Bigge is the author of A Very Lonely Planet (Arsenal
He lives in Toronto.
In a culture of slick overabundance,
is decay an antidote or yet another lifestyle footnote? From indie
art to the grocery store, Ryan Bigge urges us to pause and reconsider
our perpetually crumbling world.
Decay: To pass gradually from
a sound, prosperous, or perfect state, to one of imperfection,
adversity, or dissolution. - Webster's Dictionary
It was definitely the dead birds. Entombed in netting that hung
from the ceiling of Knob Hill Farms -- a Toronto-based discount
food emporium and Costco forerunner -- the symbolism was blunt.
Once spotted, the dangling sparrows were impossible to ignore.
Things at eye-level weren't much
better. Stray cats wandered the aisles. The scuffs and scrapes
on the abattoir-inspired, concrete floor acted as tree rings,
denoting years of accumulated erosion. A decrepit freezer was
filled with concentrated juice tins, erratically splayed as if
raccoons, not humans, had sifted through them. The store was gray,
dull and poorly lit.
A disgruntled employee provided
a behind-the-scenes tour that doubled as an autopsy. Fire exits
chained tight. Leaky roof. A spartan, malodorous lunchroom with
a boarded-up shower. A malfunctioning butcher counter meant ice,
not refrigeration coils, kept meats from spoiling.
During the 1980s, all ten Knob
Hill Farms were profitable. The floors were polished and shiny.
The employees smiled. Check-out lineups were long. Frugal customers
willingly overlooked the limited brand selection and warehouse
The 1990s were less kind. Knob
Hill Farms founder Steve Stavro stopped putting money into store
upkeep and infrastructure, focusing instead on his NHL franchise,
the Toronto Maple Leafs. The recession lifted, brands became seemingly
omnipotent, and Knob Hill Farms went from pioneer to anomaly.
In the summer of 2000, Stavro delivered a terse press-release/eulogy
for the 47-year-old chain, and all 10 Knob Hill Farms closed by
November of that year.
In February of 2001, the Knob
Hill Farms located at Landsdowne and Dundas auctioned off its
remnants, including meat saws and deli slicers. The site remains
undeveloped, the store an empty mausoleum. But the charms and
rituals of this particular location have been preserved in Eroded
Margin (www.biggeworld.com), a recently published bookwork
collaboration between photographer Greg White and graphic designer
Patricio Davila. Eroded Margin documents the final few
weeks of the once famous chain, a photo essay that juxtaposes
a decrepit store with its still proud employees doing their best
to maintain appearances.
Given the triumph of consumer
culture, with its slick overabundance and aspirational offerings,
the crumbling palace of Knob Hill Farms was more than an anomaly
- it was heretical. But after experiencing the thousandth iteration
of neon-drenched, big-box retail there was something appealing,
even refreshing, about a supermarket gone so obviously askew.
Knob Hill Farms had become the underdog, its innovations transformed
into alluring idiosyncrasies that, sadly, foretold its inevitable
In cities such as Toronto and
San Francisco, the past five years of bull market have bequeathed
rapid and intensive construction in long-neglected urban cores.
Current notions of progress are now dominated by impatience. Suddenly,
sick buildings are no longer being given the opportunity to catch
their breath - let alone wheeze. Instead, the new is recycling
the old ever faster, like a film on fast-forward. The luxury of
watching a building slowly fade away is exactly that.
Paradoxically, the inexplicable
beauty of decline is most appreciated in absentia. Only
when the last great old movie house with faded velvet seats and
a thick red ripped curtain disappears is the loss mourned. Only
when the dodgy saloon with cheap draft is converted into an upscale
jazz bar do regulars realize how great things really were.
Decay has spent most of its long but ignored history on the dismal
periphery. In the past few years, however, urban decay has experienced
a modest reexamination. Decay has become the aesthetic adhesive
uniting a disparate group of writers, artists, photographers,
musicians and their respective communities. Decline and decadence
have provoked an ongoing, interpretative dialogue with the past.
The emerging problem is that decay
serves no apparent function in consumer culture. Beyond invoking
nostalgia for an idealized past that may or may not have existed,
decay's mini-renaissance centers around a number of complicated
contradictions. As the opportunities for those that wish only
to experience and enjoy decay vanish, the ability to purchase
faux decay increases.
