DEATH AND TAXES: Even the Dead Can’t Avoid Taxes and Abandonments

It’s been said that Urban Exploration Photography is ultimately about photographing failure.  Specifically, what we are capturing when we point our lens at a building in a state of abandonment and ruin is the inability of both individual owners and whole communities to maintain enough prosperity to support business, industry or redevelopment.  So what can be said when engaging in urban exploration exposes that you can’t even escape potential abandonment (and taxes) in death?

Because of that question, I consider this to be the strangest and most disturbing place that I’ve photographed to date.

This dilapidated mausoleum/chapel has notices taped to the front window that contain words such as “Tax Claim Bureau” and “Judicial Sale”, plus a figure in excess of $4,000.  The papers were all signed and dated during the summer of 2005, when they were evidentialy placed where they have remained since that date.   There are people interred on both sides of this deteriorating building as well as inside.  The roof obviously is in need of repair.  Two portions of the rear stained glass windows appear to be missing.  All of the flowers placed with the memorials are artificial, indicating that people are not allowed inside the structure on a regular basis, AND they were made aware of the fact that they would be denied access at some point.   There is also an obviously abandoned and overgrown cemetery office building located on the opposite side of the property.

Someone does periodically maintain the grounds by cutting the grass where people are buried.  Other than that fact, there is no indication whatsoever that any activity takes place on the property.  It seems dead as the proverbial door-nail.  It’s hard to even try to guess what, if anything, is in the works for the “residents” of “Questionable Fate” Memorial Park.  I find that idea haunting and I have more to say about this location at the end of the post.

Memorial Park Office

Looking for some input from the outside world while I was editing these pictures and thinking about what to write, I posted an image from this series on Facebook.  Almost immediately, the picture generated the expected “Where’s this at?” from someone unaware that urban explorers just don’t ask that particular question, at least not in a public forum!

In my response, I explained that I was not going to disclose the location.  Which is a first for me; much to the annoyance of some other photographers of the same subject matter, I usually post my pictures on social media sites like Flickr with all of the pertinent tags and background information included.  I just learned early on that people were more likely to take the time to look at, and comment on, my pictures when they know what they are looking at and have some background information to add context and depth to their interpretation of the image.  If those components are missing, I usually question the effectiveness and purpose of this genre of photography.  But this Memorial Park mystery has me even questioning that point of view, at least in some cases.

I still believe that each of us engaged in this activity is really bound by ethics to disclose location information to other legitimate photographers/historians/documentarians.   At its core, urban exploration photography serves to visually challenge America’s current state of amnesia about its past economic failure. Ruins don’t happen overnight—they require DECADES of neglect!

Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days--Part 1 An Introduction
Hotel Sterling, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania

I am aware that full disclosure is considered controversial by some people who explore on a regular basis, since many believe that all locations should remain top secret information.

After a few years of doing this, I definitely reject that point of view. There seems to be a growing consensus, at least among mature, professional explorers, that we are acting as the archivists of America’s age of post-war industrial decline.

The Loom Room, Scranton Lace {EXPLORED}:  UE Magazine
Abandoned Scranton Lace Factory

America is  a nation in transition.  For generations we have been running away from a much required correction to our economy, way of life and expectations.  Our cities and small towns are struggling to provide basic services to residents.  We are living in dire economic times befitting the fall of an empire.  Almost every community across the county is littered with more long-term abandonments than they can even begin to hope to restore and that is serving as our wake up call, reminding us that we can no longer pretend that we are able to continue to grow our economy exponentially.

While people like to believe that our current economic state is a recent and unexpected occurrence caused by one president or another, the truth is that America’s decline actually began decades ago. Some economists believe that it really started with the end of World War II.

Fast forward to today, after the big “preservation” push during the 90s, and the start of the new millennium, following the time when communities looked to “Savior Building” redevelopment/preservation projects to jump-start their struggling economy.  Those projects, more often than not, resulted in unmet goals and half completed endeavors. Now, those same proponents of preservation are singing a vastly different tune.  Quotes from a Preservation Pennsylvania representative in 2011, paint a grim picture for abandonments of historical significance in my state, when asked about the finding help to save the long-abandoned Hotel Sterling:

It's a Zombie Ballroom now at the Hotel Sterling

 Zombie Ballroom at the Hotel Sterling

The state is filled with historic structures facing demolition. These are difficult times economically. Private funders don’t have money. The government doesn’t have any money, and typically that’s where money comes for historic preservation,” – “Preservation Pennsylvania is monitoring Hotel Sterling”, Times Leader, April 3, 2011

 I know many explorers operate under the assumption that if they keep these locations a secret, they can remain our personal playgrounds forever.  As a collective group, we may give lip service to preservation, but that is not the case, as observed in an interview by journalist Len Albright:

 “I’ve interviewed people who have been to the same building 20 or 30 times, they just love it so much,” he says. “But when I asked them if they’d like to organize a cleanup or a preservation effort, they’d be indifferent. They might think that’s fine for someone else to do … after awhile, though, they’d be off to hunt for the next abandoned building.”

