By Ryan Bigge
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 ambience.
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 obsolescence.
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 has 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 centres 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 glamourous. 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” he writes:
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 odour, 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 surroundings.
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 it’s eponym though it remained the main artery of Verdun, a neighbourhood 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 neighbourhood.”
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 intersect.
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 savours 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 colour, 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 donkeyà la Disney with carnival signage to create a dense collage. In the centre 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 nightmares.
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 vigourously by denouncing the new. As the ability to digitally reproduce art and imagery continues to improve, some artists have decided to favour 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 G4s.
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 neighbourhoods 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, purchasable experience.
Gentrification and Political Geography
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 neighbourhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters – neighbourhoods 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 neighbourhood 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 orSuburban 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 noncommodity 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 revolve around place, meaning gentrification erases nothing less than autobiography, and by extension, oneself.
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 neighbourhoods 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 fortunate few.
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 container 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 and a deep breath earns a less-than-faint but undistinguishable odour.
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 lurks 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, bookended 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.
Ryan Bigge is the author of A Very Lonely Planet (Arsenal Pulp). He lives in Toronto. Thanks to Andy, Julie, Patricio, Craig, and Greg. Those interested in contributing material for a Decay anthology should visit biggeworld.com and/or email email@example.com
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.