Thankfully, it's not too late
to stop and consider the commodification of fissures, patina and
rust. Decay is becoming an unspoken assumption that requires articulation
if some of the limitations of consumer culture are to be addressed.
Decay even possesses ideological and philosophical potential,
a movement deriving intellectual vigor from its rejection of the
thin, plastic, disposable sheen of modern design.
A Brief History of Decay
The phenomenon of decay runs like
an abandoned logging road through the wilderness of cultural criticism.
But its patchy, pockmarked history is required to understand the
putrefying past. This ruined road leads back to Rome, according
to Wolfdietrich Rasch, whose essay Literary Decadence: Artistic
Representations of Decay provides a tidy primer on how attitudes
toward disintegration have evolved. According to Rasch, the collapse
of the Roman Empire generated one central historical certainty:
"Nothing that exists, whether natural growth or human creations
such as institutions and states, will last forever; everything
is doomed to oblivion."
Today it is common to find the
inevitable decomposition of the most powerful empire poetic, even
glamorous. But even during the Renaissance, artists found beauty
only in Rome's pinnacle -- its decadent latter years were ignored
or pitied. It was not until the 18th, and especially the 19th
century that decline became artistically appealing and -- more
importantly -- no longer the exclusive purview of the Roman Empire.
Poet Charles Baudelaire successfully
legitimized decadence as a topic, forever erasing its connotations
as a pejorative term for second-rate literature. His 1857 collection
of poems Flowers of Evil catalogues the various permutations
of decay. In his poem "The Ragpicker's Wine" Baudelaire
describes the City of Lights as, "The jumbled vomit of enourmous
Paris." In "A Carrion" a dead mule inspires Baudelaire
to inform his mistress that eventually, "[a] worm shall kiss
your proud estate." Finally, in "Joyful Death"
O worms! Dark neighbours without
eyes or ears,
Behold a free and joyful corpse appear;
Calm revelers, the offspring of decay
The result, according to Rasch,
was that decay and downfall now had the same validity as "rude,
aspiring life and are just as worthy as classical subjects of
a place in poetry and literature." Not that acceptance of
decay was immediate, nor welcomed. Baudelaire's affirmative representations
of decay provoked hostility. To acknowledge decline is to reflect
and contemplate one's inevitable mortality, transience and fragility.
Baudelaire's carefully constructed odes to dissolution irritated
-- or were rejected outright.
* * * * * * *
* * *
"The ideas that ruins awaken
in me are grand." - Denis Diderot
Until the Renaissance, debris
was used in subsequent building or reburied if considered too
sacred to recycle. Today ancient architecture is preserved, acting
as a historical anchor and contributing much-needed texture to
cities. Ruins connote loss while at the same time offering a connection
to what once was but is no more. Ruins signify the impact of history
on the living.
It was during the Renaissance
that collapsed remains became understood as something separate
from mere dilapidation. As Claire Lyons notes in the art and archeology
book Irresistible Decay, "Constituted by memory and
distance, ruins are proxies for a past that is continually reinvented
by the present." Without ruins, we risk losing a gradually
disintegrating past, like a glacier melting into a thousand lakes.
Irresistible Decay and Baudelaire present decay as a decadent
luxury to be embraced, but only describe reactions and responses
to decay. It was the Japanese who first embraced decay -- in the
15th century -- a few hundred years before the West, in the form
of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi emerged from tea ceremony traditions --
what began as aesthetic guidelines morphed slowly into philosophy.
Under wabi-sabi, decay became a comprehensive aesthetic system
and veritable state of mind.
Wabi-sabi is a kind of zen state
that must be reached slowly over time, best translated as "the
beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."
Metaphysically, wabi-sabi suggests that "Things are either
devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness." What does
this mean? According Wabi-Sabi author Leonard Koren, "wabi-sabi
needs to maintain its mysterious and elusive -- hard to define
-- qualities because ineffability is part of its specialness."