That pretty much sums it up, for the most part, we are “ruin porn whores” first and foremost, myself included.  But thinking that an abandonment can remain abandoned indefinitely is unrealistic.  The only reason an abandonment would exist in the first place would be as a direct result of a failed economy.  In order for these communities to move forward, they are going to have to eradicate these structures from their landscape.  To leave them sit there, just signals the slow death of their entire social structure.

Huber Breaker Ruins:  The Art of Industrial DecayLong Abandoned Huber Breaker, Ashley Pennsylvania

It’s obvious that in order for economic recovery to start, these buildings are going to have to come down, especially if they have reached that tipping point where just building a new structure is far more economical than restoring what is there now.  And that’s why I share location information, I recognized that the structures have historical value, and they are doomed (which is why they are beautiful), and I want as many photographers to photograph them as possible before they are gone.  It is part of the history of the building, and the community, and deserves to be documented as much as any other event that occurred on the site.

Which brings me back to the questions raised by my haunting discovery of this memorial park, “why not share the location”?  It just doesn’t fall into the same category, and because I’m sure that people with loved ones buried there would not appreciate droves of urban explorers flocking there to gawk.  Plus there are weirdos out there who vandalize both crypts and corpses, so we certainly don’t want to tell them where a mausoleum of questionable status is located!

I was also asked, more than once,  via private message, “if the location isn’t worthy of sharing, why even bother posting the picture in the first place?”

I posted the picture because it touched me at a core level, as it obviously did for the other people who took the time to “like” my Facebook post, to comment, or to contact me privately.  Many people were wondering about who is maintaining the property and why. My best guess would be that people with loved ones buried at the location may be going there to cut grass, or the county where it is located has taken on the responsibility.

The tax notices are from 2005.  That was seven years ago.  Maybe someone has taken it over since then & just lacks the funds to do any repairs yet (although I would think they would at least remove the notices from the windows!)  I kind of hope that the families of the people buried there would pull their resources to take over the park for themselves, which would seem to be the least upsetting option.

 The funniest message was from the wife a man, well versed in history, who was puzzled as to WHY a cemetery would owe back taxes. I shared a copy of the notice posted on the door with them, because I believe it contains a clue.  The Tax Claim Notice lists the former owner as “Blank” Memorial Garden INC, and I’m thinking that the fact that it belonged to a corporation and not a religious institution may play a role in the present circumstances of the location! It may now be incorporated, but I guess there is no money to be made in death unless it’s tax free!  😉

This is why I believe that posting these images is important; it adds another layer to our national discussion about the fall of our empire, even without disclosing the location.  What does it really say about society when corporations and taxation interfere with the ability to maintain the final resting place of our dead?

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Cheri Sundra © 2012
All Rights Reserved

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    • Ben Thompson
    • September 11th, 2012

    there’s more to it than “all or the USA is going down”…places like Wilkes-Barre and Detroit go down while places like Houston and Dallas and Atlanta and Phoenix sprawl on rabidly…not sure what to suggest apropos of dealing with that. America needs to come to love rooted old places more, and abandonment (and other) photographers can contribute to that.

    • Marty
    • October 4th, 2012

    Hi Cheri – to your point about decline and it’s beginning, if you haven’t already done so, check out a book called “The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kuntsler. I think it pretty much describes in painful detail the facts that nobody is willing to face. Anyway great photos, great writing…

  1. Cheri,

    While I agree America is in decline, and we need a wake up call, I am not certain preservation of old places is the truest example of that.

    There have been thousands of boom and bust cities across the country. Millions of structures abandoned, deteriorated, and eventually reclaimed by nature.

    If those cities and communities were not economically viable, is throwing good money at them now truly a good alternative?

    Ghost.

    • I don’t disagree at all! When I started photographing abandonments two years ago I was completely “for” historic preservation efforts in my community….now I have a much different view. Preservation projects have turned into multi-million dollar business deals……and that’s just not realistic in a community that is failing financially. My own town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania spent $6 million to try to get a $32 million preservation effort off the ground to save the Hotel Sterling—in the end all that was accomplished was losing $6 million dollars!

  2. Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:
    Everyone,

    Cheri asks some important questions about what we consider important in our communities.

    What do we want to preserve? What work from our predecessors should we invest more time and money in today? What value should our past bring us today.

    Enjoy,

    Ghost.

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