ATTENTION SCUM! Gutter Archaeology: DCinruins

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by Tyler Wolanin

We are thrilled Tyler Wolanin is picking up where our dear Eric Loucks left off. During Eric's tenure as Scum announcer, he reviewed zines and significant works of 1950s sci-fi and New York's punk scene. Eric established Attention Scum's format: close looks at fan cultures through the artifacts they leave behind.

Tyler Wolanin's college years in D.C. introduced him to urban exploration. If that's a new concept to you, just imagine walking through a city sewer or sneaking into an abandoned and forgotten historical building. Its practitioners say they're not just in it for thrills, but to better understand their city and contribute to public knowledge of its history. 

- T.B.

Welcome to the inaugural issue of “Gutter Archaeology,” a series reviewing Urban Exploration zines. Our first expedition unearths the ruins of the District of Columbia through a perusal of DCinruins (and will be devoid of any further tortured archaeological imagery). 

DCinruins is a zine and blog created by Thomas Kenning. The ink-and-paper form is published by Kenning’s outfit, Insignificant Press, in three installments. It must be noted that these zines date from 2012 and 2013, and that there are updates in the blog version not covered in paper. But DCinruins is well-written enough to be enjoyed in any format. 

The dozen locations covered in the DCinruins ‘zines are all abandoned. Their specific locales are not pinpointed; Kenning states in the introduction to the first volume that he would not “want these sites overrun by casual thrill-seekers,” but “there are enough pieces of the puzzle out there that these remains can be found.” Such secrecy is a common precaution taken by urban explorers; a site that is easy to find and access can be a magnet for vandalism or have its access restricted (or both in sequence). 

The first volume is most interested in the topic of public history. Kenning believes that a site’s history can be understood through its decay, as it allows the modern viewer to appreciate that time has passed between historical events and today. Historical figures lived in a different world, and they did not think in the same way as people of today. The discarded remains of the original East Portico of the Capitol Building were tossed in Rock Creek Park, with a few columns spookily reassembled in the National Arboretum. These offer “a more primal connection with the nation’s history than some of the more contrived monuments downtown.” 

While some history is ignored, allowed to live in its original state, other sites are repurposed, almost beyond recognition. Forest Glen Seminary is an area in Silver Spring that was abandoned after its use as a military hospital, and at the time of writing part of its grounds were being repurposed as a condominium. Kenning brings up a modern Ship of Theseus problem with this building asking, “Where is the tipping point between authentic nineteenth century construction and something that may as well be a new building? Which bucket of paint or replacement floorboards?” These takes on “order in decay” (as it will later be phrased) are explored further in the two subsequent volumes. 

After a brief jaunt through the remains of the Washington & Great Falls Electric Railway, Kenning concludes the first volume with one of the most interesting locations in the Washington Metropolitan Area: the Forest Haven Mental Health Center in Laurel, Maryland. Abandoned asylums are the Holy Grail of abandonment-focused urban exploration. This can be chalked up largely to morbid curiosity about their outdated purpose, their horrors confined to the annals of yesteryear. Asylums can be picked out by their distinctive architectural styles, although Kirkbride-style buildings are increasingly hard to find. With their originally noble purpose falling victim to overcrowding, budget cuts, and inhumane treatment. Visiting asylums and their cousins is like walking into a horror movie.

Forest Haven, like many such institutions, lingers in local memory despite several decades of closure. It isn’t difficult to find seemingly recent Washington Post articles chronicling the facility’s negligence and abuses. Its entry in DCinruins comprises the mix of historical background, notes from the explorer’s visit, and philosophizing that defines the series. DCinruins won’t give you any floor plans or blow-by-blow breakdowns. However, Kenning does do an excellent job of drawing out lessons from his visits and photographs and shares lesson plans on his site. 

Volume 2: Local Witness

Lessons come through clearly the second zine, subtitled “Local Witness.” This volume is intended explore “chance encounters with disarray,” instead of more prominent, sought-out locations. In two sites, the United Brick Corporation and Klingle Road, Kenning finds alternate takes on obstructionist bureaucracy. On one hand, the United Brick Corp. (a complex including a series of large domes that were used for mass-baking of clay bricks) has been left to crumble after it was placed under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture, which rarely plays caretaker of an abandoned industrial site. On the other hand, Klingle Road, part of Rock Creek Park, has been reclaimed by the earth because of bureaucratic inability to agree on a purpose for it. It is now “a veritable tributary of nearby Klingle Creek.”

