urban mythologies

The Road to Ruins: Visiting the Vestiges in Books and in Person

The road to ruins is paved with both the best and worst of intentions. Since time immemorial, people have either through either direct experience or artistic representation, sought communion with the relics of the man-made glories of the past. The picturesque ruins of the Roman Empire have been tourist sites of one sort or another since forever. These early antiquities give an example of the duality of their appeal. The lofty remains of temples and the Roman Forum stand for the idealism of spirituality, civic and social activity, enterprise and an advancing civilization. The nearby Colosseum, one of the world’s most recognizable ruins, is a wonder of ancient design and its building principles has been a model of stadium design ever since. But the more base appeal is the notion of all the gladiatorial battles and mass killings that went on there, often under the guise of a grim sporting event, as depicted in Hollywood spectacles on more than one occasion.


Classic ruins. The Roman Forum and Colosseum, photos by Ryan Ouellette.

With the advent of widespread air travel in the middle of the last century, international touring grew exponentially. Combine that with the fact that the earth’s population has more than doubled in that time and it’s not hard to understand a problem that anyone who’s been anywhere famous lately has encountered: the world is being overrun by tourists. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one should skip the capitals of Europe, the Great Wall of China, the ghostly remains of Pompeii or the top of the Empire State Building—just be prepared to have lots of company. Given the dense points-of-interest overcrowding, coupled with the speed in which modern technological “progress” makes obsolete that which was recently cutting edge, it’s probably not much of a surprise that many people have gone off the beaten path to take history into their own hands.

In the last couple of decades, a whole sub-culture has sprung up under the umbrella phrase “urban exploring.” In general, this brings to mind trespassing photographers and spelunkers of the boarded-up building variety. Favorite objectives included shuttered asylums, closed factories and bankrupted theme parks. The thrill of the illicit is a major factor here even if most of these photographers are sensitive to the backstory of such locations. Still, there was a time (and one not entirely in the past) where the websites of these urban explorers attracted groupie-like followers who littered the comments section with gushing praise over just how “creepy” it all is.


The U.S. is dotted with the remains of hundreds of closed state hospitals or, in the case of the shuttered Fernald School in Massachusetts, fearsome institutions where children with developmental issues real or greatly exaggerated, were once warehoused and even experimented on. Photo by Rick Ouellette

As the dogged pace of technological obsolescence has continued apace, a newer sensibility has taken place: one that strives to understand the complex social and economic reasons why such relatively new man-made achievements fall into disuse and abandonment so quickly, sometimes within a couple of generations. While the voyeuristic tendencies remain—the regrettable phrase “ruins porn” has gained traction—this soul-searching aspect is often a driving force behind the books, articles and websites on this subject.

Rubble tourism is now having its day. Instead of risking arrest, avocational photographers like myself can sign up to tour these once forbidden locations. Sometimes, the nominal purpose can be to inspire a call for landmark designation or renovation instead of demolition. I have taken workshops with two accomplished photographers who run them, sometimes together, and their books (“After the Final Curtain” by Matt Lambros and “Abandoned America” by Matthew Christopher) are reviewed below along with info about their tours. But first to begin at the beginning:

Although I’ve always been pre-disposed to notice the vestiges of a not-distant past (a trait that I have seemed to passed on to my son) this sensation never really had a name or focus for me until I saw (and bought) a copy of “Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow.” This book was first published in Germany in 1981 and an English version came out a year later, interestingly under the auspices of Sierra Club Books. With its enigmatic cover photo of a New York ocean liner terminal crumbling into itself on the Hudson River waterfront, “Dead Tech” had an immediate impact on me. Across nine themed chapters of evocative photographs by Manfred Hamm and historically insightful text by Rolf Steinberg, we are treated to a captivating catalogue of the recently defunct remains of world-war battlements, ships and airplanes, auto graveyards, abandoned space launch platforms, closed power plants and pleasure piers and quickly obsolete transportation systems.

