Archive for the ‘ Urban Exploration ’ Category

The Hotel Sterling: Five History Lessons

The Hotel Sterling: Five History Lessons

(What is history REALLY telling us?)

Featuring the photography of Dawn Robinson & Stacy Shannon

With Ed Mountjoy of The Forgotten Places of NEPA, who ultimately  gets the last word!

DawnPhoto Credit: Dawn Robinson of Nocturnal Echo Imagery

About a decade or so ago, it was trendy in declining communities to sell people on the notion that historic preservation was the ticket to imparting eternal life. But as the literature of those who try to cheat death has shown us, the bid for immortality can come at a huge price.  While the walking dead may be all the rage in pop culture, no city wants to find itself plagued by zombie buildings, a term being adopted nationwide to describe the disease afflicting places where buildings are difficult to lease, or sell, because they are in physical disrepair, and their owners lack the resources to bring the building up to code .  Unfortunately, using millions of taxpayer dollars that were supposed to be spent on our city’s financial resuscitation, it appears that Wilkes-Barre has created a Zombie Hotel instead. 

The demolition of the once grand Hotel Sterling really only leaves one question–Why?  Why do beautiful things fall to disrepair?  Why did our community allow this place, with such a romanticized past, fall to ruin?  Why did this beloved building turn into a memento mori of Wilkes-Barre’s prosperity?  

StacyPhoto Credit: Stacy Shannon

Every time a historical landmark is left to die, a community is left   to confront failure.  The building failed to live up to expectations, the owners failed to maintain the structure, and  the community leaders failed to create a local market that could sustain successful business development.   Sadly, happy stories of rehabilitation and rescue are few and far between for the majority of places across the nation.  Instead the failure to preserve historic landmarks seems to be serving as the signal of the kind of economic collapse that begins with the start of a zombie building apocalypse in struggling communities nationwide.

Northeastern Pennsylvania’s three largest cities, including Wilkes-Barre, are currently standing on the ledge, looking into the abyss of financial failure.  Decades of arbitration-mandated labor-related costs are rising faster than tax revenues, large numbers of untaxed buildings are owned by nonprofits, and stagnating tax bases are deeply rooting these communities into the same dire financial situation that has contributed to the total collapse of cities like Detroit and Camden. 

Dawn 1

Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

About a decade ago, Wilkes-Barre’s leaders presented our community with a big plan that was supposed to save it from the same fate facing her two sister cities–Scranton and Hazleton.  This agenda, primarily consisting of historic preservation, was called the “Susquehanna Landing” project.  The plan included a newly renovated Hotel Sterling packed with shiny new residential units.  There would be yet another city parkade built which would somehow become part of the Luzerne County owned, and still vacant, Springbook Water Company, located behind and to the right of the Hotel Sterling.  There would be a museum in the still vacant Sterling Annex building,  which would connect  via some elaborate, elevated walkway system, to some newly built conference center that would somehow be linked to the still vacant Irem Temple, which is currently owned by the Chamber of Commerce. 

What was ultimately missing from this plan was a NEED for all of this redevelopment in the first place.

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #1—Create a Need

You construct your vision around a need that already exists.  You don’t attempt to build something that you hope will create one.  When the Hotel Sterling was built, droves of immigrants were motivated to cross the ocean to come to Luzerne County to work in our mining industry.  Coal was King and trains were depositing, and retrieving, large gatherings of business men at the train station on a daily basis.  It was because of this activity, that the Hotel Sterling was actually constructed.  These people needed somewhere to sleep, have meetings and entertain while visiting Wilkes-Barre for business purposes.   We didn’t build it in the hopes that they would come, we HAD to build it because they were already here!  If you don’t have a solid and identifiable need for your Susquehanna Landing-esque “vision of the future”, you have to begin by creating the “need”, not the vision. 

 Dawn 3

Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #2—Look to the future, not the past

I am puzzled by the sentimental idea that we are “losing our soul” with the demolition of the Hotel Sterling.  No structure is the “soul” of a community….especially one that was built to cater to the rich and business classes, in a community that was predominately built by the exploitation of the working class.  In fact, it was BECAUSE of the working class that this structure was brought into existence, because the coal miners created the NEED for the Hotel Sterling.  BUT the coal miners, with their dirty clothing and soot covered faces would have surely been turned away if they showed up at the Hotel during the luncheon hour, or for a few beers at the bar on their way home from work.  When it was first built, the Hotel Sterling was strictly a venue constructed for “the 1%” exclusively, unless you happened to work for the Hotel.

Sure, as the place began to decline, it became more community-centric and the average person may have found themselves there, once or twice, for the occasional prom or office Christmas party.  But when we look back upon idealized memories of the Sterling, those usually aren’t the recollections that are looked upon with great historical significance, unless of course, a President or other famous figure happened to be passing by or staying at the Hotel.

Stacy 1Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

And certainly, no one is looking back fondly at the last years of the building when it was still active, but had declined to the point that its only viable use was as low income housing.  No, this is a venue that historians like to recall with tales of string orchestras and Lobster Thermidor, not financially struggling elderly people existing in a building that was declining around them. 

What about the people who never had the chance to experience the Sterling at all, if it is the “soul” of our community?  What if you live in Wilkes-Barre and came of age AFTER the Hotel Sterling shut its doors forever?  Have those young people existed in a soulless community?  Doesn’t anything that they have grown up experiencing in Wilkes-Barre matter at all?  It’s silly to attach such extreme value to a building. Especially when history has taught us that great economic growth, as well as our future, is often connected to the creation of new buildings full new memories for the up and coming generation.

Dawn 6Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

Once upon a time, there stood a music hall, where popular plays and musical comedies were performed.  People of that community remembered that venue fondly, sitting at the gateway to Wilkes-Barre.  Then the day arrived when that parcel of real estate seemed far too valuable for such a singular venue, and the music hall was demolished to make room for the Hotel Sterling.  After all, the Hotel was needed to meet the requirements of the growing population and industry that was knocking at the door of Wilkes-Barre. 

People looking towards the future; spend little time dwelling in the outmoded needs of the past.  We need leaders who think about our future!  You never have to mourn the loss of your past, if you are replacing it with a future that is brighter.  Only communities that lack hope for the future, cling so desperately to their “glory days” at all costs!

 

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #3—Historical Preservation

as an agenda does not assure a successful redevelopment project

It’s interesting to note that Preservation Pennsylvania, along many other preservation centered organizations, is NOW issuing recommendations about assessing financial feasibility when considering Historical Preservation Projects.   Many see this as a reaction to the failed trend in pushing historic preservation as a redevelopment plan in declining communities, as well as the fact that economic conditions nationwide are signaling an overall decline in America’s financial health.  Historic Preservation of a long-term vacant building is ALWAYS ultimately more expensive than new construction.

 In the publication, “How To Protect and Preserve the Historic Places That Matter to You, Preservation Pennsylvania provides a series of “reality checks” for assessing a project’s financial feasibility, a topic that often goes unmentioned when emotional attachment reigns during community discussions that involve “saving” beloved landmarks.  In fact, those pushing a “preservation agenda” will stop at nothing to see that a building is “saved” in the name of “history”, even if it requires completely stripping EVERYTHING from the structure that contributed to a memorable experience at that location, just for the sake of saving nothing but the shell of a building.  That’s an expensive proposition that will not be economically feasible for building owners and developers to entertain in communities facing financial issues like Wilkes-Barre.   

Stacy 5 Safe

Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

In a section titled “Reality Check—Know when it’s time to walk away”, Preservation Pennsylvania says “There is no formula that can be used to determine when to call it quits, but if you are honest with yourself, clear on your objectives, and really understand the limitations of your resources, you will know when it is time to congratulate yourself for making the effort, learn from what didn’t work, and walk away.”  

I was recently asked whether or not the Hotel Sterling should have/could have been saved, in an interview for 570 Mine Fire.  Here is a portion of that interview:

“I’m a realist. I believe that the biggest error was in not demolishing the Hotel Sterling sooner. I do not believe that it was ever financially savable, even way back when it was still structurally savable. And both components have to be there in order to create a successful outcome in a preservation attempt. Just because a structure is historical, does not mean that it will result in a successful redevelopment project. I think that when CityVest ran out of their first batch of funding without a developer in sight, that the community should have just congratulated them for their efforts, and called it quits right there. But instead we found a way to find them even more money, despite the fact that developer after developer kept passing the project up for structural reasons.  According to one newspaper report:

“Among the building deficiencies identified by developers: Low ceiling height, compromised views from small windows, an inefficient layout for use as residential or hotel units, unusable space created by the large lobby and atrium, inconsistent floor elevations on the second floor, narrow elevators that don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, concern that replacement of the floors could risk structural instability of the building because of the way the floors are anchored to the building’s perimeter walls.”– “Sterling’s Fate in County’s Hands”, Times Leader, April 16, 2011

But as a community, we just kept going on this “preservation agenda” relentlessly. Given my short-lived experience as an activist for the building, I see how a fever begins to spread that ultimately builds these building owners up for a success that will never be realized because it is being built upon a false premise.  When I first started asking community leaders about what we could do to save the Sterling, most of them responded with “Tell the owner that you want to rent an apartment or commercial space in the building.” Which I found really weird, because I’m not a business owner and I don’t want to live near Market Street, so when I would push for a different answer or more information, they would tell me that it’s just what you do if you want to save a building.

