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.