The photo at the top of this post is from “Dead Tech” and shows the vestiges of the Gemini rocket launch pad in Cape Canaverel


Photo by Rick Ouellette. Not long after obtaining a copy of “Dead Tech” I took to photographing similar (or the same) locations when I had the chance. One of them was Manhattan’s West Side Elevated Highway. It was one of the world’s first freeways, started in 1929. It’s well-intentioned aim was moving vehicular traffic off the surface of 11th Ave., then nicknamed “Death Avenue” because of the dangerous intermingling of autos and freight trains over 106 (!!) grade crossings. Despite the proud winged-wheel symbol seen here—–the insignia of Mercury, patron of commerce and travel—the highway was all but obsolete by the time it was completed in 1951. Interstate trucking had replaced most of the freight trains anyway and when an overloaded truck caused a section to collapse in 1973, the West Side Highway was all but done. By 1989 had been completely dismantled.

“Dead Tech’s” provocative introduction is by Austrian author Robert Jungk, described on the inner flap as an “uncomfortable futurist.” Is he ever. Jungk understood the collective existential dread of a post-war society living under the nuclear shadow, one of his main subjects. Jungk, whose surname invokes both the words “Jung” and “junk,” is no romantic when he contemplates these sites. They speak to him from a deep psychic well of historical human suffering. He writes, “Time does not only heal all wounds, it also blots out the memory of pain.” He sees the detritus of the modern world as not only wasteful but terminally short-sighted and accuses mankind of not admitting past mistakes before diving headlong into his next misadventure. This point is well taken even as you get the feeling that Robert wouldn’t be the most fun person to talk with at a party—about these ruins he says: “They are not uplifting but ludicrous and horrifying at the same time.” But their ghostly attraction is undeniable and hopefully a red flag to be heeded. (The grim stack of crushed cars piled up like a pyramid at a Philadelphia scrapyard is no one’s idea of a tourist trap). It wasn’t all gloom-and-doom with Jungk. He advocated for a new “gentle technology” and ran for president of Austria on the Green Party ticket before dying in 1994.


A remaining section of the Maginot Line in France. Photo by Manfred Hamm from “Dead Tech.”

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Still, the fascination continued. In the summer of 2001, a group of daring (and incongruously well-dressed) young adults set off on a series of audacious expeditions infiltrating the core of New York City’s daunting superstructure. They were led by two guys calling themselves L.B. Deyo and David “Lefty” Leibowitz, who also documented these exploits in a fascinating paperback called “Invisible Frontier.” In the admirably zany opening chapter, they attempt to traverse the Old Croton Aqueduct tunnel from an entry point in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park to the Central Park area, where it used to pour its water into a giant reservoir that supplied the growing city in the second half o fthe 1800s. This would have meant crossing into Manhattan via the vertiginous High Bridge over the Harlem River. Deep collection pools, not to mention the suffocating dankness and the bats, have them eventually turning back: but not before we are treated to our first taste of the book’s curious mix of historical background and snarky banter. The “Jinx” team members dress in dark business suits—and evening dresses for the ladies—and tend to plan their missions using semi-satirical commando jargon.

Over the course of that summer the group plumbed further depths (the long-closed 1904 City Hall subway station) and then clamber up to the rooftops of Grand Central and the Tweed Courthouse, all done with cheeky aplomb (“Today we will discover a pinnacle of New York’s architectural past hidden from the prying eyes of the slovenly modern citizen”). “Invisible Frontier” culminates in a mad-dog ascent to the top of one of the George Washington Bridge towers and a six hundred feet-in-the-air epiphany. But the authors also quietly note that this off-limits triumph came a mere three days before the events of 9/11, after which a brave new world of heightened security and heightened suspicions would come into play. The Jinx group ceased their trespassing ways but its point had already been made. That despite all the building and development and now extra surveillance, “all around us lay the ruins of a golden age of style,” a half-hidden world that will live on.