Knowing that, while reading through old newspaper archives about the preservation project, one quote from the paper really stuck out in my mind:

 “Without any formal marketing, CityVest board members can’t go to any functions in town without somebody expressing interest”, Rogers said.” – “State Ensuring Preservation of Hotel Sterling’s Legacy:  Bureau for Historical Preservation Will OK CityVest’s Progress”, Citizens’ Voice, June 7, 2005

Were these people also being told to falsely tell CityVest representatives that they wanted to live/work in the building? And if so, would CityVest have stopped redevelopment plans sooner if there wasn’t this “false” community buzz about the project that didn’t reflect ANYTHING about the local economy or real estate market? I guess we’[ll never know, because with all of the finger-pointing going on, I’m sure no one affiliated with CityVest will ever agree to publicly talk about the failed project.  Which is a shame; there is a lot that we as a community could gain by having that discussion.”

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #4—Know when to walk away

While well intentioned,  the Hotel Sterling preservation seemed doomed almost from the very beginning when you take the time to look back over newspaper coverage concerning the project from the very beginning. (You can find excepts of this newspaper coverage (contained in another post on this site)  While many people blame the failure of the project on CityVest, the last owner of the Hotel Sterling, it is obvious that evidence clearly suggested that a positive preservation outcome may have been highly improbable to achieve in the end.  It is striking to realize that local journalists were referring to the structure as decaying and decrepit as far back as 2001—a red flag about the magnitude of the project itself and the funds required for completion.

Dawn 10Photo Credit:  Dawn Robinson

Another red flag that should have slapped our community leaders directly in the face was the fact that developer after developer passed on the project.  We should have just STOPPED at the point where funding had been exhausted with no developer in sight willing to take on a $32 million dollar historic preservation project.  But the hubris-filled love of our past, found our leaders scrambling for even MORE FUNDING  in order to declare the owners of the structure, CityVest, the “the developer of last chance”.   The fact that the newspapers were using that phrase should have signaled “danger” to the community at large. 

The entire concept for the Sterling project (& the other historic structures included in the “Susquehanna Landing” vision) may have been too “high-end” for the reality of the Wilkes-Barre real estate market. For years, the public was being sold on an upscale vision, when in reality, that market/location has only attracted volunteer services and companies specializing in addiction rehabilitation.

Another issue that was hinted at from the inception of the Sterling project was that Wilkes-Barre’s reputation for corrupt political dealings was going to make it difficult to attract serious developers who wanted to invest in our community. Since that time, we all know that things have only taken a turn for the worst—“Kids for Cash”, need I say more?!  The fact remains that the preservation enthusiasts in our community  need to consider the real-world obstacles that Wilkes-Barre faces while moving forward with any more projects now, or in the future. 

 Stacy 6

Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

When historic preservation is discussed in Luzerne County, the conversation is very one-sided, and usually consists of attempts by preservationists to guilt the public into letting proponents have their way by insisting that people “don’t value history” if they are against a restoration project. It’s time to get real about historic preservation in Luzerne County. The fact is, that because of changes in the structure of the global market and the national economy, communities that have not been investing wisely in their history when things were really good, are going to lose a lot of that history now!

It makes more sense to maintain structures BEFORE they become long-term vacancies, than it does to attempt to engage in heroic “life saving” measures after the fact.   Like it or not, “saving history” is a big ticket project that requires the help of outside private developers who are going to be looking for a return on their investment. And while there are plenty of entities who will encourage communities to move forward with such projects, there are none who will assist them in assessing the situation beforehand to see if such a project is even viable in the first place.

HISTORIC PRESERVATION in and of itself is BIG BUSINESS. Who can we count on to tell us when taking on a project may not be feasible in our community? Is the consulting firm hired to market the project going to do it? Are all of the architect firms that stand to benefit from the proposed project going sound the alarms? Will non-profit entities such as Preservation Pennsylvania, who earn their keep pushing a preservation or “history” agenda, do it?  NO. 

Stacy 2Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

When Wilkes-Barre discusses historic preservation, the conversation always seems focused on the structure itself and what CAN be done (& believe me, SOMETHING can ALWAYS be done) to save it, but no one ever seems to  question what SHOULD be done when all of the external factors are considered.

Stacy 4Photo Credit: Stacy Shannon

Many components need to be in place in a community to successfully complete a multi-million dollar historic preservation project. What in Luzerne County has changed that would make success in ANY expensive historic preservation effort a possibility today? I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe that anyone has an answer to that question as our community is now faced with deciding what should happen to the entire cluster of vacant “Zombie” historic buildings inhabiting the city block once designated for the “Susquehanna Landing” community redevelopment vision.

The fact that all of these vacancies even exist  is quite mind blowing,  considering that they have been sitting, untouched for years, just one block away from the epicenter of Wilkes-Barre, and also one block away from the city’s institutions of higher learning.  And just like the owners of the Hotel Sterling, the owners of these remaining structures cannot afford to fix or maintain them either!  And sadly, the taxpayers technically own many of these buildings, thanks to someone’s failed plan that involved community entities buying them AFTER they became vacant!

Hotel Sterling Historical Lesson #5–Even when “zombie” real-estate is privately owned,

if the owner falls into financial dire straits,

the distressed building becomes a burden for the taxpayer

What a grand, public resource eating, Zombie Hotel the Sterling eventually became!  And this is often the case for all Zombie Buildings, even if they are historic!  People forget that just sitting there, doing nothing, these vacant buildings are costing SOMEONE money—usually the taxpayer in one way or another! Taxes are either being paid or are being forgiven.  Insurance premiums need to be maintained by SOMEONE.  The price of having vacant and blighted real estate littering the landscape can become an insurmountable burden for any city, scaring away prospective business owners and real estate investors. 

And now we are forced to ponder the ugly and expensive question about what needs to be done with the rest of the zombie real estate that has taken up residence within this same block, waiting for the day when our past was supposed to redeem our city in the present.  How many more parcels of the decaying remains of a by-gone era can our community possibly try to maintain before we push ourselves beyond the prospect of having any real hope for the future?

Dawn 8Photo Credit: Dawn Robinson

Today as we begin the process of dismantling our brick and fake marble corpse of innovation and prosperity known as the Hotel Sterling, we SHOULD mourn its passing because it was built to fulfill a need created by abundance.  Unfortunately, whatever we put there now, will ultimately be damned, because we will be building it out of desperation.    

We are a community, extinguishing our past in the present, and transitioning into what we will become in the future.  The Hotel Sterling is a story about the death of a chapter in American History that begins with the end of the industrial revolution.  For decades, our community has attempted to outrun our diminished expectations for a way of life that we can no longer hope to maintain.   The demolition of the Hotel Sterling should serve as a harsh wake-up call about our community’s impoverished current reality. At one point considered a monolith of our affluent class’s achievement, what remained was ultimately nothing but blight on our city’s landscape.  

~*~

ONE FINAL WORD FROM THE FORGOTTEN PLACES OF NEPA

Ed 1Photo Credit:  Ed Mountjoy

Ed Mountjoy, the face behind The Forgotten Place of NEPA on Facebook, had the extraordinary opportunity to watch the fireworks display at Kirby Park, from inside of the abandoned Hotel Sterling this year. (Way to go Ed!  You are my Urban Exploration hero!)  He explains:

“Seeing the fireworks from the Hotel Sterling that night was surely something I don’t ever expect to forget. Being up there, on the seventh floor, sitting there by that window, which was missing its bottom part of glass, was an odd feeling. It wasn’t odd in a bad way, but odd as in that I could actually picture people doing the very same thing back when the Sterling was occupied. The fact that it was dark all around, except for outside, added to the feeling, since the darkness covered up the fact about how gutted and decayed the building really was. While sitting on the floor watching the fireworks, I could just imagine someone in that very room doing the same thing decades ago. It was a historic view that many got to see in the past and, with this passing Fourth of July, it would be the last time anyone would get this view, from this very building, of the fireworks. Knowing this would be the very last year, I knew I had to get up there to see them.”