Despite this obscurantism, a careful
study of wabi-sabi reveals that it is organic (not geometric),
corrosion and contamination make its expression richer (rather
than purity), and it romanticizes nature (instead of trying to
control it). Wabi-sabi also accommodates degradation and attrition
(rather than requiring constant maintenance) and it is comfortable
with ambiguity (rather than requiring a how-to explication). Wabi-sabi
is, in essence, a philosophy that contradicts the current notions
of modernity. As Koren puts it, "Things wabi-sabi have no
need for the reassurance of status or the validation of market
culture." North Americans learn to replace their possessions
to maintain their status, while wabi-sabi acolytes retain and
proudly display decay in all its guises.
"Decay is inherent in all conditioned things. Strive diligently!"
- Maha Parinibbana Sutta
Despite the grand philosophical
trappings of wabi-sabi and the romance of ruins, decay is often
more enjoyable in theory than in practice. Many artists and young
city dwellers endure the viscera of decay -- rot, thrift store
odor, sun-bleached curls of paint on wind-weathered wood -- out
of economic necessity. Those in the midst of decay are more concerned
with the pragmatic necessity of imposing order upon their disheveled
There is beauty in decay, but
finding it requires effort. Ottawa zinester Jeff Otaku describes
an extended sojourn in Montreal in issue #6 of Ghost Pine
(see excerpt this issue) as a negotiation between the glorious
past (Expo 67) and grim present ("the crumbling Stade Olympique.")
For Otaku the future isn't that bright: "Avenue De L'Eglise
fared little better than its eponym though it remained the main
artery of Verdun, a neighborhood with a rich history which decayed
appropriately. An old man posted his open letter on telephone
poles, lamenting days gone by when it was blue collar and both
French and English took pride in the neighborhood."
It's worth noting the economic
exodus that occurred in Montreal during the 70s and 80s which
made such decay possible. Often, the emergence and erasure of
decay is inextricably linked to the financial fortunes of a city.
As an urban tourist, Otaku is
well suited to detail this decline. His writing effuses the low-key
charm of a punk rock flaneur, as he describes the dark days leading
up to the new millennium, in a city that flinches in anticipation
of destruction, not renewal.
It isn't coincidence that the
first portal into contemporary decay comes by way of a zine. The
wabi-sabi philosophy believes that greatness exists in the inconspicuous
and overlooked details, and nothing could be more fundamental
to the zine enterprise. Zines imbue people, places and objects
that appear to lack mainstream appeal with cultural capital. As
Koren notes, "Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden,
the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent
they are invisible to vulgar eyes." The overlooked is the
spiritual fiber that links Poodle (a zine celebrating five-pin
bowling) with Wi'ndbaegs (a zine photo-album that documents
old plastic bags caught in tree branches). Decay and independent
culture are old friends, a realm where necessity and nostalgia
* * * * * * *
* * *
While Otaku lives entirely in
the rotting -- but oh so immediate -- present, Ontario comic artist
Seth (who lacks a last name) searches to find a similar urgency
in the withered past, as chronicled in the 1996 picture novella
It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. After wandering
through the deserted streets of Toronto at night, the illustrated
version of Seth comments to his friend Chet, "There's something
in the decay of old things that provokes an evocative sadness
for the vanished past."
Seth savors this visual corruption,
preferring a dilapidated old farmhouse to a pristine deco hotel
lobby, since only the latter "convince(s) you of the reality
or the beauty of yesterday." He isn't content to simply pine
away for an imagined past, however. In the next panel Seth yanks
the reader out of his reverie by noting, "I'd hate to think
that my belief in the superiority of the past was really just
a misplaced, over-rationalized aesthetic choice."
In the next panel Seth backpedals.
"No, forget I said that. Things are obviously getting worse
every year." What the solipsistic Seth omits is a confession
that his affinity for old forms and reactionary attitudes toward
the present are generally associated with grumpy old conservatives,
not moody young hipsters. The only way Seth is able to critique
the continual, ceaseless progress of the modern world is by projecting
his hopes and dreams onto a tidy, controllable, simplified version
of the recent past.
Meanwhile, Toronto artist Dan
Kennedy has built a career upon avoiding such tidy narratives
of nostalgia. Like Seth, Kennedy has an incredible fondness for
shiny pop iconography and referents of the early to mid-20th century,
but he expresses this fondness through decayed color, texture
and typography. His 2000 painting Trick (#10) is a typical
example of nostalgia nuzzling ambiguity. Dark, bleeding, rust
browns dominate his palette, as Kennedy mixes pencil sketches
of a braying donkey à la Disney with carnival signage
to create a dense collage. In the center of the painting is a
bearded, smiling, grizzled prospector, his eyes hidden, framed
in an oval.
