I’ve long been fascinated by gradual decline and decay. Being in possession of a melancholic temperament myself, it’s had its distinct appeal. It’s why I like ghost towns, and places that, while not quite there, are shadows of their former selves. The USA has a number of places like that.
Butte, Montana is among them. It was once one of the USA’s wealthiest cities. In the old part of town, this is evident in the fantastic Victorian to Depression-era details. Incredible stained glass windows, breath-taking woodwork and beautiful houses that look like they belong in the tonier parts of Sacramento or Austin. Today, it’s only an unremarkable town in a very pretty, but isolated, state.
Virginia City, Nevada is another. I have decidedly more mixed feelings about it, though. Butte is down-to-earth and, whatever its quirks, a very authentic place. Virginia City, like Honolulu, has been commercialised to the point of vulgarity and then taken a step beyond that for good measure. The first time I visited it, it was extremely interesting. In the past, it was the epicentre of the Comstock Lode and the largest city for miles. Money flooded the streets and everything, anything — anyone — could be had for the right price. It’s where Mark Twain had his start as a journalist. Now, it’s a tiny town with maybe a hundred residents.
Sudden influxes of people and money don’t change this. Macau is perhaps the best example of what the consequences are. After the establishment of Hong Kong as a free trade port and the rise of concessions at other Chinese ports, Macau entered a genteel decay — more New Orleans than Detroit. In the 1990s, the Portuguese invested a fair amount in their last colony. They wanted to get gang crime under control and the city in something resembling a state of repair before their departure — can’t lose face in front of the Chinese. Since then, Hong Kong, Chinese, Taiwanese and American money has poured in. But it’s ruined it. The old Portuguese architecture is stunning, but parts of Macau are insufferable. The main square is so bloody touristy that it can’t be endured. It’s a pity, it could have been better done. It’s lost its languid charm, its pleasant ennui. Swarms of Chinese overwhelm the city. In some ways I quite like the city, perhaps because of the family connexion or perhaps because, during quiet moments in a quieter, shady place you can almost see ghosts.
3 thoughts on “Decay”
CT, I can accompany you a short way down this winding road. I have a weakness for well-worn quality, whether it be the sturdiness of an Elizabethan timber-framed cottage, the patina of my grandfather’s leather arm-chair or even a Roman monument in angular Latin script. What a shame that in the post-WWII years so much was destroyed in the name of progress.
Janus: Well-worn quality is more personal. The patina on that leather arm-chair is unique. That Elizabethan timber-framed house has quirks that cannot be replicated. That is also why I like character houses and antiques. It’s why I like towns with historic centres. Even things built to the mid-20th century had some sort of architectural merit. Yes, that includes ’50s quirkiness. But, as Betjeman so brilliantly argued, the post-war building frenzy was savagery. The Victorians weren’t shy about tearing down Georgian terraces and the Georgians weren’t reserved about razing the Tudor, but at least they had something of merit to replace it with. The vile, ghastly blocks of the 1960s-’70s are best forgotten, the sooner, the better.
As much as I like exploring the remnants of former glory, it’s hard to live there. It gets a bit depressing.
I noted with sadness today that even Van Gogh’s sunflowers are losing their startling, vibrant tones. So be quick and see them when they visit London.