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The Private Lives of Vacant Homes

An art installation celebrates the spirit of boarded-up blocks of Baltimore and Japan.

Courtesy Maja Griffin

This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.

Tens of thousands of vacant rowhouses are scattered across the city of Baltimore, which is ramping up a new campaign to demolish them. The Washington Post recently chronicled the razing of an entire block of North Bradford Street in East Baltimore, in a neighborhood bordered by renovated homes and a new public school operated by Johns Hopkins. The city, Steve Hendrix wrote, “is spending millions of dollars tearing out blighted pieces of itself in the hope that, like a pruned tree, the rest of the city will bloom.”

But homes, of course, are more than floors, walls, and roofs: Generations march on inside. Those homes, and the lives built inside them, comprise a neighborhood. Those are the relationships that preoccupied the artist Maja Griffin, whose installation “Home: This Must Be the Place” was recently on view at Cooper Union as part of the annual Benjamin Menschel Fellowship.

Griffin was born in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Mount Clare, parts of which have been leveled and rebuilt. As families lose their homes, the stories of the people who lived there are at risk of disappearing, too. “There is more to an empty home than vacancy,” Griffin writes in an overview of the show. How do we re-enter a home, and keep the memories of the life contained there vibrant and vital?

In pursuit of an answer, while studying sculpture in Kyoto, Griffin traveled around to various prefectures to see what abandoned homes looked like in the region. Like Baltimore, some towns in Japan have a glut of vacant homes—though the dynamics are different. Policies, poverty, and a receding population contributed to the vacancies in Baltimore; in areas of Japan, Griffin noticed, agricultural pockets seemed to contract and empty as people pushed toward bigger cities. Griffin looked at examples of how locals in Japan dedicated disused spaces to new purposes: refashioning them as art venues, maybe, or community co-ops for farming. And the trip, she adds, helped shift her thinking about her hometown.

(Courtesy Maja Griffin)

In the installation, small images are hung at eye-level on planks of cedar plywood, which Griffin spritzed with water to pull out the smell of boarded-up windows and doors. The wood is the material that barricades people from houses, cordoning off ones marked for foreclosure—but it’s also the basis for building something new.

Most photographs spotlight the homes, not their inhabitants, but human traces are everywhere. They’re suggested by intertwined hoop earrings swaying from the plywood, or white sneakers, or a tin of Old Bay seasoning. “Home doesn’t always become lost places,” Griffin says. “It becomes us, and what we wear as symbols.”

One photograph does contain figures: three little boys padding down the sidewalk past the rubble of a collapsed building as “danger” tape dangles from a lamppost.

In the shot, which Griffin snapped near her family’s church, the kids don’t pay any attention to the rubble—they’re not gawking at it; they’re just going about their business. Griffin says she’s been “thinking a lot about what Baltimore could look like in five or ten years,” and how she can band together with other locals and organizations to amplify voices and pitch in to repurpose spaces. She hopes to install the exhibition in Baltimore soon, too.

(Courtesy Maja Griffin)

Griffin imagines the citizens of Baltimore to be collaborators in the project. She condensed more than 100 audio interviews into a 45-minute sound piece. When she approached someone with her camera, they sometimes knew her grandmother or a cousin. “I have 21 years of knowing and loving the place,” she tells me. “I found so many stories walking around, just saying hello.”

(Courtesy Maja Griffin)

Griffin’s photographs have a tint of tenderness that’s absent in the realm of sensationalized ruin porn glamor shots. Her series isn’t about ogling hardship; it’s an intimate portrayal of a neighborhood that seems to feel like family. Many of the residents Griffin spoke with were fiercely loyal to their city, too. “I wouldn’t trade this shit for nothing,” one told her.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.