aren’t as sad as I was when I took the photos.

UPDATE:  In the Comments section, Joseph Smith calls attention to a blog relevant to this post. Created by Vincent D. Johnson, it’s called Lost Americana: The Abandoning of Rural America.

Many of the building in this town are built of brick, most red, some red painted white, and some yellow.

2 The previous photo explains the diagonal line in this one. These are two halves of the same wall.

3 Detail of #2.

4 New London seems to regard this church tower as emblematic of the village. Its image is on the home page of the village website.

5 This window is a lasting attractive feature of a once-totally-stunning Victorian mansion.

6 Down the street a couple of blocks another window grabbed my interest but increased my sadness.

7 The mansion, its front steps crumbling and other details deteriorating, has been converted into apartments.

8 The second-story facade of a Main Street building features a beautifully preserved carved-stone or ceramic medallion with the building’s completion date. Other elements of the facade have not fared as well.

9 As along downtown streets all over the U.S., the buildings’ first floors bear little resemblance to upper floors.

10 Off Main Street, many buildings looked uninhabited but might still house going concerns.

11 Not to get too far into the weeds here, but this is the sign in front of the building depicted in the previous photograph. Neither URL listed yields a true hit, but “C.E. Ward” does. Going further down associated rabbit holes took me to the New London Area Historical Society. (You don’t need a Facebook account to access the site.) If you look carefully at the top photo on the society’s home page, you may recognise the buildings in #8. Perhaps a visit to the historical society would answer many of the questions New London’s derelict buildings raised in my mind. One of the things I want to know is what brought New London its initial wealth. I owe the village a trip back.

12 This building is now home to the North Pointe Depot self-storage company. I can’t help but wonder what occupied the building in 1881.

13 Surely this building started out as the corner bank.

14 The historical society must know what this Art Deco 1930s-era building, with its rounded corners and glass-block windows, originally housed. I wonder how its original door looked. What a pity that its other windows have been filled in with concrete blocks and an air conditioner.

15 Like the grain elevators in many small farming towns, New London’s have turned to ruins.

16 I’m not sure what the structure between the silos is. It could be a hopper, or it could be something to dry grain or to remove grain dust. Maybe one of you knows?

17 The perforated side walls of the structure have taken on lovely colors from rust and algae.

18 Corrugated steel and ladders are two of my favorite things to photograph. Why ladders? I can’t remember how that started.

19 I found a long one a short distance away from the grain elevator.

20 The grain elevator was steps away from the (still-used) railroad tracks. So was an old tile factory. There must be a train station near here, I mused and almost immediately noticed this building, right next to the grain elevator. (Why do so many old train stations have board and batten siding? That was the clue.)

21 Moving around to the street side, it was obvious that this building had been renovated.

22 Continuing to circle the building, I found another clue. Now I was quite sure this was an old train station.

23 And now it made sense that this old box car was put to rest right here, next to the station.

24 If I had my ambivalences about New London, New London seems to have its own ambivalences about itself: Welcome; now go away?

25 One of my last shots before leaving New London found a friendlier and more hopeful note affixed to one of the Easter-themed erstwhile planters that dotted the downtown New London streets.

26 responses

  1. I love those first shots Linda. I recognise how you feel about the place but clicking on one or two of your links makes for some very interesting reading about the moves people are making at this time of difficulty with COVID – an element of positivity.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 11, 2021 at 4:19 AM

    • Thanks, Alastair. I added many more links than usual. Glad you clicked on some of them and found them interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 11, 2021 at 10:58 AM

  2. Interesting pics.
    I remember a ceramic object called Abandoned House which I created some years ago.
    Greetings
    Gerhard

    Liked by 1 person

    April 11, 2021 at 5:27 AM

  3. In 2016, after a visit to Chicago, we passed through Gary, Indiana, and were affected by how run-down, dilapidated, shabby, depressing the town looked.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 11, 2021 at 8:09 AM

    • Not to mention the odor of the oil refineries there, right? I’ve only driven past Gary on the freeway to and from Chicago. There’s probably a lot of photographic opportunity there, but also sadness—like in New London.

