The Emotional Landscape of Vacancy

Our physical world plays a big part in our mental state.  This is the basis for architecture—or the motive to design a buildable quality that can stir the better parts in us.  Yet there are two sides to this coin, as there are physical stimuli like abandoned houses that can arouse various feelings we’d prefer not to feel.  After all, a home is perhaps the archetypal symbol of security—you know: home is where the heart is, or where you lay your hat …

And as is the case when our surroundings provoke a constant, if low-level, unease, there inevitably follows attempts to become comfortable in our homes, as well as in the immediate context of our homes.  To reassert control, folks have dealt with the perceived insecurities of vacancy a number of ways:

  • They Leave: Cities shrink because people leave.  People leave what they perceive as fearful because it is ingrained into our amygdala, or our “lizard brain”. Vacancy, as such, invokes insecurity which invokes a diluted “fight or flight” response, with the emphasis on the latter in this case.
  • They Fight: This is the “fight” component coming from the lizard brain. Here, folks literally take it to abandonment like it was a bully. Examples: Detroit’s Devil’s Night, or the annual arson rampage in which vacant houses are used to turn the city into a campfire.  Recently, a Clevelander and his two sons were arrested when the teens doused an eyesore with lighter fluid and lit it up.  A year and half ago, a natural gas explosion that was later ruled arson wiped out a chunk of W. 83rd St. in Cleveland (see right). The examples are surprisingly endless really.
  • They Learn Helplessness: If Pavlov’s dog showed one thing it was that a creature will disable an emotional response to something that is perceived as being out of its control. Given that housing courts cannot get at the root of abandonment due to such sand-in-the-eye practices as real estate owned transactions, what’s a lone individual supposed to do besides say: “fuck it”?

Summing, our vacancy-littered cities can create for a context of insecurity, or an emotional landscape that folks become resigned to, flee, or fight with fire and gas bombs. And while these are bad coping mechanisms, there is little an individual can do, as rampant vacancy is a societal problem that needs societal solutions.

Organizationally speaking, while a city can and does use bad coping mechanisms to fend off the existential crisis of shrinking (e.g., mass demolition of otherwise great built stock = “fight”), a better alternative is through rationalization, or problem-solving—i.e., land banking for strategic reinvestment, code enforcement, block club chain letters to vacant property owners. Still, such responses are limited as they are logical attempts to address problems of an emotional context[1].  Yet this is what urban planning has historically done: bricks, plans, and mortar to fix what doesn’t feel right. What is needed is a complimentary perspective in which innovative urban planning interventions address the totality of the city landscape, or its heart, its mind, and its body.

The beauty in vacancy. Photograph by Andrew Moore courtesy DAP.

Enter art. To wit: the interesting thing about Ruin Porn was that the photographs of “abandonment beauty” effectively challenged our perceptions of decay. In other words, what was once only associated as dead, losing, lost, and disinvested in became the notion of the frontier.  Folks, then, flocked to empty factories and houses near and wide to make art, with the Ruin Porn aesthetic even morphing into an evolving “new genre of Americana”, or Rust Belt Chic. And while Ruin Porn, as a form, has begun to take on somewhat negative connotations, what cannot be argued is the fact that it opened up a perceptual door to what vacancy—disrobed of its emotional baggage—may actually mean.

After all, there is a fine line between emptiness and space.

Now, how can cities begin to institutionalize not only a city’s emotional context into their thought processes, but the power of creativity to soothe where the city hurts? Recently Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile posted a piece asking “Do Cities Need a Creative Director?” While his intent was for the director to address (and carve out) the unique brand of the city, I’d add an additional role: to identify and attend to the unique emotional needs of a city that have arisen out of its history and that are tied to its physical landscape.  Part psychologist, part artist, such a person could begin the surfacing of that which is bubbling beneath the topography of most places, but in the Rust Belt: that which is living beside us as we sleep.

[1] You could argue getting rid of the vacancy would get rid of the fear.  But this is like saying you can get rid of a bridge phobia by strategically mapping one’s way around the city without ever having to cross a bridge. It would be better to get at the source of fear, which in the case of the Rust Belt city goes beyond the existence of abandoned structures and to the overall theme of loss that each city has been struggling with since the 50’s.

–Richey Piiparinen

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