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A bombed-out German bunker in Normandy. Photo by Rick Ouellette

World War Two sites, especially in Normandy, are of course enormously popular tourist destinations and have been for decades. But popular also means crowded, esp. during the summer. For the discerning war ruin devotees, the PBS series “Nazi Mega Weapons” (and by extension “WW2 Mega Weapons”) will give viewers a good look at, and the place names of, many crumbling mementoes of Adolph Hitler’s megalomania. These range from the launch pads of V-2 rockets to supposedly impregnable super-bunkers, in locations stretching from the Channel Islands to the old Eastern Front. Curiosity peaked, it’s easy in this Internet age to find even the most obscure of these sites, or to find organizations or individuals who give tours of such World War or Cold War points of interest.

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In the middle and late Eighties, American photographer Brian Rose undertook the extensive (and sometimes risky) task of documenting the vast system of walls, fences, no-man lands and guard posts that ran like a geopolitical scar separating the democratic West from the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe. The project that would result in the book “The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain” began when the “zero-sum logic” of this rigid ideological system—and the architecture which enforced it— was still very much in play. Just as remarkable about this artificial frontier that divided countries, towns and even streets, was the speed at which this system collapsed, as one communist state after another abdicated control after the events of late 1989.

The Iron Curtain stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, but Rose began his project in it’s most famous and heavily fortified section. The Berlin Wall was erected in the early 1960s to keep people from the eastern sector from escaping into the encircled enclave to the west. (Although the East German government insisted at the time that it was built to keep “fascist adventurers” from getting in). Rose’s photos deftly display both the physical and physic disconnect between two distinctly different societies sitting cheek-by-jowl. We see tourists in brightly-colored clothing peering into a grim East Berlin from a viewing stand and streets and transit lines cut off at the knee. Farther away from the cities, the border can get pretty diffuse: the fences get smaller and the borderline can be nothing but a small warning sign; one photo shows and easily stepped-over chain dividing a beach. Rose learned early on from the locals not to risk it. A few years after starting the project all this fearful apparatus became obsolete, making “The Lost Border” a valuable socio-political record over and above the high quality of his images.

It was at the end of World War II and for the next couple of decades after that the U.S. industrial and economic might was at its peak. Of course, a lot has changed this then and never more viscerally than in photographer Matthew Christopher’s book “Abandoned America: Age of Consequences.” Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). These ruins say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.


Photo by Matthew Christopher

Back from the late 19th century through to the middle of the 20th, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day and it’s not just callous, cost-cutting corporations to blame. The national political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. But there is nothing funny in the evidence of this decline seen in Christopher’s haunting images.

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Matt Lambros had photographed close to 100 closed theaters and chose twenty of the most prominent for his sumptuous coffee table book “After the Final Curtain.” His fascination with these opulent movie palaces began with personally discovering several near where he lived in New York City. Some still open, some boarded up. Soon he was travelling the country and realizing that almost any city in America with some critical mass of population, had at least one of these places, in widely varying conditions but often the worse for wear. These places were built in the first few decades of the 20th century, when people rather expected their entertainment was to be provided in lush, classically-detailed venues and developers provided for such.

But the short and often discouraging history of these theaters can be representatively seen in the case of the stupendous Loew’s Poli Theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut (a sweeping view of which graces the book’s cover). In opened in 1922, after a two-decade period which saw the city’s population double from 70,000 to more than 140,000. Still, not a megalopolis but enough that the growing port city could support a second auditorium next door and connect it all with a hotel and shops. Over 3000 people could watch vaudeville and silent films in the main hall and it made a successful switch to the talkies. But y’all know what happens next: TV, surburbanization, the income inequality that afflicted many older downtowns. The 50-year timeline of the Loew’s Poli is not uncommon: it soldiered on into the mid-century, underwent name changes and new usages and, like many others, ended as an adult-film house before closing in the 1970s. Some of these places have been re-furbished but it’s always an extremely costly proposition and many still languish.

If you’re interested in visiting these type of places (and esp. interested in photographing them) your’re in luck. Both Matthew Christopher and Matt Lambros run workshops where you can click your cameras at places like this (sometimes the “Two Matts” run these events together). See below for their websites and more info. And wherever you go, may all your travels be “ruined.”

https://afterthefinalcurtain.net/
https://www.abandonedamerica.us/


Photo by Rick Ouellette. The old Paramount Theater in Springfield, Mass. (later the Hippodrome nightclub). From a photo workshop I did with Matt lambros and Matthew Christopher.