      Like

      April 11, 2021 at 11:09 AM

  4. Joseph Smith

    I think finding 1 or 2 decaying buildings can be a nice find and generate some artistic energy but finding it everywhere, well, I can see how it would be more depressing and deflating.
    Not sure if you’ve found Vincent Johnson’s blog Lost Americana. He travels much of the midwest documenting towns like your New London, towns that have been pretty much abandoned from lost factories, farms and of course, youth. You can find it here: https://www.lostamericana.com. He does a state-by-state listing also.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 11, 2021 at 11:57 AM

    • Thank you for writing, Joe, and putting me on to Vincent Johnson’s Lost Americana. I was not aware of his beautiful and ambitious work.

      Like

      April 11, 2021 at 1:11 PM

  5. Fine series, Linda. Always a tendency towards the abstract.. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    April 12, 2021 at 3:01 AM

    • Thanks, Harrie. You’re right: I do enjoy abstracting. For me, it’s a way to appreciate the materiality of things.

      Like

      April 12, 2021 at 8:05 AM

  6. I wouldn’t beat yourself up here, Linda, I don’t think your photos are in any way judgmental , you’ve simply photographed what you’ve seen – which is what we all do. This is a great series – my favourites are 24 (wonderful!!!), and 3, 6, 16 and 17. Just LOVE “No loitering”!!! But maybe I’d just have to stick around awhiles to really enjoy the full ambience of that ….. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    April 12, 2021 at 9:41 AM

    • Thanks for your vote of acceptance, Adrian. I’m glad you found #24 as amusing (or as distressing?) as I did. As for your other favorites, I see that you prefer the abstracts. When I decided to go to New London, I thought most of my photographs would be abstracts, but the documentary story in my head just got louder and louder the longer I stayed in the town.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 12, 2021 at 3:02 PM

  7. Beautiful photos and I can understand your ambivalence. While we love rust and decay and traces of times past, there is perhaps a limit. At x % of beautiful decay we start suffocating, and focus shifts from the details that our eyes see, to the bigger picture that our minds perceive, question, dream or fear. Your post is food for thought, on the future of rural areas. This is a problem also here in Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 12, 2021 at 9:57 AM

    • Yes, you understand about that focus shift, Gunilla. That’s exactly how it happened. I’m sorry to know that Europe is having small-town problems, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 12, 2021 at 3:08 PM

  8. Leslie Organ

    Linda love, Your a mixed response to this fading town was touching as well as aesthetic. I think the simple fact is that we are truly part of the privileged sector of our society and for the past year we have been cocooned within that. As we emerge we are doubly stricken by the signs of loss and poverty which is around us at a slight distance. I derive some solace from the fact that Biden is aware of this divide and trying to address it. And I’m trying to do the same with the large check he sent me.

    Love to you and your gentle caring heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 13, 2021 at 7:30 AM

    • Thank you, Leslie. I think you may be right about the cocooning having cut me (us) off from the reality beyond my (our) immediate surroundings. In a way, it was a good thing to have felt so distressed at what I saw in New London. It’s good to see things as they are; proper action may be likely as a consequence.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 13, 2021 at 8:36 AM

  9. I am not sure I would have read ambivalence into these photographs had you not expressed it in your introduction. Sometimes a person’s intent does carry into their work and I saw this more as an experience of what has been ongoing in the U.S. and elsewhere for years and full of concern and caring but not ambivalence. One can chalk it up to change, which is constant, but it also speaks to what apparently matters more to the haves in this county…more. Take as much as you can from a place and then move on to where costs are lower and profits higher. So far in human history I don’t think an economic model has yet been created that takes the welfare of all people into consideration. There may be ideals at the beginning but they disappear quickly as greed and lust for power overtake other concerns.
    The irony in your image number 24 is telling.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 17, 2021 at 5:13 AM

    • I have to agree with you, Steve. I have to wonder what today’s young people think of income disparity and the like. Do they think it’s all right? Are they even aware of it? For that matter, I wonder what my fellow geezers think of these things. They are the ones, I think, who let it happen. Did they know what they were doing? Or does power and wealth simply accrue to the powerful and wealthy, and nothing and no one can right these wrongs? We were able to put the breaks on the Gilded Age, but see how long those reforms have lasted.