Ed Continues:

“This is WHY I maintain The Forgotten Places of NEPA and The Forgotten Coal Industry of NEPA on Facebook.  Places like the Sterling, won’t always be around.  Many, if not all, of the places I’ve been to have meaning to at least someone, whether it’s a small building on the side of a barely used road or structures that occupy spaces at the busiest of intersections. At some point, people worked and/or lived in these places, people I am sure have relatives that are alive today, relatives that may wanna see where their ancestors worked/lived at. I maintain these pages to keep those memories as alive as I can and I’m sure others seeing these photos trigger memories of either them working/living there, or knowing about family and/or friends who worked/lived there. Many might think that my pages are strictly just about urban exploring, but it’s not. Granted, most my photos involve having to do so, but I do it because I know many who’d like to see such photos can’t go there themselves. I do so, not just to explore the locations and get piles of photos, even though that is the best part of the experience, but to, hopefully, trigger some memories from others and maybe even learn a little more about these locations from those people.”

 SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo Credit: Ed Mountjoy

~*~

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

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Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days

Abandoned Hotel Sterling: A Room With A View

 Zombie buildings are real.  It was a term first coined by financial analysts to explain the national collapse of the commercial real estate market as far back as 2006, and has expanded to represent all buildings that are unusable due to disrepair, because they are owned by entities that are too broke to fix them.

Based upon “Hotel Sterling: The UnDead Days”,  Welcome To The Zombie Hotel Sterling is now available for digital download at Amazon.com!  If you don’t have a Kindle device, don’t worry, you can download a free Kindle app for your smart phone or computer right here!

Book Description:

Abandoned and rotting away along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River, the zombified Hotel Sterling tells its tale of fading grandeur and woe to a photographer visiting the deteriorating structure, seeking to photographically document the reality of the condition of the building, as the hotel waits for its beloved community to decide its fate, once and for all.

~*~

Read an interview about “Welcome to the Zombie Sterling” at: 570 Mine Fire

~*~

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Guerrilla History

Table of Contents 

Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

The Sexy Side of Abandonment: Scranton Lace Pin-Up Girls

Lace A

Giving New Meaning To “Scranton Lace”

Anyone who explores abandoned buildings eventually runs into evidence that suggests a whole lot of sex goes on within those dark, sticky and usually moist spaces. Like a passionate affair, ruins are exciting!  Standing in one makes your heart beat faster and the world outside fades from your consciousness as time stands still, and you’re thrust into another world.

Presently, many of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s abandonments are understandably being utilized as backdrops for music videos by local bands such as Astorian Stigmata, and fashion photo shoots by bloggers like Riss Vandal of Fashion Vandals.  And now, thanks to Sullivan’s Pin-Up Photography, the Scranton Lace Factory has a whole new visual image to ponder and appreciate!

Scranton Lace, a factory basically abandoned by the owner in 2002, when workers were informed that it was closing “effective immediately”, first became a popular site among people who engage in Urban Exploration photography, and photojournalists covering our nation’s age of industrial decline.  Now, with the facility currently under renovation in order to bring it back to life, photographer Bonnie Sullivan was able to secure the location in order to conduct one of her specialty Pin-Up Model photo shoots.

Knowing how much I loved photographing Scranton Lace, since I’d been there several times before, Bonnie graciously asked me to stop by during the event, where I was able to convince two of her models to give my readers an inside look at becoming a Pin-Up model for the day.  And after watching this process in action, I truly believe that every woman should do it at least once, just to be able to say they’ve done it.  Apparently, transforming yourself into a Pin-Up is one of those pivotal, life-changing experiences, in terms of confidence building! And in this hyper-connected, social media world, who doesn’t want to feel more confident while having their picture taken?!

Jennifer Walsh-Crosland was the first model to arrive. “This is fucking awesome”, were the initial words out of her saucy red painted lips as she strutted into Scranton Lace’s now infamous bowling alley, with her ruby “ribbon candy” pumps and Bettie Page store shopping bag.  Jennifer, who has done this type of thing before, was excited to finally see the interior of the Scranton Lace Factory.  It had been one of her ambitions for quite a while.  She said, “I was excited because the building and the company have such a historical influence on the culture of this city. It’s been around since the 1890’s, employed many of our area residents throughout the years, and holds so much energy.”

Lace C

And as an added bonus for her spouse, who escorted her to the shoot, Mr. Crosland was also able to get a private behind-the- scenes look at that history all for himself.  “He enjoyed being able to walk around the building while I was doing the shoot. He got some really great pictures from a place that we would have otherwise never had the opportunity to be inside”, Jennifer shared.

The next model to show up was Nikki Falcone, which seems like a name ready-made for an alluring Pin-Up bombshell.  This was her first experience, so her entrance was a little more subdued as she took in the entire scene, which could be a little intimidating for a first-timer.  But as Nikki watched Jennifer in action, under Bonnie Sullivan’s expert direction, she seemed to become more at ease.  It was clear that Bonnie, with the support of her husband Joe Sullivan, was running this show.  “Walk with a little swagger”, she instructed Jennifer, as she stood, in those spectacular red heels, in the middle of a post-apocalyptical looking bowling lane, with two weathered bowling pins grasped in her hands.  “Don’t hold them evenly”, she directed, “hold one pin by the neck and the other down further.”

At one point, while adjusting Jennifer’s dress by hiking it further up her thigh, Bonnie told Jennifer, “Yes, you ARE that kind of girl! Go with it!”, as she snapped her camera shutter closed several times in quick succession.  “Act like you own it”, she instructed Jennifer, “Lift ‘the girls’ (Pin-Up speak for boobs) and cinch the waste!”

Jennifer

Jennifer

When asked about the onslaught of posing instructions, Jennifer responded “The direction that she gives is what makes it so awesome! I mean, I’m just a normal chick; I’m goofy and uncoordinated, but with Bonnie & Joe behind the camera, all of that goes away. They just have a way that makes you feel so comfortable and so confident!”

I asked Jennifer if, after working with professional photographers, she had one posing tip that she would share with others to make their own pictures better. Her response was, “If it feels weird in the moment, more than likely, that’s going to be the best pose of the day!”

The next model to step into the spotlight was Nikki Falcone, who was doing the photo shoot as a gift for her husband, who is into all things retro, as a gift for their anniversary.  “He’s been looking up a lot of (Pin-Up) pictures”, she explained, “So rather than be jealous of those models, I thought maybe I could do just as well.” And do it, Nikki did!

“If you feel comfortable, your photos will look awkward.  So be uncomfortable”, instructed Bonnie from behind the lens, as she led Nikki through some shots on top of the roof of the massive industrial complex.  “Do you want to pretend like you are climbing the ladder in your heels?” Bonnie asked Nikki before telling her to climb up one or two rungs.  “Get your “girls” to the right (those boobies again)”, she shouted to Nikki before taking the picture.

During my time watching Bonnie in action, I couldn’t help but notice how often she mentioned “the girls” to her models.  So I had to ask her how important boobs are when creating a compelling Pin-Up image.  “The Pin-Up is all about cleavage, leg and facial expression”, Bonnie explained, “If you look at all the classic pin-ups of Vargas or Elgrin, they have elongated legs and/or lots of cleavage that go along with their curvy, and never waif-like, bodies. After all, pin-ups were used as a distraction back in the day, and if you’re going to distract the boys from their troubles of war, legs, cleavage and curves were just the thing to do it, no?”

Nikki

Nikki

If the purpose of the Pin-Up girls of the past was to provide a distraction from the horrors of war, I wondered if the resurging interest in Pin-Ups is a reflection of something about the times we live in now.

Bonnie offered her opinion, “Perhaps…and that just may be a large part of it. But I also think that a lot of women just want some “me time” for a minute. Women from all walks of life, have just become so busy these days. We get up in the morning and stand in front of the mirror, tossing our hair up in a knot, or quickly getting ourselves presentable for our work day. We don’t take time to primp and pamper ourselves these days like they did “back in the day”, because we don’t have the time with our busy work schedules, balancing the kid’s schedules, working, husbands, etc.  And I think some of the women who come to us for sessions just want to feel that “old school glamour” again, who want some “me time” and have photos to create the memory.  Because once they leave our session—BAM–they’re thrown back into their horrendous schedules and busy lives. So in a sense, this could be a “distraction” of another kind, not from war, but a distraction from our rushed lifestyles.”

“We’ve also become bombarded with sexual images in our daily lives — some tasteful and some not so tasteful”, Bonnie continued, “The Pin-Up image takes that notion and throws it back to “old school” when sexual images were fun, flirty and only hinting at “naughtiness”.  It takes you back to a time when society was more turned on by the curves of the female body underneath clothing than full on, in your face nudity.  That’s not to say we have anything against tasteful nude images.  We don’t!     Nude doesn’t equal pornography, though.  There’s a definite difference.  I think these are just a few of the reasons for the resurgence.”