Struggling to emerge from the
layers of smudged paint is what Kennedy calls "the commercial
unconscious." His characters are immediately recognizable
as pre-60s era Disney creations, and his signage evokes the clean
lines of the 1950s. Most people viewing his work prove their incubation
in consumer culture by their ability to immediate identify his
sensibility. It reinforces a kind of legislated nostalgia enforced
through television, movies, magazines and advertising of the era.
Kennedy refuses to create a unified
whole, in the process proving how difficult it is to integrate
the past and the present. Clearly, the past lies as much in the
realm of imagination as it does memory. In seeking an artistic
niche to inhabit, both Seth and Dan Kennedy refract their philosophies
through a rear-view mirror, gazing at an unrecoverable past. Seth
simply rejects the present, while Kennedy refuses to impose an
order upon the shards and images that compose his delirious consumer
Other artists challenge the lifestyle
orgy through dirty realism -- a narrative of reduced expectations.
Brothers Clint and Scott Griffin engage decay not as a topic,
but as basic substrate and canvas, approaching the aesthetic of
decay in similar ways through divergent mediums. For Scott, rusted
sheet metal with uneven surfaces is where he welds and etches
tiny, struggling objects onto bleak, minimal landscapes. Clint
rescues discarded photos from dumpsters for his collages. He often
erases and removes portions of these photos, creating through
subtraction. The use of such unstable canvases -- untreated metal,
old wood -- means these works will change and mutate over time,
reflecting the ideals of wabi-sabi.
Decay art asserts itself most
vigorously by denouncing the new. As the ability to digitally
reproduce art and imagery continues to improve, some artists have
decided to favor mediums that limit their ability to represent
reality. Short films shot on grainy Kodachrome Super 8 instead
of DV, lo-fi albums recorded on four-track recorders instead of
* * * * * * *
In the often clean, clinical world
of industrial design, decay is suddenly trendy. But can the production
of brand new decay withstand the weight of contradiction? Is this
decay -- or something else? Droog Design, a loose organization
of designers and design philosophers based in Holland, create
mass-produced products with intentional imperfections: lamps from
milk bottles, chairs with holes drilled in them. In 1998, Hella
Jongerius created Slightly-Damaged Dinner Service. By firing porcelain
at too high a temperature, she uniquely deformed each plate. It
created, according to her bio, "a wobbly pile of serially-produced
one-offs: plates with a soul."
This search for soul is an expression
of desire for authenticity in a culture that is often anything
but. Old buildings, old signage, old neighborhoods aren't created
but instead evolve or are accrued creations. So what happens when
this process is leapfrogged?
Cultural critics have prepared
for such an eventuality. Daniel Harris argues in Cute, Quaint,
Hungry and Romantic that these "scarification rituals"
are a method of "registering a complaint against the tyranny
of the new." Unfortunately, the artificial irregularities
of Slightly-Damaged Dinner Service have lead to interior decorators
who " 'distress' exposed beams with motor oil and drill bits
to counterfeit smudges of soot and the ravages of woodworm."
For Harris, quaintness is most often concerned with the illusion
of imperfection that scratches, chips, and cracks provide.
Most faux decay is merely a reaction
against overly perfect products, its purpose undercut by its need
to define itself against the dominant cultural aesthetic, rather
than to define itself outside the circle of consumption. Droog
is an interesting design philosophy if only because it forces
one to reconsider what is beautiful. Unfortunately, Droog's influence
seems limited. Meanwhile, Restoration Hardware has emerged to
satiate the need to reference the past, to buy 'brand new' rusty
hinges and drawer knobs. It is a protected life enjoyed inside
a weathered Sears-Roebuck catalogue.
This is not the decay of indie
culture -- a longing for a (mythical) past and an attempt to convey
a seemingly perpetually decaying future. It is more like the decadent
decay of Baudelaire, whose poems leave one craving the corrupt
beauty of disintegration, wishing the gravitas reserved for the
dying and dead could be attained through a simple shopping list.