In a Dream of Strange Cities, Part One: Farewell, “Jean” Moreau

Text by Rick Ouellette, photos are archival except where indicated

When the iconic French actress Jeanne Moreau died last month, I’m sure most obituaries ignored her work in the 1955 film M’sieur la Caille, while lauding her performances in such classics as Jules and Jim and Diary of a Chambermaid. Known in the States (if it was known at all) as No Morals, it seems from the trailer to be at least a half-serious film about the shadowy world of prostitutes and gangsters. It’s even called an “art film” by the YouTuber who posted the trailer. But listen to the titillating, oversold narration that goes with the American sneak preview and you quickly realize this is just the sort of movie that could be peddled across the Atlantic as a sex film in the days before the large-scale production of straight pornography.

When No Morals landed in Boston, a few years before I was born twenty miles away, it was at the since-demolished State Theatre at a prime downtown location at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets. The top photo is one of a series of images I gleaned from Google that taken together suggest the continual architectural and social transfiguration of an urban center over a century and a half. Going back that far, we find the original venue on that spot was Beethoven Hall. I love that name but by scanning that ads they ran (several are up on Wiki Commons) the programming had little to do with Ludwig Van and a lot to do with late 19th century diversions. There were comic operas, freak shows, minstrel singers and even Greco-Roman wrestling. If there were such a thing as a time-travel bucket list, I would pencil in “The Great English Mesmerist” Annie de Montford and her “amusing entertainments of psychology.”

Even better would be a time-lapse view of the historical transformation of just that one site. The first change came in 1879 when Henry E. Abbey, owner of the Park Theatre in New York, comprehensively re-built Beethoven Hall and named it the same as his Gotham property. The elegant interior space continued for years with the parade of comedies and singing shows under a number of different proprietors, one of whom was none other than Lotta Crabtree. Once dubbed “The Nation’s Darling”, Lotta started in showbiz as a girl in California Gold Rush country after being recognized by Lola Montes for her singing and dancing skills and comedic personality. By the time she migrated to Boston and took over the Park, she was one of America’s wealthiest and most popular performers. So popular in fact, that she felt the need to construct a private tunnel that went from the theater’s basement to the nearby hotel where she lived. Crabtree was also a philanthropist and some of her Boston charities still operate today, 93 years after her death.


I like Lotta a lotta: Ms. Crabtree in the 1870s.

What is less charitable is the fate of the Park Theatre in the years afterward. The playhouse gradually got into the burlesque business (the only local establishment to ever host a Gypsy Rose Lee striptease), then found use as a B-movie cinema as the once-impressive horseshoe shaped interior likely faded and it became The State. The racy fare showing here in a mixed urban tableau pre-dates (but not by much) the city-sanctioned red light district commonly known as the Combat Zone. By the time those lines of demarcation were drawn up, the State Theatre fit snugly up in the Zone’s northwest corner and was showing X-rated features one after another daily.

A forensic study of the top photo displays a transitory peek into an age that was already vestigial by the time I moved to Boston no more than two decades later. The 600 block of Washington Street is a vibrant jumble of visual cues: a second-floor bowling and billiards joint; a pizza joint with a delightfully off-kilter sign, two Civil Defense fallout shelter markers and, to the left of the theater, the Crabtree office building (the name is probably not a co-incidence) featuring the Progressive Clothing shop, where some nice suits can be seen hanging on a rack in the window.

That makes sense because the people on the sidewalk are so nicely dressed in the “Mad Men” style of the day. Even the guy in the outside ticket booth has a suit and tie. Under the boldly projecting marquee, anyone could have a nice look-see at the poster for The Shocking Set (where “men were playthings”!!) or the one for “No Morals” where Jean (sic) Moreau, although she’s probably just looking for love in all the wrong places, is claimed to have “many men on the string.” This double billing seems to suggest some early strain of erotic feminism. It’s a notion may have caught the attention of the shifty-eyed lady in the white coat who is suspiciously close to the ticket booth—if so, that would explain her assumed husband’s sheepish grin. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!