I asked Bonnie what motivated her to start taking Pin-Up style photos in the first place.  “I’ve always enjoyed the Pin-Up image”, she replied, “A friend asked me to do a photo shoot of her for a “Pin-Up calendar” she wanted to give as a Christmas gift to her boyfriend. She emailed me and said it’s something she wanted to do, and just never felt like she knew a photographer who would pull off what she was looking for. She was familiar with my style of photography and had seen some of the work that I’ve done in the past. So, I agreed, and it was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had — that we both had, really! I loved editing her photos and seeing such beautiful images that I helped to create.   That’s when I turned to Joe — knowing this was something we just had to work on together out of our mutual love, not just for the classic Pin-Ups, but photography as well. I remember telling Joe that if I truly believe everything happens for a reason, then, that day was no accident and was meant to set us on a path of the business we have today.”

I wanted to know what motivated women to want to be photographed in this way.  “Several reasons”, Bonnie explained, “Some do it as a gift for their significant other. Some do it because they need a “pick me up” after a devastating event such as divorce–or in some cases, maybe that’s more of a celebration and not so much a “pick me up”! Ha-ha! Others do it to celebrate a weight loss or some other turning point in their life. Some want to take a minute out of their busy schedule and feel beautiful and glamorous. And then, others do it just because they love the art of Pin-Up photography and want to emulate their favorite Pin-Up models.  It really is a personal thing; we find that the reasons are varied.”

I wondered what motivate these particular models to want to do this. Nikki said that the idea came to her after seeing the result of a photo shoot that one of her friends did with Bonnie & Joe at a candy shop. Jennifer was also motivated to participate by a friend, who happened to share a post from Sullivan’s on Facebook.  “They were offering a photo shoot package at a great price, with a donation for Toys for Tots”, she said, “I thought it was a great way to be able to get a special Christmas gift for my husband and do a good deed at the same time.”

“I will be really honest”, Jennifer explained, “The first shoot I did, I was REALLY nervous, but after it was all said and done I LOVED IT!! Everything about it, going out and finding the perfect outfit to match the theme I wanted to go with, finding the right pair of shoes that were really going to POP in the shoot. Having hair & make up done–the pampering was one of my guilty pleasures.”

For this photo shoot, Jennifer opted to make a special trip to Philadelphia in order to find the perfect dress.  “It was AWESOME!”, Jennifer exclaimed, I made a trip to the iconic Bettie Page store because even though I had a ton of places I could order a dress from, I wanted to go to a place where I could try on several dresses, to make sure I got the perfect one, not only did I look great, but I felt very comfortable.”

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Nikki said that she fell in love with her dress at pinupgirlclothing.com.  Bonnie says that clients can always check with her to see if she has any Pin-Up inspired clothing on-hand that appeals to them.  “We’re still building our wardrobe”, she explained, but we have several dresses ranging in size from 4 to 18. If we don’t have their size yet, then we can definitely direct them to a few places where  great finds can be had.”

Bonnie encourages clients to consult with her prior to their scheduled shoot because she can help them with all aspects of preparation in order to create the perfect Pin-Up look. “We offer hair and makeup as a complimentary service, EXCEPT for venue shoots where there are multiple shoots, and it’s just not possible time-wise.  Shiloh Salon & Day Spa in Olyphant actually work with us and give all our clients a 20% discount when they go there to have their hair/make up done right before a shoot.  They are a fabulous team and a Pin-Up inspired salon with images of Audrey Hepburn, Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe adorning the walls.  If a client just doesn’t have the funds for getting their hair/make up professionally done, YouTube is a great tool for vintage/retro/pin-up hairstyles!”, she told me.

Of course models can also take charge of creating the look they want all for themselves, as Nikki did, “Stephanie Rozelle from Head to Toe Salon did my hair and makeup, she is a friend I’ve known since high school.”

Jennifer

Jennifer

The definition of a Pin-Up Girl is basically any model whose image garners wide appeal.  I wanted to know if, as a photographer, Bonnie thought that every woman has an inner Pin-Up Girl waiting to be unleashed.

She responded, “I think so. Some of the best sessions we’ve had were of self-proclaimed “tomboys” who wanted to embrace their feminine side for a day. You don’t have to be a “girlie girl” to want to feel beautiful as a Pin-Up for a day. Pin-Up is a genre that crosses a wide range of backgrounds and social statuses. We’ve worked with ladies who have their doctorate degree in education, to hairstylists, to the fast food employee, and the stay at home mom.  Ladies everywhere, no matter who and what title they hold, want to be a beautiful Pin-Up to some degree for one day! It’s fun! It’s something out of the daily grind! And it’s something you walk away with a memory of , as well as prints to hang on your wall or share with your significant other!”

Jennifer added, “There are a lot of women that secretly have a little Pin-Up vixen inside them.”  While Nikki said,  “Absolutely!  Every woman has their own style and appeal and some just need to find it and share it.”

I wanted to know if these ladies had any advice for women who secretly wanted to do this but didn’t think they had enough confidence to actually pull it off.

Jennifer responded, ” If you’ve ever wanted to go outside of your norm, break out of the box, yet do it in a really classy way–DO THIS!! I’m the first to tell you, I may have a big personality, but I’m really, really shy –I’m my own contradiction—but this experience took me WAY out of my comfort zone, and I’m glad that I did it. It brought me out of my proverbial shell – not just by having the pictures taken, but then again, when Bonnie & Joe share them on their Facebook page. It’s out there, for all to see – take it or leave it, like or not – it’s me.”

Nikki said that anyone can do it, with the right attitude.  “Own your pictures,” she said, “ The confidence definitely shines through and the more you think “I’m awesome, I’m beautiful, I can do this” the better the photos seem to be.”

Bonnie Photographing Nikki

Bonnie Photographing Nikki

Bonnie's picture of Nikki

Bonnie’s picture of Nikki

Bonnie explained, “I think we all feel like that to a degree, no?  But I would tell her that no one ever goes in front of a camera without feeling nervous.  Every woman is her own worst critic. A Pin-Up session is often a great way to empower yourself and embrace your body and all of its imperfections.  Pin-Up isn’t about being the perfect weight, the perfect height, the right size nose, or any of that.    You never have to feel as though you “measure up” in the Pin-Up genre! It’s the one genre that accepts and actually appreciates the curvier body over the less curvy frames.”

I wondered if the models learned anything about themselves by participating in this experience.  Nikki responded, “That most of my insecurities are in my head. And the pictures allow me to see what my husband sees in me all along.”  While Jennifer explained, “I’ve solidified that fact that when I want something bad enough, I make it happen, which makes me realize that I am stronger than I think I am.”

And of course we had to discuss the challenges of doing a photo shoot with models at a venue like Scranton Lace.  The first time I had the opportunity to take photos at this location; I was there with people dressed more like doomsday preppers, in army fatigues and steel toe boots, which is a far cry from pretty dresses and designer pumps!

Nikki said that walking around the debris in heels was the biggest problem for her, “My normal day shoes are DC Skater shoes, so heels can be a challenge on normal ground. The roof was interesting too since my heels sunk right in.”

According to Bonnie, “The debris is a challenge sometimes; you obviously want your clients to be safe as they walk around in their heels.  Not having electricity for our lighting can also be challenging.  You want the shots to be bright, crisp and well lit for the client.”

I asked Bonnie why she chose the Scranton Lace Factory as a location in the first place.  “I’m a fan of abandoned buildings because of the “beauty of decay” that I find appealing –which is why I like to put Pin-Ups in such places ,the contrast of the beauty vs. decay of something once beautiful”, she said, “Scranton Lace has some fantastic architecture and amenities  like the bowling alley  that just worked so well with the Pin-Up theme whether it be the classic retro Pin-Up or even the lingerie session we did there.”

Nikki thought the setting was a perfect place for a Pin-Up shoot, “The clash of beauty against the beast I guess you can call it. Here’s someone put together so well, against a backdrop of urban decay, something that’s falling apart, and it just makes her stand out that much more. It’s very visually stimulating.”

And Jennifer added, “What was appealing to me was the fact that here I was, all done up and looking HOT – standing in a beautiful ruin. I feel it’s the perfect combination of the two.”

Obviously, Scranton Lace is important historically. And unfortunately, we live in a time when many historic buildings exist as “zombie buildings”–a real world term that is being used to describe buildings that are not usable for their intended purpose because they are in need of repair, and are owned by entities that cannot afford to do so.  I wanted to know if Bonnie thought  that allowing photographers to use these locations for photo shoots could be beneficial in any way for the building owners in terms of generating renewed interest in gaining public support to try to save these buildings.

“Absolutely!”, she enthusiastically responded, “The general public often times only sees these buildings/structures from the outside and has NO idea of how absolutely gorgeous and stunning some of these buildings are on the inside! And by allowing photographers inside to hold shoots, once the public sees some of these photos — suddenly that building is no longer just the “brick building down the street”, instead they see the building in a whole new light.”