Faux decay acknowledges that a culture that cheats death through
botox injections, plastic surgery and anti-aging salves does not
wish to be reminded of its own creeping physical decline.
Faux decay also speaks to the
fact that the opportunities to experience decay are becoming rarer.
Building materials such as wood and brick and paint -- now nearly
invincible thanks to pressure-treating and chemicals -- once experienced
discrete phases in their lifecycles. Modern objects are either
new, or necessitate replacement. Plastic doesn't decompose or
disintegrate, while bricks, wood and paint often grow old gracefully
and harmonize with their environments.
Scattered throughout Toronto are
fading painted advertisements for companies and products now considered
irrelevant. Often the paint has chipped to the point where the
brick pokes through. The effect is completely different from its
original intent as advertisement. Homage to its own transience,
the transgression of these consumer inducements makes them even
more fascinating. Today, shiny, impermanent logos are replaced
as soon as they show signs of wear. It is rare to be allowed to
contemplate a decaying advertisement.
The Eternally Yours Foundation,
based in the Netherlands, is a group of designers that are investigating
and attempting to reverse the planned obsolescence of consumer
goods. Ed Van Hinte, the Foundation spokesman, asks, "Why
is it that affluence is expressed in discarding behaviour?"
Van Hinte wants to elongate the cultural lifespan of consumer
durables (what Eternally Yours calls product endurance) and break
the cycle of product renewal. Most pertinently, they investigate
how people perceive and value wear in surfaces and materials by
studying the aging properties of plastics and the feasibility
of reusing and recycling old machinery and consumer durables.
Droog, in a less overt manner, confronts these issues. Instead
of creating perfect products whose shiny skeins are ruined by
a lone scratch, the malformed plates and pottery of Droog are
better able to absorb the frictions of daily use.
Eternally Yours acknowledges that
consumption patterns can't be reversed, but there is no reason
they can't be radically slowed and reconsidered. While not everyone
yearns to return to the industrial vestiges of the past, many
would enjoy a society where decay isn't yet another pre-packaged,
Gentrification and Political
Life in the city means thinking
about city life. In Hollow City: Gentrification and the Eviction
of Urban Culture, co-author Rebecca Solnit argues, "In
times of tyranny, the citizens talk of democracy and justice;
in our time we talk of public space, architecture, housing, urban
design, cultural geography, community and landscape -- which suggests
that the current crises are located in location itself."
Working from the Solnit assumption,
art about decay is an examination of personal geography. So it's
reasonable to assume that the aesthetic of contemporary decay
finds inspiration in location. The city is inextricably linked
with decay, given its mix of old and new, industrial and digital.
To understand urban geography is to understand urban decay and
the cycle of gentrification that -- with its implied ruin and
rehabilitation motif -- erases place.
The standard definition of gentrification
can be found in Neil Smith's book The New Urban Frontier:
"The process through which poor and working-class neighborhoods
in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital
and middle-class homebuyers and renters -- neighborhoods that
had previously experienced disinvestment and a middle-class exodus."
Not surprisingly, gentrification is most often analyzed in economic
and social costs, rather than the aesthetic depletion that occurs.
The beauty of a pre-gentrified decayed neighborhood is rarely
championed, nor are the loss of unexploited spaces (where residents
can hear themselves think) bemoaned. Visitors can't see these
near intangibles, and residents rarely bother to memorialize their
difficult surroundings. Thus, over the years, it has fallen upon
artists -- living half lives between poverty and privilege --
to memorialize the lost diners and warehouses about to be torn
down. They evoke concern for neighborhoods at the beginning of
a gentrification process the artists themselves often help precipitate.
Thus, Toronto-based artist Adrian
Blackwell lives in a well-known artist loft (9 Hanna) for many
years, and then documents the loft before it is converted into
office space in the Fall of 1999. His shelter becomes art, and
its conversion into high-tech pasture generates an article and
byline in the art magazine Lola. Later, his photos appear
in a Power Plant gallery show entitled Substitute City.
As the city is re-built, it becomes less of an incubator for artists
and more of an inspirational topic. Battling the gentrification
pathogen is disruptive, but the process has acted as a catalyst
in the re-politicization of artists.
