Rail yards, downtown Providence, circa-late 1960s.
Ruins of the Surface, by Chris Burnett
I recently found some old photographs that reintroduced me to the power of train yards for warping and redefining urban space. I searched for these negatives after some dim recollections occurred to me about my explorations of the yards behind the main passenger train station in Providence, Rhode Island, where I was in a boarding school in the late-1960s. Deeply involved with photography at the time, I knew I must have taken pictures at the yard—the scene had made such a deep impression on me—but they weren’t easy to find. After combing through scores of contact sheets several times, I finally found several strips of very white, ghostly images from drastically over-exposed negatives. As bad as they were, using a copy camera and strong illumination, I was able to “burn through” the dense negatives, digitize, and print them. I offer them with commentary on the way these train yard images have changed my sense of urban space, ultimately leading to a different awareness of ruins.
A school-chum and I entered the yard through a small parking lot on Benefit street that posed a gap between a string of large buildings. The lot would have provided an overlook to the city from this point on College Hill except for the jumble of overgrown trees and bushes on the edge blocking the view. Despite this impasse, we discovered a hole in the overgrowth one day. And, once we slid down the bank behind the trees, all of downtown Providence suddenly opened up to us in an entirely new guise.
It was new and distinct mainly because the yards functioned as an agent for our perceiving the surrounding space in an uncanny way: space seemed to open onto itself. Normal connections, enclosures, prospects, and views were instantly erased and wiped away. Space seemed warped, circular, and in the round. Unlocked, the environment was like going in the back door and letting yourself back in through the front. The meeting of front and back, the usual barriers of embankments, walls, buildings and streets between the Hill and the flat of the city had dissolved. Suddenly we were truly in front of the city but no longer of the city. The yards offered an opening where space interrupted itself and held us out in the open.
The visual elements of this yard-as-opening were conspicuous and easy enough to describe. The sky opened all around as if in a western prairie. Despite the sense of freedom, we definitely remained in the industrial east with the networks of iron rails striating the ground and accentuating the functional design of the space for the movement of industrial trains. The sky and the yards seemed to converge and accentuate a horizon line that was at once defamiliarized and unusual. In the first place, we had never seen the well-known buildings of Providence from such an odd angle before. It was like seeing them from a back alley, and yet the landmark structures appeared even more prominent and vivid than from the frontal approach of the regular avenues of access. In addition to the odd angle, the distance seemed skewed. The downtown buildings appeared alternately close and distant from one moment to another. The ambiguity may be explained by the abrupt contrast between the yards, buildings and sky that eliminated standard points of reference and measure. The buildings seemed like unmoored elements of a stage set floating within an urban projection.
If the staging were intended for a movie or pop fantasy, “Superman” would be written all over it. The tallest, most prominent of the relatively few buildings that made up the Providence skyline was the Industrial Trust Tower (now called the Bank of America Building)—then popularly known as “the Superman building.” According to local myth, this classic, 1920s art deco structure had served as the model for the Daily Planet building in Superman comic books, but that’s probably not true. Still, the building exudes mythic power, and in my photographs it seems bathed in the light of x-rays. The building appears ready to dissolve or blast off like a rocket ship. In whatever fashion, the iron, bricks and windows of the city seemed vibrantly washed in fantasy.
The other major delight was the pure sense of personal access. The train yards provided a short cut where one wanted to be and linger. Objectively, it must have cut the walking time from that point on College Hill to the downtown area by half. The yard-as-passageway literally reconfigured the normal routing of space. If the regular grid of streets could be likened to an electronic circuit board, the yards shorted out the circuit. The pulse of energy zapped diagonally from one node to another across the grid. Moreover, this fresh circuit was personally designed for us: a short cut off the beaten path. We wondered why no one else had ever discovered it.
I’ve been saying “we” all along, and I should say more about the friend who accompanied me on these discoveries. The schoolmate was Jud Smith. I didn’t recall whom I was with until I recognized him sitting in the foreground of one of the train yard pictures. He appears again in the reflection of a building’s shiny façade as we made our way through the city on our return trip home (after emerging from the other side of the train station). A significant point about identifying Jud is the penchant he had for exploring residual, industrial space even in the 60s. I had also taken yearbook pictures of Jud, at his request, at his father’s metalworking mill north of Providence (probably Pawtucket or thereabouts). His romantic investment in these spaces appears similar to the “urban exploration” of today: the investigation of abandoned, off-limit structures, usually involving an experience literal or figurative caves. But, we were only half aware at the time of these industrial spaces as off-limit or residual.
There were also big differences in the character of infiltration of the train yard from contemporary urban exploration. For one thing, it was the overridding openness and outsideness of the experience that set it apart. There were no fences or signs to breach, doors to break in; the portal to the train yards was always open, just overlooked. In contrast to the contemporary urban exploration of dark factory buildings, the yards stood glaringly in the light. In was emphatically an out-of-doors, open-space experience in contrast to the penetration of a forbidden interior labyrinth. Unlike the urban explorers of today, no miner’s cap was needed.
