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.
1 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.