Photo by author

By the time this era (and area) was replaced by the more openly raunchy Combat Zone, the marquee didn’t even bother with titles, never mind enticing phrases, it usually said something like “Continuous Adult Films XXX Shown Daily.” In 1990, the State Theatre was razed in the process of yet another (and current) transformation, brought on by civic improvement (though home video and the Internet had a lot to do with moving the sex industry off the street grid), university expansions and Ayn Randian real estate power grabs. In the photo above, taken on an early Sunday morning in 2016, the State Theatre would have been between the Cathay Bank and the CVS store on the right, part of the blank back wall of a Ritz Carlton complex. At this same spot fifty years ago, you would have been looking out onto maybe twenty theater marquees, and not just the naughty stuff. As lower Washington St. was one edge of Chinatown there wer kung-fu flicks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey played at a now-defunct movie palace where now is the barren frontage of the building on the left. If I live long enough, even this view will become a complete stranger to me.

With No Morals sadly unavailable, my Jeanne Moreau tribute viewing was 1957’s Elevator to the Gallows, the taut film-noir that was Louis Malle’s first major work and a sort of springboard for the actresses’ later exaltation. Moreau is uncommonly beautiful and tersely soulful as the wife of an industrialist who conspires with her lover, one of her husband’s top men, to murder him. The scheme gets foiled when, unbeknownst to her, lover boy gets trapped in a lift. Confused and upset but still imperious, Moreau’s character—her world suddenly upended—famously wanders thru a shifting Parisian streetscape to the Miles Davis’ haunting score, in a fruitless search, lost as if moving thru a dream of a place she thought you once knew. How I relate.

“Extraordinary Tales” and Dream Geographies: The animated Poe and Beyond

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Extraordinary Tales
Directed by Raul Garcia–2015–73 minutes

The delectable new animation anthology “Extraordinary Tales,” where five of Edgar Allan Poe’s most notable stories each receive a distinctly different visual treatment, came along at just the right time and place. I had been scoping around for a suitable seasonal post but was at a loss until I heard of the film’s release. I would have settled for a straight review. Then I realized just how fitting that this limited-release title landed at the AMC Loews Boston Common. This 3-story, ersatz movie palace may be home of the $6.50 small popcorn but at least the downtown multiplex has returned movie-going to the center of the city after so many cinema closings there in recent decades. It also overlooks Poe’s hated Frog Pond in Boston’s famous public park across the street and is less than two blocks from the recently-installed Poe statue close to his birthplace. But I had a notion that the geographical connections went deeper than that (often to the point of being subterranean) and all-in-all made for an interesting night out at the pictures. But more on that later; I almost forgot about the film.

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“Extraordinary Tales” was directed by Spanish filmmaker/animator Raul Garcia and produced under the auspices of Film Fund Luxembourg (don’t laugh: little Luxy is a hotbed of animation team-building, check out “Song of the Sea” or “A Town Called Panic” for starters). Each story is boiled down to its core element of terror and dread and narratively speaking the film is a little thin. I imagine that’s to be expected given 21st century attention spans as well the density of 19th century expository writing. (Exhibit A: the 60-word opening sentence of “The Fall of the House of Usher”).

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And it is “Usher” which kicks things off after we are introduced to the framing device. This has the spirit of Edgar in the form of the famous Raven ruminating over his literary legacy with various female-figure statues in a curiously beautiful pastel graveyard. The sharp-lined antique-y style of “Usher” suits the grim tale of a family’s doomed bloodline as that old self-imploding greathouse is practically the main character. Christopher Lee’s great portentous narration here turned out to be his last film part before his passing last June.