Jennifer said, ”These buildings may be skeletons of their former selves but they still hold so much beauty and that beauty deserves some recognition. I couldn’t wait to get inside to feel it. On my way out, I stood in a huge empty room, which I could only assume held looms at one point… it was so quiet, all I could hear was myself breathing , but the energy I felt was electrifying! That’s what I was looking forward to – that feeling – it’s hard to describe, unless you’ve felt it for yourself , but for that few minutes, I could close my eyes and feel the building.”

Scranton Lace Factory: The Loom Room is History Now  {EXPLORE}

Scranton Lace Loom Room April 2011

Lace Blog 48

Scranton Lace Loom Room September 2011

I asked Bonnie to describe the Pin-Up Model experience for someone who has never done it before. “It is empowering”, she said, “ and addictive if I were to judge by how many repeat clients we have, and how they tell us their experience with us is like getting a tattoo.  Once you have one, you want more!    None of our clients are “professional” Pin-Up models, at least not to date.  Every one of them that does this for the first time, initially they’re nervous, and by the end of it, they’re beaming with excitement, confidence, thanking us and telling us how much fun they had and can’t wait to do it again. I think it goes beyond the “fun” aspect. I think they feel empowered and that’s what is addictive. The empowerment of embracing their bodies in a way that perhaps they never thought they could or ever would.”

I asked how a client should prepare themselves mentally before their photo shoot.  “Empower yourself by practicing some classic Pin-Up poses and/or facial expressions in the mirror. It’ll give you a chance to see how you look, what poses you find flattering to yourself, and it’ll put some control into your lap at your session”, Bonnie responded,” We always tell our clients that you really need to exaggerate everything for Pin-Up–if you feel foolish when posing the way we direct you to, or with a particular facial expression, then you’re doing it right and your photo will be perfect! And a glass of wine before your session doesn’t hurt either….. but ONE glass, not ONE bottle. Drunk isn’t beautiful, Ha-ha!  And expect LOTS OF FUN!  Joe and I are very laid back and like to have fun as well as make it fun for our clients!  Joe and I shoot at the same time, from different angles, maximizing photo options/angles for the client.  I usually do all the directing, so it’s not confusing for the client —- and while I’m directing, Joe is usually keeping an eye out for flaws in the shot like a clothing tag sticking out, a hem problem in a dress or whatever the case may be.  But Joe and I like to have fun and crack jokes.  There’ve been times when models have had a hard time making their “Pin-Up expression” because they’re laughing so hard at our nonsensical banter.”

I noticed that the models seemed to become more confident as their photo shoot progressed.  Bonnie told me that my assessment was 100% accurate. “I think the atmosphere that Joe and I try to create during the shoot helps our clients to loosen up and ease their concerns about their flaws”, she explained, “We’ll ask ahead of time if there is anything about their bodies they just hate –face it, we all have those issues!– and even what parts they love about themselves!  We’ll try to down-play that imperfection during their session.  I think our clients see that as we start shooting, and it helps to boost their confidence knowing that we are going to be sure we photograph their best and down-play what they’re not fond of.  We try to keep the atmosphere light and help ease their anxiety. We crack jokes; we try to involve them in the outcome of their experience by asking if there’s any particular shot/pose they want to try.    And even if they have shot with us before, I think the anticipation of having their shoot, sometimes planned months in advance, has them amped up and rocking their nerves, and once they begin the shoot they’re like “Oh yeah, I forgot how easy this groove is!”

I asked what Bonnie thought her husband added, as the male perspective, to the creation of the Pin-Up image.  She explained, “Face it, a man will see a woman in a completely different light and with a completely different appreciation than another  female does — it’s in our wiring, photographer or not. There are times when Joe will suggest something or add a little “tweak” to the shot or pose….. But just the same, it’s that suggestion/tweak that takes it from sexy to “WHOA!!” Joe appreciates the art in the female form and he uses that appreciation to help create some stunning images in our business!  I know there are Pin-Up photographers out there who tout themselves as an “all female team” and that’s great —  there are women who may not be comfortable with a male photographer. But, we’ve been told by a few of our clients they appreciate the “male eye”, particularly for boudoir sessions when the client is giving the gift to the man in her life.”

Boudoir Model at Scranton Lace

Boudoir Model at Scranton Lace

I wanted to know if a man should ever consider purchasing a Pin-Up photo session as a gift for the woman in his life.  Bonnie thinks it would make a great present because “what a fantastic compliment it would be for your significant other to say “Hey honey, I bought you a Pin-Up photography session!”     Wouldn’t that say that he/she already thinks you’re an amazing, sexy being and wants to see it brought to life in Pin-Up form??”

You can find more pictures from the Scranton Lace Pin-Up photo shoot on the Sullivan Pin-Up Photography Facebook Page and contact information, as well as other photos, on their website.

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A Visual Autopsy of the American Dream

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Cheri Sundra © 2013
All Rights Reserved

Fashion in Ruins

With Riss Vandal of FASHION VANDALS

Photo Credit:  57NOPhotography

Goth ARooftop Anime Glam @

Fashion Vandals

It’s been said that “nothing has the power to tell the truth about an age quite like fashion”.  That statement has never been more accurate than it is today, in the era of the fashion blogger.   Just as blogging has been challenging the control of public information as wielded by big, corporate owned newspapers and broadcasting networks, independent fashion bloggers have been usurping the influence of traditional high fashion magazines.  That’s not to say that a “Devil Wears Prada” Miranda Priestly-type magazine editor still can’t declare an entire line a catastrophe by simply pursing her lips, but as she’s seated in the front row line-up at Fashion Week, amongst the fashion bloggers and their laptops, her point of view is no longer necessarily the first to reach the fashion-hungry masses or the throngs of chic-hunter consumers.  

Photo Credit:Carlos Phillips Images

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Endless Autumn @

Fashion Vandals

Just as Big Media has been losing journalists for years when they run out of formats and room for their ideas, a new breed of fashion reporter is turning to the internet to bring a different kind of fashion news coverage to their audience.    Marissa Phillips, aka Riss Vandal, is the lady who runs the show at Fashion Vandals.com.    When asked to explain the role of a fashion blogger to the uninitiated, Vandal explains, “It’s a blogger who focuses on some aspect of fashion or style–whether through tutorials, trend-reporting, outfit posts, interviews and features, or even people with lifestyle blogs that happen to have notable personal style end up being considered fashion bloggers. It can take a lot of forms. The main idea behind Fashion Vandals is to highlight designers, models, and brands that are making bold statements and taking chances, and to celebrate styles that lie outside the mainstream.” 

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Robert Smith and Siouxsie Sioux Had a Visual Kei Baby @

Fashion Vandals

While designers taking risks is hardly anything new, the cultural/historical trends and artistic expressions of any era always help to influence the fashion risk-takers of that current age.  During the height of World War II, for example, Paris fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli famously collaborated with well-known artists of the Surrealist movement, such as Salvador Dali, to transform something as ordinary and mundane as clothing, into strangely beautiful and contradictory works of art.  Her designs were considered outrageous and outright shocking.  But the women who dared to wear Schiaparelli’s designs morphed from mere mortals into surreal apparitions.  For the first time in history, life was literally imitating art!  Even today, Riss Vandal definitely agrees with that sentiment, “If you’re someone that dutifully follows trends, or simply dresses for comfort or to suit a certain situation, I guess fashion can be seen as a hobby or simply something utilitarian. But for those who use fashion for expressive or transformative means, I don’t think fashion is similar to art, I think fashion IS art.”

I asked Vandal what she thought about popular culture’s current obsession with death, which may not be completely surprising, given that we’ve lived through more than one apocalypse last year!  Since even romance is reflected via the undead in the youth of today, I wondered aloud if it is in some way, a metaphor about modern life.  Riss responded,” I feel like I can really only answer this in terms of my own experience…and when I was younger I was first drawn, I wouldn’t say to death culture, but to dark culture, because finding inspiration from the darker aspects of life is one way I sort of made sense of it all and came to terms with it.  And really, I think most people are looking for signs that there’s more to life than what it seems, a sort of magic or mystery beneath the surface, and so at times society’s attentions turn to ghosts, or magic, or aliens…just now it happens to be undead creatures such as zombies and vampires.”  

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Daywalkers Don’t Model For Lipservice @

Fashion Vandals

This pop culture death obsession is definitely reflected in Riss’s Fashion Vandals blog.  “I wouldn’t quite call it a Goth blog,” she explains, “but it certainly has a dark fashion focus.”

“Goth” or not, it is a vibe that is channeling its way into the mainstream fashion arena, and even creeping into the collections of haute couture designers like Alexander McQueen, with designs that are blatantly TWILIGHT-inspired

I asked Ms. Vandal what she thought about the fact that mainstream designers are now attempting to deliver a Goth-edge to department store consumer goods.  She states, “For the past year or so, every day has felt like Goth Christmas when I’ve went out shopping. It’s never been too easy to find affordable dark styles–but at the same time, I’ve never seen the market so inundated with horrid, cheesy takes on Goth style–do not get me started on bedazzled pentagrams and crucifixes.”

