Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Snipe



PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: We've learned how to slip through the gate soundlessly, in the shadows so as not to attract attention, but inside the fence we must follow the remains of the train tracks across the large loading plazas where we are easy to spot. Inside the gate is no-man's land. A busy city hums all around us, but nobody knows what goes here. The manhole covers were among the first things to disappear, and the plazas are booby trapped with shafts that end in darkness. Drop a rock, and one hears it splash.

Metal salvage is only one of the things that bring people here. In one of the plazas a couple of lawn chairs and a table have been set up next to a small, covered, storage trailer that has been plundered. The back gate of the trailer was miserably disfigured by the break-in. A broken TV, old scarves and pillows, a gameboy and other debris from the trailer lie strewn across the plaza to a three-legged sofa that has somehow limped to the bottom of a loading ramp. Over several months I've observed no changes to this oasis of domestic tranquility. I have no further explanation.

One day we found the gate wide open, and when we reached the entrance to the largest shed, we saw a car, clean and shiny, parked inside. We called out several times but got no reply. We continued our shoot, though staying close. Old factories are wind instruments, and on almost any day there are a variety of flaps and flappers rattling out tunes and making a buzz. Narrow stairs lead up to a warren of offices, and at the top floor there are views over the city and down on the roofs of some of the factory sheds. On this particular day the band featured a couple of soloists, and we watched as they sawed and banged to remove the large, rusty ventilation covers from the lower rooftops. It was one more insult to the old buildings that would speed their decay. I was pretty sure the metal thieves didn't want to be seen, and I was certain we felt the same. It's the Ruins Boogie-Woogie. On the way out we met the owner of the car. He told us he spent the night here because his girlfriend threw him out. He assured us that he had closed the gate when he drove in the evening before.

Most interesting of all the buildings is the powerhouse, a three-story high atrium filled with furnaces and boilers and pipes and ducts and turbines and electronics and things we didn't understand. In some places catwalks provided access to valves and gauges high on the sides of equipment and up near the roof. Behind the main atrium, a second building of equal height was divided into two floors. It took us several visits before we discovered the cave-like lower story. The entrance had been hidden behind slouching, plastic tarps that had once been thrown up in a desperate effort to keep out the elements after vandals had smashed the wall of glass that protected and ventilated the space around the furnaces.

The upper floor of this back building was like a gallery in a natural history museum. The equipment here stood on free-standing stages, like separate species of jungle cats rowed up for easy comparison and defying identification. In the corner was a large boiler with a coating of thick, white paint pealing and crackling and catching shadows magnificently. I had photographed it once, but I thought I could do better. When I finally got my chance to return, it was clear the metal thieves had been through again. They had begun removing catwalks. Here and there steps were missing from some of the ladders and stairs. I might have mistaken it for an effort at security had it not been so random. As I climbed the metal stair to the upper floor of the back building I had to step over the space where the third stair had been removed. I was glad the thieves had left enough treads in place that I could still get to the top. Once there, I saw the landing had been removed, and I had to go back down and find a board to bridge the gap. I climbed back up, I tossed down a board so I could get across the space where the landing had been, and when I got inside, the iron boiler that I had come to photograph, that had once stood two stories high and as big around as a silo, was gone. I gazed in amazement as I realized the only way they could have gotten it out was to cut it into smaller than door-sized pieces. The museum gallery had become a hall of empty, concrete pedestals.