The next narrator also sweeps in form the pale beyond as a scratchy period recording of Bela Lugosi reciting “The Tell-Tale Heart” is matched to stark B&W imagery in homage to Argentine comics artist Alberto Breccia. Ben-Day dots and colored overlays define the look of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” wherein an exercise in applied hypnotics goes way off the rails. The old warhorse “The Pit and the Pendulum” gets the quasi-realist look of an Xbox game and a Guillermo del Toro narration, the mechanics of the pendulum are especially well represented.

The concluding “Masque of the Red Death” may be the cream of the crop. The vibrant hues of its oil-on-canvas style (with visible brush strokes) are a feast for the eyes. The literal feasting—and dancing, card-playing and sexual byplay—of the royal partygoers, who cannot keep the Black Death at bay is portrayed without narration or (except for a couple of lines voiced by Roger Corman) dialogue. The slightly overexcited (universal) desire to partake of life’s rich pageant before death (Black or otherwise) comes a-calling was understandable enough without words.

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DREAM GEOGRAPHIES

When these cinematic pleasantries concluded, I stepped out to a clear late October night and crossed into the Common, with Poe’s repeated motif of falling or being trapped underneath fresh in my mind. There’s the Usher mansion collapsing into an abyss, the prisoner imagining a drop into a bottomless pit before facing the pendulum and the master with the dodgy eyeball getting sectioned off below the floorboards in “Tell-Tale Heart.” As Tom Waits once had it “There’s a world going on underground.” Between the Poe plaque at the corner of Boylston St. and what was once the top of Poe-birthplace Carver St. (now a service alley named Poe Way) and the AMC Loews there are several places that would make great locales for this man’s stories. There’s the trench-like row of crypts in the Central Burying Ground (a one-stop shop for all you “Premature Burial” needs!), Steinert Hall, a recital auditorium four stories below the Steinway store (built by the piano-making clan in 1896 but closed to the public since 1942) and an urban-legend pedestrian tunnel from the tiny Boylston subway station possibly up to the Schubert theater two blocks away.

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It was Edgar Allan Poe’s literary successor H.P. Lovecraft that really put this macabre Ley-line notion into sharp relief. He once said that “there are black zones of shadow close to our daily paths.” While in real life this is not very comforting to acknowledge, in the aesthetic world it is super cool. In Lovecraft’s short story “Pickman’s Model,” the titular painter is banished from the upper-crust Boston Arts Club when his subject matter gets a little too hairy for the “Beacon St. tea-table” crowd. To wit: “There was a study called “Subway Accidents” in which a flock of the vile things were clambering up from some unknown catacomb through a crack in the floor of the Boylston subway and attacking a crowd of people on the platform.” (And you thought the T was bad nowadays). Those monsters, who may not be imaginary in the context of the tale, supposedly roam around in an extensive network of tunnels that fan out under central Boston from an opening in Pickman’s decrepit North End building, from where the artist muses, “these ancient places are dreaming gorgeously and overflowing with wonder and terror and escapes from the commonplace.” No kidding, right?

The dreaming part of that statement certainly resonates with me. I can look at that block of Tremont St. and see the AMC Loews and a vestige of the façade of the wax museum that used to be next door and the great hulk of the Masonic Temple on the corner of Boylston (I’d love to get a look at their sub-basement!) but a shade behind it all is a reoccurring dream landscape that I have visited periodically for decades. This REM wonderland is a densely-packed district of curio shops, chop suey stalls, burlesque theaters, pinball parlors and Art Deco shopping arcades–an urban archetype of the collective unconscious. Maybe writing about will bring it back because I haven’t landed there in over a year.

Walking back to my car, I passed by the Poe statue again, the morbid and magnificent author seemingly striding as quick as he can out of town (with his trusty Raven by his side) a cold shoulder turned to the dreaded “Frog-Pondians” of the city of his birth. In the “Extraordinary Tales” postscript he petitions for immortality in view of the six-foot hole. Mission Accomplished. Nowadays, our Subterranean Homesick Edgar is as iconic and indispensable in October as Charles Dickens is in December with “A Christmas Carol.” We can almost walk along beside him, dreaming gorgeously, one step ahead of the black zone at all times.

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