I wondered what inspired Vandal to become interested in alternative fashion.  She said, “I was incredibly shy as a kid, but I remember always wanting to visually stand out, and gaining some sort of defiant confidence through that. Then when I was 12, I went to my first punk show, where everyone was fearless and rocking wigs, and spikes, and tri-hawks…and I instantly fell in love and decided I wanted to be surrounded by that forever.  I feel like I’ve pretty much had the exact same style since I was 15, now it’s just a bit more polished.”

Photo Credit: Carlos Phillips Images

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Skeletal Distinction @

Fashion Vandals

I’ve noticed that people who are into Goth/alternative fashions also seem to share a fascination with the Victorian Era.  I asked Ms. Vandal to explain why.  “There’s such beauty and drama to the era, but also a definite darkness…especially in terms of the mourning culture,” Riss said,  “I’ve just always found the visual pageantry, but also the contrasts, so fascinating. And Victorian-inspired fashion has a huge impact on Goth style–corsets, parasols, fingerless gloves—are all major aspects of Goth fashion.”

Photo Credit: Cassie McDonald

Goth FThe Wayward Ones @

Fashion Vandals

Another thing Victorians and Goth fans have in common is the cemetery.  “For those who search for inspiration in death and the darker aspects of life, how can it not be fascinating to reflect on an era that assigned exact periods of time and intricate outfits to mourning the dead? And while some people dismiss cemeteries as morbid, others view them as tranquil and beautiful. A beautiful means to come to terms with life’s greatest darkness…which I feel ties in with both the era and the subculture”, explains Vandal.

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The Blues of Ms. Vondasblut @

Fashion Vandals

Since fashion does posses the power to tell us about the age in which we are living, I asked Riss what she thought fashion was telling us about the era we live in right now.  She thoughtfully explained, “I think we’re a confused, cynical age that glorifies the past and wants to be covered in head-to-toe irony.”

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the reason I choose to interview Riss Vandal for my own blog about modern day ruins—- this  “cynical age that glorifies the past”, as we allow the structures of our history to just tragically rot away, like abandoned corpses, without hope of restoration or the dignity of an expeditious burial.  I asked Vandal why she utilizes so many abandoned buildings with historical significance for her fashion photo shoots, and why she thinks ruins are so popular as settings for photographers today.   “I like contrasts and I enjoy finding beauty in decay and deconstruction,” she said, “ I also like locations that have a sense of history, even if I don’t know exactly what that history is…because then it allows me to come up with my own story. And I feel as though the latter, wanting a place with a sense of history, is a feeling shared with many artists/photographers.”

Goth H

Urbanite Vamp @

Fashion Vandals

I personally have to admit, I was a little lost when it came to understanding some of the trendsetting descriptive terms used in the Fashion Vandal blog, so I asked Ms. Vandal to explain the main differences between Punks, Neo-Victorians, Goth Debutantes, and Glam Rockers.  I also wondered if there is an age cut off for any of these looks, given that I may or may not be a few decades….years….older than she is!

 “Spikes, petticoats, combat boots, and hairspray?”, Riss attempts to clarify, “There are both a billion differences and a billion similarities between highly stylized subcultures, but what I meant by the statement in my blog description about “building a world where punks, Neo-Victorians, Goth Debutantes, and Glam Rock Kids can all walk hand-in-hand” is that we should all just find unity through our shared love of loud, dramatic fashion. As for a cut off age–if you can pull something off, then you can pull it off and numbers are arbitrary. I consider fashion a form of artistic expression…and is there an age cutoff for creativity?”

Goth ILess Vamp, More Metal @

Fashion Vandals

I wondered, if the hallmark of Preppy Dressing is always looking the same no matter what the era or fashion dictates, what is the first rule of alternative fashion?  Riss answered, “That’s a tricky question for many reasons, though mainly because alternative fashion encompasses so much–Goth, rockabilly, steampunk, etc…Just anything that isn’t quite mainstream. I think there’s no choice but to say that the first rule is that there are no rules…”

I wanted to know if there are simple ways for everyone to add a little alternative fashion flair to their wardrobe, even if they tend to dress in a way that would be described as “classic” or preppy.    “For simple ways to add edge to a look, in terms of makeup, I’d recommend switching up your usual eyeliner application and try a bold cat eye liner application, or experiment with a pair of dramatic false lashes.  In terms of wardrobe, the next time you see something that makes you think “man, I wish I could wear something like that,” stop thinking about it and just buy it–there’s really nothing edgier than that,” was Vandal’s answer. 

You can follow Riss Vandal on Twitter, Facebook and at Fashion Vandals

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The Huber Breaker Rocks –with ASTORIAN STIGMATA

“Standing at the edge where beauty meets decay

Re-born through death

Time fades away and leaves a memory

But that red sky rests so quite

Upon the ashes of innocence

And some things never really come alive

Until after they have died.”

–“The Beginning Of An End”  (ASTORIAN STIGMATA)

Huber Breaker Ruins:  The Art of Industrial DecayThe Huber Breaker in Ashley,  Pennsylvania, USA

Sometimes, engaging in urban exploration is like experiencing an alternative reality.   In these abandoned and often beloved structures, ghost-like representations of what “once was” collide head-on with their current state of decay and ruination, representing a dream-like status between existence and non-existence, somewhere in the middle of life and death.  

Naturally, a local band with a name based upon the concept of an alternative reality, combined with the imagery of open wounds, and the catch phrase “Stay Dead”, would conclude that one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most popular urban exploration sites would be the perfect setting for filming a music video or two!  

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But according to Astorian Stigmata founder and front man, Dennis Condusta, his hometown, which is referred to as the “Victorian Corner of Pennsylvania” on the band’s Facebook page, always stars in his videos.  “I’ve traveled extensively and it has really helped me notice that Wilkes-Barre is a truly unique place in many ways”, Dennis explains, “Most of them aren’t positive ways, but in the architectural sense, it really has a “decayed elegance” feel.  Like it was once a prospering place during the coal mine era and now it’s kinda run down, and somewhat dismal.  I noticed over the years that the message in my music was very similar to that.  I’ve always been drawn to the concept of once beautiful things fading away.  I know that they always can return.   It’s kind of a positive way to look at decay and things falling apart. And “Victorian Corner” is just a reference to a lot of the Victorian era architecture in the surrounding area of Wilkes-Barre. I’ve always been drawn to its class, and most of our records have Victorian era houses on the cover.”

While discussing the Astorian Stigmata video “Ballroom Dancing, Condusta said that their European fans often make comments about how much they love the look of the old historical stuff here in Pennsylvania.  “Most of those shots (in the video) were right in the downtown area, the apartments across from the River Front, and close up shots of the Sterling Hotel”, he stated, “And the European fans say things like “I’d love to visit Wilkes-Barre!” Ha-ha. I think it has a lot to do with the way it’s represented”, he explained, “We really romanticized the place in all our work.  And people from here never realize how truly unique and beautiful a lot of the things we have around here are, mostly things left over from the coal era.  If we become a bigger band it’s going to be a good thing for Wilkes-Barre tourism!  Ha-ha.  It always kinda bugged me how bands move away from their home to embrace the music scene other places or whatever, and that’s all fine.  But I see myself as an artist far before a musician who is trying to “make it” or anything like that.  So I do my best to represent the area I am from because it has played such a huge part in my artistic understanding of the world around me.”

Abandoned Hotel Sterling: The Harsh Light of DayThe Hotel Sterling ruins in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA

Condusta came up with the band name in 2003 while watching an HBO show called “Carnival”–specifically,  an episode titled “The Road to Astoria”, when he became intrigued by the idea of an alternative reality, but one  very similar to the one we know. That “alternative reality” notion  is the main reason I chose to write about Astorian Stigmata for my blog about urban exploration, because that is the very concept that urban explorers are trying to capture when they photograph the abandoned structures where people once lived, worked, played, worshipped, dreamed or suffered. 

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Condusta was drawn to the word Stigmata for its powerful look and strong pronunciation.  Which is a relevant choice, because the visual images portrayed in many of the band’s videos are both harsh and destructive.  Yet, in listening to the lyrics, you can’t miss the sentimental vibe—like a verbalized wish that life was less fragile and that people, places and things could be more permanent.  

Dennis explained that “most of my lyrics are about dualities.  Which is also why we use black and white stripes so consistently in our logo and branding—they represent the ups and downs of life, and that they are both equal, and both present at all times.”    Many of their song lyrics are quite philosophical, touching upon concepts such as being “re-born through death”, as in the lyrics of the one video filmed at the Huber Breaker.  “It refers to an existential death and coming back to life as a better person, but only after your old sense of self has died”, Dennis stated.  Fans consider the band’s catch phrase, “Stay Dead” and their entire “death” theme, as a metaphor for the kind of self-fulfillment that leads to happiness by remaining true to yourself.