      Liked by 1 person

      April 17, 2021 at 9:23 PM

      • Some of generations to come will say the same about the current generation in power, and those who put them in power, that greed rules. Sadly it has been the case throughout our history and appears to be the root of our downfall as a species in the future. Every malady we face wins because those who can make a difference through the power they wield give in to the forces that complain about the expense. Currently we are seeing some corporate responsibility to voter suppression but experience has shown us that it will resist only as long as their bottom line is not harmed.

        Liked by 2 people

        April 18, 2021 at 3:32 AM

  10. We are working out way through The Great Courses History of the United States. I am struck by the recurrence of many of the same social and economic issues in our history reflected forward to the present. We took a day trip along the old National Road a couple of weeks ago and saw the same kind of degradation there…the prosperity that developed along the National Road, transferred to the commerce along U.S.Rt. 40, then all of it bypassed by Interstate 70. You can see all three from most locations along any one of them.

    Lots of interesting photographs, Linda. The craftsmanship shown in #5 is one reason I like to look for historic structures; you don’t often see those details in modern buildings. Your comment on #24 left me laughing; I have seen that combination so many times that I never considered the contradiction. I have always been amused by businesses trying add a little cachet to an ordinary place with some exotic spelling as in North Pointe Depot. This is quite common in rural areas. Tonight I looked up “pointe” to see how it has come into such common usage in this way. I still don’t know because the only definition I found was: “a ballet position in which the body is balanced on the extreme tip of the toes”.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 18, 2021 at 10:58 PM

    • The whole name of North Pointe Depot seems a bit la-dee-dah for a self-storage facility, IMHO.

      I’m sorry, but certainly not surprised, that you have found in your recent travels what I found in New London, Mic. I just finished reading Homeland Elegies, a 2020 novel by Ayad Akhtar. In it, one of the characters makes this comment, referring to the situation in Wisconsin: “Look, you drive around the back roads through most of this state . . . —the poverty out there is real. Houses are falling apart. Roads. Towns. People aren’t taking care of their things, their yards. Not taking care of themselves. Nothing’s cared for anymore. And it’s not just that folks don’t have the money to do it. They haven’t had that for thirty years, but now they don’t even have the will to make a show of it. When you lose that? We’re talking about a different order of despair. . . .”

      Liked by 1 person

      April 22, 2021 at 8:08 PM

      • That is a pretty accurate description of many, but not all, parts of rural America. I think it is about more than money. It is about the urban/rural divide, about dignity and self-worth, about the changing nature of work, about alcohol and cheap addictive drugs, and a lot of other things. It’s complicated, and discouraging to see it anywhere, but especially in our own country and state.

        Liked by 1 person

        April 23, 2021 at 10:31 PM

  11. I have to return to this when I have more time. I understand the ambivalence about photographing places that have fallen on hard times. I see it in #2, 6, 7, 15, 20 and others. Some, like #4 and 18, are just plain beautiful. It’s tough to look at so much evidence of loss and to be reminded of many similar towns I’ve seen. I hope you don’t let that stop you though.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 23, 2021 at 12:38 PM

    • I doubt very much that seeing and thinking about towns like New London will stop me from photographing wabi-sabi aspects of the built environment. But I might feel a little sadder while I do it.

      Like

      April 24, 2021 at 9:31 PM

  12. In #9 you illustrate a point that I’ve noticed time and again but never would have thought to show this way. I keep coming back to #17 for its utter beauty. And #20 has a real poignance…the Victorian mansion and the old church building are classics of their type and I suppose one has to be grateful they weren’t torn down!
    I like Adrain’s comment and your reply, also Gunilla’s comment. Leslie’s comment is very nice, very thoughtful. Steve mentions the lack of an economic model that treats everyone fairly and I’d have to add, one that respects the earth, too – that would be a good change! But maybe it will come. That would be better than simply “a different order of despair.” Congratulations on producing such a thought-provoking post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    April 23, 2021 at 9:23 PM

It's a pleasure to read your comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.