However, the most frightening
suggestion of Solnit's Hollow City is that the return to
the city is not driven by some sudden suburban backlash inspired
by cul-de-sac critiques such as The Geography of Nowhere by
James Howard Kunstler or Suburban Nation by Andres Duany.
Instead, the city is again in vogue precisely because it is becoming
suburban in character. As Solnit puts it, "Cities were born
free but are everywhere in chains, and these chains erase the
particulars by which we know a city and the non-commodity goods
we get from the places we frequent . . ." Chains like Starbucks
have become the UN peacekeepers in the gentrification battles
of the 1990s. They raise property values, provide safe haven for
tentative newcomers, and eventually attract suburban migration.
In a lively Plastic.com debate
on the gentrification of Williamsburg, Brooklyn from January of
2001, K. Thor Jensen noted, "The general argument against
gentrification is essentially one of nostalgia, of rejecting anybody
else's views on your personal memory of space. You imprint on
a neighborhood, and then when reality no longer echoes your memories,
you become upset." Even if gentrification is merely about
memory, the central dilemma of cities revolves around place, meaning
gentrification erases nothing less than autobiography, and by
Solnit admits that all cities
sit atop erased landscapes. What she passionately decries is speed
of this removal and the results of tinkering with this natural
rhythm. In San Francisco, the dot-com boom compressed 15 years
of gentrification into 24 months, removing wholesale chunks of
memory and decay.
The problem is that pre-gentrification
neighborhoods are inherently unstable. Worse, preservation creates
some problems. Michael S. Roth, writing in Irresistible Decay
notes that, "Ruins are often activated in a culture to perform
certain social, political, or aesthetic functions, but they can
never belong fully to the present without losing their status
as ruins." Decay is fragile, less needy, easy to ignore.
Buildings lose their authority over time. But after seeing the
effects of gentrification, it is clear that untrammeled decay,
for all its problems, represents possibility. Gentrification has
become so formulaic it now represents corporate rigidity -- a
recent urban narrative that creates a happy ending for only a
Gentrification, like decay, asks
(often silently): How much of the past is worth preserving? At
what speed should the past be erased? How old does something have
to be to be considered worth saving? How can the future be built
upon the bones of the past. Most importantly, who decides this?
Most often, private capital is the driving force, which is blind
to the processes of community.
* * * * * * *
* * *
It is by now clear that decay
is the antithesis of lifestyle consumption. Lifestyle is perfect
and integrated. Decay is imperfect and recycled. Lifestyle is
purchased, decay is accrued or earned. Despite titling his book
Life Style, designer Bruce Mau acknowledges that something
is amiss in his profession. Toward the conclusion of Mau's self-aggrandizing,
five-kilogram tome, he notes, "Immersed in the logic of growth,
we have, for the most part, denied the liberating potential of
death. (For us, there is only addition, never subtraction; accumulation,
never decay). In our shortsightedness, we have banished death
both from nature and from our approach to design practice."
Appropriating the seemingly uncommodifiable
aspects of the past might seem a unique affliction of our modern
age, but Fascination of Decay by Paul Zucker contains a
revealing historical antecedent proving otherwise. "In the
eighteenth century, the ruin motif was so popular that it invaded
almost all of the decorative arts . . . polite society, accustomed
to seeing artificial ruins in its parks and gardens, also wanted
to enjoy them in the porcelain objects which enlivened the interiors
of their houses as ornaments." Ruin imagery appeared on fabrics,
chintz, chinaware, porcelain, wallpaper and crèche.
Zucker notes, "It is a triumphant
manifestation of the rococo spirit, which could transform subjects
like ruins -- generally associated with the macabre -- into gay
bric-a-brac." A slight rearrangement of that last sentence
results in: It is a triumphant manifestation of the spirit of
late capitalism, which can transform industrial buildings -- generally
associated with the economic livelihood of the working-class --
into luxury lofts.
What is the appeal of a loft for
the artistically disinclined? Can a thin veneer of the past be
so easily tacked onto the present? Can a yearning for authenticity
be assuaged by the exposed beams and concrete floors of faux decay?