In fact, staying true to themselves is even embraced by Astorian Stigmata in their business model, because they literally do everything themselves.  Dennis explains that being an “indie” band allows you to do things, your way, all the time, when you want. We’re pretty specific about what we are trying to say and do.”  According to Dennis, “I’ve always loved design/photography/hand printing t-shirts/video/editing/music recording/writing and production–even the hard work like hand making every CD. Our guitar player, DJ, is the same way. He  enjoys it all and we work well together as a team. We don’t call ourselves a “punk” band, but we carry that flag and ethic as hard as anyone.  Not because we want to, but because no one is gonna do anything for us.  We’ve been offered record deals and things, but we’re not dumb dudes in a band. We understand how business works, and how things happen, and that 90% of the industry side of music is there to fool you into making them money.”  

Condusta further explains that as an artist, his focus isn’t the same as that of a corporate business entity, only interested in creating mainstream conceptual “art” that is made popular for the purpose of selling it quickly, “We make lasting art. Songs we wrote 5 years ago have as much relevance now as they did then, and will still be relevant 20 years from now.”

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Dennis Condusta became interested in playing guitar at a young age, because his older brother also played.  As luck would have it, he won a guitar when he was 16, at a BMX riding contest.  He was influenced by the music of Modest Mouse (“Dramamine”) and Taking Back Sunday (“A New American Classic”) plus a strong desire to create his own music.   “I have no interest in learning cover songs.  I just knew I had a feeling inside me and I wanted to learn to get it out as fast as possible”, he said.  Dennis also states that his most important influences are his brother and his friends. 

Condusta, a life-long resident of this region, known for its working-class sensibilities, which are often hallmarked by the suppression of individualism, did note that this area sometimes has a lack of respect for a broad variety artistic expression.   Still, he credits this area for helping him to form his artistic vision, and openly accepts the responsibility and challenges required to act as the ambassador of his own vision, “I do not see that as their fault for misunderstanding me, I see it as my own fault for not doing a good enough job at being understood.  I am not afraid to dress strange or to wear two different shoes, it reminds me not to take life too seriously. You’d probably be surprised at how little people notice/care about how crazy someone looks if you do it confidently.  It’s when you feel uncomfortable or out-of-place that people can sense it, then they insult you.”

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Much of our local history is dark and reflective of the oppression of the human spirit, because for a long period of our recent history, the area was monopolized by an industry that told people daily that they did not matter.  In fact, the mules that worked in the anthracite coal mines were insured, while the humans laboring there were not!  Local workers had to resign themselves to the fact that they were being exploited, just for the opportunity to earn a paycheck.  “That coal miner mentality is still engrained in the people from this area. I think it plays an enormous role in the art I create, so I respect it very much and choose to embrace it”, Dennis said, “There is a dark cloud of oppression that just sits over this valley, although it’s not strong enough to keep me down in any sense.  I find it comforting– in a totally sick and twisted kinda way. Ha-ha”

One of the prominent remnants of the coal mining era, the Huber Breaker ruins, has a starring role in two of Astorian Stigmata’s videos. (For those of you outside of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a coal breaker is literally a place where the coal that was brought up from the mines was broken into smaller pieces using machinery.) This location is popular with urban explorers because they love to photograph the machinery and vanishing points that are contained within the decaying walls of this now obsolete industrial complex.  I asked Dennis to explain the inspiration behind using this location for these videos.  “It’s one of a kind”, he said, “And it’s in rather good shape for how old it is.  That place has a feeling and a beauty to it I’ve never felt anywhere else.  It’s special in that sense and it’s really inspiring in many ways. It’s hard to explain.”

AS4

I asked Dennis if he thought that exposing non-history buffs or individuals unfamiliar with our local history, to our historic locations in a non-traditional artistic context is a good way to inspire an interest in the subject matter.  “Yes, I do”, he responded, “Our target audience has never been local.  We’ve always strived to appeal to a worldly audience.  Most local people think the Huber is played out, ‘cause they’ve seen it so many times, but there’s a person sitting in Norway right now watching that video thinking that’s the coolest place they’ve ever seen.”  

And believe me, he’s not kidding!  One of my personal, most interesting experiences with the Huber Breaker includes running into a group of students from Germany, taking pictures of the Breaker, as one of their stops on an “Urban Exploration” tour of the industrial ruins along the east coast of the United States!

I asked Condusta, a descendent of coal miners himself–both of his great grandfathers were employed by this industry–if he had any thoughts about using a place where men, and even little boys, were oppressed and exploited to express himself artistically.  He said, “Yes, I always think of that.  And sadly the world still works that way.  I always kinda wished people knew the background on the industry and of that place ‘cause it would add a whole new dimension to the message I’m trying to send.”  Although Dennis maintains that the videos and pictures are primarily for aesthetic purposes, and produced for a world-wide audience who does not see such places as they go about their daily lives.     “While I understand and respect the history personally”, Dennis explains, “I don’t expect someone in Spain to think of that.”

AS3

Of the two Astorian Stigmata videos filmed at the Huber Breaker, “The Beginning Of An End” is the most artistic in nature, and therefore open to individual interpretation.  I thought it would be interesting to analyze the video/lyrics within the context of the historical setting with Condusta. 

The start of this video features a guy in a camouflage suit collecting water samples from this industrial site in a post apocalyptic world.   I found it somewhat poetic that in the beginning of the video you hear “stay safe”, because the irony is that for the men who worked at that dangerous site, in such a high-risk industry, that’s what they, and their loved ones, were thinking every day.  Dennis found that interpretation interesting, but said that it wasn’t quite what he was thinking while creating that scene for the video.   The video also features a vampire, which I interpreted as a representation of the coal company literally feeding off of the coal miners to turn a profit for themselves, while their employees often lived in impoverished conditions.

The song lyrics contain the phrase “where beauty meets decay”.  I asked Condusta if he thought there was something tragically beautiful about this specific abandoned industrial site.  “Yes, most certainly”, he said, “It’s symbolic of what was once flourishing, busy and a source of life and jobs for an entire city. And now it’s pushed aside and forgotten. That’s the central theme of my artistic being.”

I asked Dennis why he chose to end the video with the sound of a laughing child.  “That was just to provide and exaggerate the feeling of unease that I was attempting to convey”, he explained.

The video “Strange Nights (Live From The End Of The World), was also filmed on location at the Huber Breaker.  I asked Condusta if there was something about the location that promoted an “end of the world” feeling.  “Yes”, he responded, “It reminds me of what the world would look, and feel like if it were to suddenly end. I found a worker’s time card in the breaker dated from 1962.  It’s just interesting to think about how so much of that place seems like the workers just walked out at the end of the shift, and didn’t come back. It doesn’t feel like it ever planned to close–it has a feeling of unrest.”

In conclusion, I asked Dennis if there was anything that he wanted people to know about himself or Astorian Stigmata.  “Myself personally?  I’m not a terribly interesting person”, was his response, “I put my life into art and I ask for nothing in return. I don’t do this for money/fame or reputation. I was just born with a soul that needs to express itself, and I hope somewhere along the way someone else gets some enjoyment from the work I do.”

You can find more information about Astorian Stigmata by visiting their official website  and  Facebook page .   

Max 3

Maximilian Aladar was born on May 28th 2005.  He is the creation of Dennis Condusta who was in need of someone to play the drums for his band, because at that time, he was playing all of the instruments himself on the recordings.  Dennis made Max that very night, never finishing his legs or giving him a mouth.  This way, Max could not talk back (using words) or run away.  Today, Max serves as the guide for Astorian Stigmata.  He is the puppet master who is a puppet…..

Max 1

   

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Cheri Sundra © 2012
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Into the Belly of the Beast: Exploring The Mines That Fed The Industrial Revolution

Disclaimer:

I feel the need to have one of those “Beavis and Butt-head are not role models. They’re not even human, they’re cartoons.  Some of the things they do could cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested… possibly deported.  To put it another way, don’t try this at home” warnings at the beginning of this post.  

While Ed Mountjoy is NOT a cartoon character (although some may disagree), what he does is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, and you should just resign yourself to enjoying his adventures from the safety of your computer/smartphone screen.  But since urban explorers tend to view “No Trespassing” signs as invitations to enter, I won’t bother coming up with a disclaimer of my own….I’ll just stand by what Mike Judge said, just insert Ed Mountjoy and abandoned anthracite mines for yourselves!  😉 

Ed First

Many Social Media users in Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) recognize Ed Mountjoy as the face of The Forgotten Coal Industry of NEPA’S Facebook page.  But Ed’s following is quickly spreading beyond the “coal region” of Pennsylvania, and into the realm of the world-wide network of urban exploration.  And understandably so, since within the “explorer” hierarchy, those who explore the territory below the earth’s surface definitely carry more prestige than those of us who remain steadfastly with our feet planted above the ground. 