There was an underused train tunnel just at the foot of the embankment where we entered the yard. The mouth of the tunnel exuded a cool, dank atmosphere. But curiously, we had no interest in entering the tunnel, at least on that day. I suppose we fancied ourselves more like hoboes for a day, or even briefer. It’s hard to say objectively how long we were set loose in the adventure: several hours, one hour, fifteen minutes. The disconnection and reconnection of space probably short-circuited the sense of time as well.
To think of the span of forty years between the present and the train yard shortcut certainly opens another time-warp for me. Over these years, the topography of the urban zone surrounding the old train station has changed beyond recognition. The train yards are gone, replaced by the multi-lane Memorial Boulevard following the banks of the reopened Providence River (then covered over with the “world’s widest bridge”). The original train station now boasts a bevy of shops, and, as in many cities, the functioning Amtrak station has been banished to an inconspicuous, out-of-the-way niche. It took many minutes of studying Google maps to get my bearings and to figure out where the train yards originally stood amidst this totally reconfigured downtown area.
Though we had no inkling then of everything the urban planners had in store for downtown Providence, we saw it as a nodal point for change—even if the yards were like the quiet eye in the storm of change. Better yet, it was like the aftermath of a storm that somehow presaged stronger storms yet to come. The space defined what it means to be “residual”: the residue of states and forces left over while the dominant processes of modernization march on and take center stage. Like many residual things existing as anachronisms, the train yards offered an alternative to the normal view and suggested avenues toward both the past and future through its residual status: a clinging or holding onto difference.
Ruins, of course, are how we designate places or buildings that have fallen into the residual realm. But the train yards did not manifest typical ruins despite their residual status. There were no toppled walls, outcroppings of buildings, overgrown traces of architecture. Instead, there were extended perspectives with textured plains, rusted lines, and ways of orchestrating horizontal connections between things. Things didn’t seem to go to ruin there as if submitting to forces of gravity. There were no high places for parts to fall down after their supportive tissues have come undone. In the train yard, environmental pressures abrade things and wear them down in ever-changing patterns of the surface. They are ruins of the surface keenly attuned to modern gestures of the residual.
Faced with such ruins of the surface, one finds even more striking prospects by looking down. It’s curious that despite the panorama described above—the detailed sweep of the yards and the buildings downtown—the features that interest me most at this moment are the memories of what I saw looking down (and didn’t photograph): the rubble, weeds, bits of trash, rusted metals, broken glass, reddish sands, and rotted ties. For ruins of the surface, you need a close-up lens and archaeologist’s copy stand for documenting digs. Patterns of the infinitesimal tell the story, but larger configurations of scale may be even more revealing. Because all scales of magnitude are relative concerning surfaces, distance can be slippery. One can imagine even conventional ruins appearing as rubble from the distant view of an airplane. Turned the other way around, the yards offered textures as a microcosm and taxonomy of urban forms and their fate. The beaten surfaces could appear like the rubble of war-torn Europe from a WWII aerial reconnaissance mission.
But the steady friction of trains was the agent of destruction here, not bombing. The yards brought the past to light through an opening rather than a digging, enabling one to see the surface. One’s perspective is deepened by developing a keener awareness of surface qualities and features as complexly coded and time-bound inscriptions. Nothing was brought to the surface, yet the abrasions of time revealed the surface itself as ruin.
Questions about surfaces and ruins persist that I would like to pursue in a series of continuing articles: What are other ruins of this kind, and what do we call them? What different approaches do we use? As with conventional ruins, do we demolish them? Allow them to continue to decay? Patch or restore them for tourists? Comment and write on them with graffiti or poetry? If such ruins offer an environmental kind of writing surface, how does that writing compare with either archaic, archaeological scripts or transient forms of inscriptions in our information society? Whatever else we do with this special category of ruin, I’ll start by calling them a ‘ruins of the surface’ with the postulate that they hold a persistent relationship to future modes of transportation and travel, especially trains. If ruins are a way of seeing, even writing, then ruins of the surface provide a way of seeing-reading new openings and movements in the urban landscape.
Since the mid-1980′s, Chris Burnett has used hypermedia, virtual reality environments, net art, and generative literature in conjunction with artists’ book to question how we actively use language and text in the landscape and space. Recently his work has focused on sprawl, as much an existential condition of language as a messy form of land-use. He is also interested in myths and images of the road as they impact our sense of text in the world as a dynamic phenomenon of encounter, travel, and motion. He has recently published a bookwork, SprawCode: Descriptions, and is co-editing an anthology on the impact of imaging on new directions in visual literature. He was formerly director of the Visual Studies Workshop from 2001 to 2007 and, is currently chair of the art department at the University of Toledo.