Unfortunately, the answer may
be yes. Hermenaut editor Joshua Glenn calls this "fake
authenticity." Witness stone-washed jeans or "faktory"
lofts, or Flophouse Chic (a Toronto-based developer specializing
in converting dive bars into drinking establishments). The irony
of live/work spaces that are unaffordable to the artists that
popularized the format to begin with is wearing thin. Lofts are
now the ultimate lifestyle accessory for the cool and wealthy
decay aficionado -- the hipeoisie.
* * * * * * *
* * *
Sprawled across the South-East
portion of Toronto is the Port Lands. The main artery, Cherry
Street is filled with old diners, dying memories and dead factories
that rattle as truck after container truck transport goods to
and fro. The Port Lands are one of the few remaining fallow areas
of significant size in Toronto, with numerous patches of cracked
asphalt that have surrendered to grass and weeds -- the urban
prairie. Had Toronto's recent bid for the summer games been successful,
this was going to be the site of the Olympics. Because of the
industrial waste and poison, much of the area is considered 'brownlands.'
Making it safe for residential applications will be expensive,
and three levels of government involvement isn't helping matters.
Seth's words have a powerful resonance
in this landscape: "I wonder, just what is it about these
sort of industrial areas that makes me feel so comfortable? It's
true that they're very beautiful and humble in their decay . .
. but it's not only that. Maybe it's the loneliness or the silence
. . . Seth was referring to small town Ontario (Strathroy to be
exact), but the sentiment applies equally well here.
Cherry Street and the surrounding
area will eventually be subjected to a multi-billion dollar waterfront
renovation. (Already, a terrible theme-park for adults called
the Docks has been built here.) It's a space trapped between the
rusted, discarded waste of its former purpose, and the unceasing
search for new areas to develop. Will Toronto gain more than it
will lose here? Is there any other way out?
Appropriately, there is a Knob
Hill Farms outlet on Cherry Street. Unlike the now barricaded
store used for Eroded Margin, the Pier 35 Coffee Shop nestled
within the Knob Hill Farms building is still open. Past the walls
of the café one can catch glimpses of the remaining blue
food shelves, like skeletons. Stretching down the left-hand side
of the store is a long meat counter; a deep breath earns a less-than-faint
but undistinguishable odor.
Is it noble or stupid to care
about the fate of this now vacant warehouse? The café hobbles
along on $1 coffee and the patronage of a few regulars. It can't
remain here for much longer. Decay is about both decline and resurrection,
of new forms of growth emerging from the old. At some point, the
old must be abandoned, however painful.
Despite the gloomy subject matter,
hope and rebirth lurk beneath disintegration. An interval seems
required before an incentive for restoration can appear. The old
order must die before redemption can occur. The interim period
of rejection has recently ended, book-ended between the economic
booms of the 90s and 80s, and the white flight from the cities
after World War II.
The new can only emerge after
the old crumbles. Or, at least, until the old releases its grip
over us. Perhaps few are listening to what decay has to offer,
because its charms are muted; murmurs easily ignored. Decay is
a ninth-generation photocopy or a faded, yellowed newspaper clipping,
not a glossy magazine. For too many, decay is more about nuisance
than hidden splendor.
There is a Latin term "Sic
Transit Gloria Mundi" which translates into Thus Passes The
Glory Of The World. During the coronation of a new Pope, flax
is burnt and the phrase Sic Transit Gloria Mundi is recited. It's
meant to represent the temporary nature of earthly glory, and
thus keep the new Pope appropriately humble.
Once a crucial part of the development
of Toronto, the Port Lands is no longer glorious. Perhaps it never
was. Corrugated tin and creosote aren't as romantic or evocative
as Jeff Otaku's Montreal or Seth's Toronto, or Dan Kennedy's paintings
or even wabi-sabi. The Port Lands is the effluent of progress
and its renovation and restoration will reinforce a trend of scrubbing
the working-class history of cities clean.
The manner in which decay is preserved
and renovated is imbedded with values about the past. The tangible
pollution of decay is being replaced with sterile, disposable
facsimiles. As Karl Marx put it, "All that is solid melts
into air." Some city dwellers have successfully recognized
and struggled with the aesthetic and philosophical challenges
that decay represents. The rest prefer avoidance. But each erasure
of genuine decay represents another severed cable on our bridge
to the past, leaving us to clutch wispy threads of faux decay
as we navigate the present.