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American Ruins Hardcover – November 10, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Once proud and often eloquent sentinels of economic prosperity, America's deteriorating inner-city buildings are, in this unflinching socio-photodocumentary, caught in their death throes. Continuing Vergara's poignant eulogy to urban decay--begun with The New American Ghetto (1995) and Silent Cities (1989)--this project features 300 exteriors and interiors of 70 ghostly ruins. His camera deftly captures squalid Beaux Arts public palaces, reinforced-concrete industrial complexes, high-rise housing projects, and the flotsam of stores, factories, and homes. The accompanying text provides building and neighborhood histories, notes on style, an account of the way the buildings changed over separate visits, recitations of local reactions and responses, anecdotes about ghetto photography, and blistering social critique. Vergara proves a knowledgeable and engaging guide throughout. Highly recommended for all academic and specialized architecture, planning, and sociology collections.
-Russell T. Clement, Univ. of Tennessee Lib., Knoxville
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

About the Author

Camilo José Vergara is the author of Twin Towers Remembered and The New American Ghetto and coauthor of Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery. He was awarded a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship. Since 1977 he has documented urban destruction throughout the United States as part of his New American Ghetto Archive; included in the archive are the South Bronx, Harlem, and North Central Brooklyn, New York; Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Chicago, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Los Angeles County (South Central, Downtown, East Los Angeles, Pacoima, Compton, Vernon, South Gate, and Huntington Park), California. Vergara has received numerous awards, including grants from the New York Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. His photographs have been acquired by the New York Public Library, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, the Chicago Historical Society, and Avery Library at Columbia University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: The Monacelli Press (December 6, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1580930565
  • ISBN-13: 978-1580930567
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1 x 11.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,256,991 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Garrick on December 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Camilo Vergara's latest effort will appeal to those interested in both architectural and landscape photography, as well as urban activists, artists, writers, and even musicians. Vergara has the ability to draw on a variety of inspirations in his thoughtful analyses of forgotten urban America. Nominally about decaying buildings in Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and elsewhere; American Ruins goes deeper--exploring connections between buildings, art, sociology, psychology, and the natural environment.
The book is divided into sections based on ruins typology. This is a good approach, as it allows Vergara to show connections between cities and their related phenomena which might not otherwise have been apparent. His accounts of conversations with wary local residents and (usually) thoughtless politicians and developers invest the book with a jarring realism that juxtaposes effectively with the often dreamy and strangely beautiful photographs.
Another excellent attribute of this substantial book is its readability. In comparison with The New American Ghetto (Vergara's previous book), here Vergara separates his narrative into shorter separate, site-specific analyses, which makes it easy to ingest a few pages at a time and return for more later. It also makes it easy to move through the book in a non-linear fashion, based on your own visual interests.
This evocative work will be required reading for architects, preservationists, and artists. However, the sublime beauty of Vergara's photography should win him fans from many other persuasions. Perhaps in the end Vergara will succeed in his effort to, at least, bring appreciation for not just our sanitized and restored "landmarks," but for our most humble and neglected buildings--those which tell the story of this tumultous century in ways only this book reveals.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on February 7, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating book of documentary photography. The author is entranced by abandoned structures. His viewpoint of these tragic, yet often eerily beautiful buildings is made clear by a quotation he provides from a play by Fernando Pessoa, i.e. he fantasizes about the life that went on in them when they were alive. These are pictures from a graveyard, and we, as readers, are attending a memorial service, with Mr.Vergara providing a well-written eulogy.
When first leafing through the book I immediately thought of Jacob Riis, the turn of the century photographer who photographed the New York slums. This thought also occurred to someone providing a review on the dust jacket of the book. I ended up revoking this comparison, however. Mr. Vergara's task here is not to provide social commentary. For the most part he simply loves these buildings. I feel that he would not even care to see many of them restored, but envisions leaving them in a state of arrested decay, like the large ghost town of Bodie in California. Recently, in a series of articles on corporate welfare, Time magazine remarked on the fact that wealthy corporations often easily abandoned obsolete sites, showing no concern over the blight they caused in the community. So here we see derelicts owned by RCA, a company that could afford to tear them down or restore them for community use. My point is that this book may raise many thoughts regarding American community problems, but Mr. Vergara is not here to deal with these issues. And that is really OK, too, as the book is wonderful just as sort of an archaeological document.
My one disappointment is that the book covers only a few cities: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Gary, Camden, and the South Bronx. For a sequel I would suggest that Mr.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Jotz on February 13, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Vergara is certainly not like your typical civic booster who is touting the gentrification of former slums and the real estate boom that has overrun most US cities in the past two decades. Vergara doesn't directly argue that yuppies and Gen X-ers are good for today's cities. From reading this book, I am assuming that he doesn't like them too much. He likes grimy, but stable, industrial America that earlier generations knew.

However, Vergara is not an urban planner or a civic leader (although I'd like to see him try his hand at each). Vergara's skill is chronicling through pictures the wholesale abandonment of America's great cities. In his introduction, the author realizes that in many cities with a shrunken tax base, it is simply too expensive to rehabilitate architecturally-significant structures, so landlords (usually with the city's blessing), just demolish or abandon the property. For each renovated brownstone downtown, I'm sure that the author can document a dozen abandoned rowhouses or factories on the "wrong side" of the town.

Call me insensitive, but I was most acutely drawn to Vergara's treatment of abandoned or near-abandoned buildings that were once important to America: the Firemen's Insurance Building in downtown Newark and the Michigan Central RR terminal in Detroit (rather than his examination of the residents of the ghetto as was evidenced in "The New American Ghetto"). The photo of the modern people mover in Detroit gliding by boarded-up buildings says a lot about urban mismanagement and is hauntingly fully of despair. If the "can do" spirit of modern American technology can't save Detroit, what can?

What I found quite unique was that Vergara proposes leaving these buildings to rot, like was done in Rome and Greece.
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