After these notes on government inaction, Kenning revisits the subject of “Order in Decay” in an essay of that name, subtitled “Urban Exploration and Public History.” Decay of the built environment is a reminder of one’s own mortality, and a reminder of our distance from the past. “The crumbling façade of a building is a much more immediate and visceral testament to the past than is a Walt Disney-style recreation.” It does the past a disservice, according to Kenning, to pretend that it is a slightly different version of the modern world. 

While speaking of Klingle Road, Kenning briefly notes his visit, through an unlocked door, of the interior superstructure of the overhead Klingle Valley Bridge. His investigation was cut short by obvious signs of recent habitation, a foreshadowing of the final topic in “Local Witness,” explorations on New York Avenue. This destitute segment of the City has many small-scale decaying sites, but Kenning is reluctant to enter any. “Decaying” doesn’t mean “uninhabited.” He reflects on the privileges inherent to urban exploring and wonders what he would say to a denizen of these areas if they met. “This is your home. This is my playground.”

Volume 3: Daylight Underground

If the second volume of DCinruins confronts the entitlements of the urban explorer, the third volume, “Daylight Underground,” casts this explorer as more of a flaneur, an opponent of the impersonal and destructive developers who threaten the social fabric of urban neighborhoods. Starting on a positive note, the history and uses of the McMillan Sand Filtration site in Bloomingdale are explored. This facility was made up of underground massive vaults of sand that filtered drinking water for the city, while the surface level was an Olmstedian public park, citing the ideals of the City Beautiful movement that combined usefulness and civic beauty. This project has of course lapsed into ruins in the modern world. 

After this complement is paid to the city of the past, the script is flipped somewhat;  the city’s history is reduced to a façade for the in-progress Chinese Embassy Staff Residence. This building incorporates two outer walls of the former St. Alban’s Apartment House, with the remainder leveled completely and re-built as a new building. This process is compared to the authoritarian demolition and zoning practices in China itself. The comparison is not lost in the transition to the next entry, discussing the plan to replace the abandoned Ontario Theater with an upscale apartment/shopping complex. The plan intends to save the distinctive marquee of the theater and graft it on to the new building. This idea is disparaged by Kenning, who thinks that this feature would bewilder visitors, as the context of the original building is utterly removed in the transition.  Developments such as these hasten the gentrification and homogenization of DC’s unique neighborhoods, and it is not only urban explorers who will suffer from the demolition and replacement historic structures.

The final entry (to date) in the DCinruins zine series takes the small Holy Rood Cemetary for its primary subject. The site was neglected by its proprietor, Georgetown University, who considered it too expensive to renovate. Kenning strikes a conciliatory note here, not lamenting the slow erasure of the past. This allows the public to reclaim the cemetery through amnesia, as he describes it “as fitting a tribute as any.” This last entry exemplifies the thoughtful writing of DCinruins; lamenting the injustices of the past and present while describing the unmarked burial area of slaves. He finds again the redeeming features of decay, the ability to better understand our cities, our world, our lives.

In a material sense, the DCinruins are well put-together, unpretentious zines, simply a half-folded collection of copy paper bound by ties. The third volume benefits greatly from color photography. Cityscapes can be well-rendered in black-and-white, but the forested settings of much of the first volume suffer from the absence of green. The second volume was printed on cherry-colored sheets; which creates an interesting aesthetic and doesn’t detract from any of the urban pictures (though again leafier photography might have suffered).

Many Americans who have visited Washington, and many who have not, have an idea of the city as being made up of a few monuments, wide boulevards, and government buildings. In reality it is a home to several hundred thousand, from upscale political consultants to the urban poor. It has as many and complex neighborhoods, subcultures, nooks and crannies as any other city. DCinruins was the first urban exploration zine I read, while a student in the District of Columbia. The work’s thoughtfulness and social consciousness shines through, and serves well the urban landscape of Washington. As Kenning says in the “Order in Decay” essay: “Urban exploration reflects more truly the passage of time. It offers the chance to cut out the public historian, the curator, the eulogizer, all those arbiters of the past who, as well-intentioned as they may be, refocus the past through an incomplete, modernist lens.” Kenning is an expert at revealing and reflecting upon the hidden world that many of DC’s upscale visitors and residents (myself included) don’t experience

 

tyler wolanin, gutter archaeology, attention scum, dcinruins