Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
In "Last House Standing," Ben Marcin shoots neighbor-less rowhouses surrounded by dreary, vacant lots.
For many, Baltimore design is synonymous with the rowhouse. Many of the city's neighborhoods are defined by blocks upon blocks of these narrow residential dwellings. Some represent the city's history and beauty, others symbolize decades of widespread poverty and disinvestment.
Baltimore photographer Ben Marcin, who lives in a well-kept rowhouse himself, has been documenting structures that haven't fared nearly as well. In "Last House Standing," started in 2010, Marcin shoots heartbreaking photographs that show neighbor-less rowhouses, its density-friendly architecture surrounded awkwardly by vacant lots.
Over the next two and a half years, Baltimore plans to spend nearly $22 million to tear down 1,500 abandoned houses, according to the Baltimore Sun. Previously, it spent about $2.5 million a year to demolish these symbols of urban neglect. What will replace these buildings is not always certain. One resident tells the Sun, 'We just don't want a lot of tracts of vacant land like Detroit."
Marcin also documents lonelier rowhouses in cities like Camden and Philadelphia, where the imagery is just as devastating. We caught up with the German- born Marcin via email to discuss "Last House Standing," and what he sees in the streetscapes and buildings he shoots:
When did you first start photographing stand-alone row houses? What drew you to them?
I started photographing the solo rowhouses in 2010. I was initially taken by the monolithic appearance of these structures as I drove through certain neighborhoods near where I live. These houses weren't designed to stand by themselves, forty feet tall by nineteen feet wide; no architect in his right mind would design a home in this way. Yet here they were, violently shorn of their neighbors like a gap-toothed pumpkin; most of the original decorative features still in place.
My wife and I live in a very elegant three-story Baltimore rowhouse built in 1880. It is one of twenty-one, similarly attached rowhouses forming a solid city block. These buildings, when preserved through the years, are magnificent to live in: twelve foot ceilings, thick plaster walls, high-quality brickwork designed to last forever, beautiful ornamental details inside and out - they do not make houses like this anymore.
It is always with a touch of sadness when I find and stop to photograph one of the old, solo rowhouses struggling to hang on in some of the more distressed neighborhoods in Baltimore. I would guess that my original intention for photographing these rowhouses was to document the connection between our own house - still very vibrant and well cared for - with those on the other end of the spectrum. In a way, it makes me think what will become of our rowhouse after we are long gone.
What compelled you to find these kinds of stand-alone row homes beyond Baltimore?
At some point, it occurred to me that there may be similar rowhouses in other cities along the east coast. The social and demographic issues that created the solo rowhouses are not unique to Baltimore.
Is there a specific one you've photographed that still stands out to you the most?
The blue rowhouse in Baltimore, with the bright white windows and no front door, was my first such photograph and my personal favorite. The windows are like eyes, glowing outwards. The bright blue paint was probably painted sometime after the house went solo - one can see the crumbly sections of red brick underneath. It has been alone for so long that a parking lot and fencing has sprung up beside it. Unlike most of my rowhouses, this one may stay forever.
During one of the first times that I photographed a solo rowhouse in Baltimore, an older African-American gentleman in a bathrobe and jeans walked out and confronted me. He was polite but also a bit cantankerous and wanted to know if I was from the city. He was not afraid of the drug dealers who had caused the abject decline of his block nor was he afraid of the city bureaucracy that no doubt had an eye on his house. He certainly wasn't afraid of me. During our brief conversation, I came to understand why his house was still standing.
What part of Germany did you grow up in and how does it compare to Baltimore or the neighborhoods around the Mid-Atlantic you've been photographing for this project?
I was born in Augsburg, an old city in the far south of Bavaria, west of Munich. My mother is from Berlin, and my father was Polish. I spent much of my first ten years in different places in Bavaria.
The old rowhouses on the east coast rank among the oldest buildings in the country, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. However, in Germany, they would be relative babies - many of the houses there are hundreds of years old. What they have in common is a very solid infrastructure and foundation. In those days, homes were built to last a long time; they weren't constructed with pressboard and other cheap materials. Unlike Germany, the American rowhouses have been buffeted by greater social and demographic forces.