Ed 2

While there are coal deposits scattered about the world, the coal from Northeastern Pennsylvania  is special  because it is anthracite coal, which is more pure, harder, and of higher carbon content than any  other type of coal on the entire planet.  In the Western Hemisphere, 95 percent of the anthracite coal supply is located within the 500 square mile region of Pennsylvania that is the topic of Ed’s “Forgotten Coal Industry” Facebook page. 

The story of anthracite coal mining in NEPA is complex.  It’s about pioneering industry and the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the darker side of greed, suffering, and human exploitation. During the coal era in NEPA, the elite Coal Barons (coal company owners, a.k.a. The 1%) built magnificent Victorian mansions, as their immigrant workers often lived in overcrowded, company-owned “patch towns”, while actually having to pay their employer for the supplies necessary to do their high-risk  jobs that resulted in earning less than what we would call a “living wage” today.

 The coal mines of Luzerne County have been abandoned for decades now, but Ed Mountjoy is on a mission to document and share whatever remains he can find that relate to our local coal mining history before these remnants are gone forever—especially those places or structures that are hidden away from us as we go about our daily modern lives full of urban sprawl. 

While many urban explorers have documented popular local coal-related locations such as the Huber Breaker and Concrete City, Ed ventures into an area of local exploration that you never really hear about—the actual anthracite mines themselves.  Since exploration is ultimately about documenting the remains and ruins of the places that touched the lives of the people who once lived, worked, worshiped, or played at these locations, Ed is honoring the men who worked in these coal mines by reminding us all about the physical reality of their confined work-space. 

A Slope Leading To A Flooded Mine

A Slope Leading To A Flooded Mine

One truth remains the same today as it did for the men who toiled daily underground decades ago in NEPA–anyone entering a coal mine faces many dangers such as underground floods, roof falls, a mine collapse, fire, and countless other methods of serious injury or death.  A coal mine is not a glamorous place to be at all. The men working underground found themselves in an environment that was dirty, dangerous and most likely damp.  Standing up straight is almost impossible because mine tunnel ceilings are too low.  The air that you breathe in a coal mine is stale & dusty.  The miners actually had to use pieces of lumber to prop up the roof in the area that they were working in, as an attempt to avoid being trapped or crushed by huge rocks.  This knowledge gives anthracite mine explorers an adrenaline rush when something seems out of the ordinary during a mission.

“During a recent exploration, we thought we were hearing part of the mine collapsing, but it turned out to be some rocks sliding down an incline we just went up. That scared us but we were relieved to know it wasn’t the mine collapsing”, explained Ed.

Ed began seriously exploring abandoned anthracite mines at the end of 2010.  He had explored the remains of two collieries (for those of you outside of the NEPA region, a colliery is a coal mine and the buildings associated with it) as well as other abandoned buildings as far back as 2006, so he was already interested in abandonments.   “ I was informed about two mines and originally was just going to find them and get exterior photos of the openings into them”,  he explained, “ After several attempts looking for them, we, a friend and I, found them and saw they were low mine openings, meaning you have to crawl to get inside. We decided to enter them and the interest just sparked from there after seeing what we had inside of those two low mines.”

When asked how he finds mines to explore, Ed responded, “Well, I normally do research about what mines were in opperation around a particular area before exploring.  Sometimes, we’ll just run across a mine and, after exploring, will do research afterwards on what mines they may have been and what companies owned them during their years of operation. As for preparing to explore one of these mines, we’ll examine the conditions of the opening before entering; making sure the ceiling isn’t in horrible condition.”

Props Holding Up Mine Ceiling

Props Holding Up Mine Ceiling

As far as equipment goes, Ed approaches mine exploration on the lighter side by just carrying a flashlight, camera, tripod, and a drink.  He is also sure to take someone else with him. “I NEVER explore any place alone”, he stated, “I always have at least one other willing friend who comes with me. You never know what can happen when exploring any abandoned place, and mines are no exception.”

I wanted to know if he ever got lost while engaging in his underground exploration adventures.   Ed’s response was that he has never been lost, not even while exploring the largest mining system that he has been in, “I have a rather good sense of direction and can retrace my steps back, plus some of the mines still have arrows painted on the walls and ceilings pointing to the exit from back when they were mined”.  

I was curious to know what Ed considered to be the most difficult aspect of this type of exploration.  “Finding any mines that haven’t been sealed closed, and seeing if they are safe enough to enter, if they are still open.  Most of the mines that were in operation have been sealed off, whether they were blasted shut, filled or grated off.   Even many of the ones that were left open, either due to being forgotten about or just haven’t been attended to yet, have since collapsed on their own”, was his response.  He further added, “It’s more dangerous than an above ground structure. The deeper you go, there is more of a chance that something can happen and less of a chance you’ll be found, unlike a building where if you get hurt, chances are you can get a cell signal and call for help. Mines and other underground places tend to have no cell service, so it’s best to tell another the location of where you’re going, in case something does happen”.

A Steep Pitch Mine

A Steep Pitch Mine

While describing what it is like to spend time in these abandoned underground work spaces today, Ed thoughtfully explained that it’s quite peaceful, “Its dead quiet in the old mines. The most you may hear, besides yourself and whoever is with you, may be a few bats, which I have seen hanging from the ceilings, and water dripping from the cracks in the ceiling. The quietness adds to the thought of knowing that at one point, there were men down there digging those tunnels, setting up those props and loading coal into the mine carts to go to the surface to be processed at the breaker, which, during those times, the mines would have been anything but quiet.”

I asked Ed what he was hoping to accomplish by exploring these abandoned anthracite mines.  “To show others an aspect of our history that is overlooked today. Most know about the coal mining history, and others may have explored some of the places that are still standing, such as the Huber Colliery, but not many get to see the very mines where the coal was brought out of to be processed at these breakers.  My photos are a way to document and preserve the history of a once prosperous industry”, was his response.

What really leaves an impression on Ed about these underground spaces where men had to work every day is “how low some of these mines were, and knowing that there were men who actually dug those low mine tunnels out to get to that coal. Just try to imagine crawling around in a tunnel no more than four feet tall trying to dig further into it, trying to reach as much of the coal as you can without the solid rock above you crashing down on top of you. That’s what it must have been like for those miners.  What would probably surprise most people is how low some of these mines are and the fact that men were actually down there, crawling around, grabbing the coal from those low mines to earn a paycheck.”

A Prop Holding Up A Low Mine

A Prop Holding Up A Low Mine

You can follow Ed Mountjoy and all of his coal mining exploration endeavors on Facebook at The Forgotten Coal Industry of NEPA

Ed 11 

 “Because it’s their time. Their time!  Up there!

Down here, it’s our time. It’s our time down here!”

–The Goonies

I encourage anyone interested in learning more about

abandoned mine underground research to visit :

The Official Website of Abandoned Mine Research, Inc.

and please note this warning about abandoned mine exploration:

Stay Out….Stay Alive!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

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Cheri Sundra © 2012
All Rights Reserved

I’ve Got The Power…..

Power D

Generations of families living near the Susquehanna River in Plymouth, or passing over the Carey Avenue Bridge, have grown accustom to seeing the huge smokestacks looming in the background. 

Power in the 50s

1950s (?) era picture with smokestacks in background

While the smokestacks have been dormant for many decades, and in some ways, have even changed with the times because, apparently, they now have something to do with providing cellular service, they still stand as a monument to a more powerful time—a time when humans first became God-like in their ability to provide artificial light, on a grand scale, during the darkest hours of the night.

"I've Got The Power......."
"I've Got The Power........"

In 1882, the first commercial power station opened in New York City.   Just two years later, The Wilkes-Barre Electric Company, along with Hildreth & Co. (Nanticoke), started offering service in some areas of Luzerne County.   

"I've Got The Power........”

Locally, it was primarily our West Side Communities that were the pioneers in electrical power and lighting for the area.  Nanticoke, Kingston, Wyoming, Forty Fort, Luzerne, Plymouth and Shickshinny all constructed power plants to meet the growing needs of this exciting, new industry. 

"I've Got The Power........It's gettin' it's gettin' it's gettin' kinda hectic”

“I’ve Got The Power……..It’s gettin’ it’s gettin’ it’s gettin’ kinda hectic……”

"I've Got The Power........It's gettin' it's gettin' it's gettin' kinda hectic”

Eventually, they all merged and consolidated into one big “light plant” that took over the responsibility for serving the entire area, which is what you still see standing today  at the river’s edge, on the corner of Bridge and Beade Streets.  Built in 1905, it was the fifth power plant erected in Plymouth.   

b Power

The very first power plant to operate in Plymouth opened in 1886 on Cherry Street.  During the early years of the lighting industry, commercial lighting was only furnished during “lighting hours” and only street lights were on the “moonlight”, or “all night”, schedule. I find it compelling to contemplate the notion that at one point humans had little control over darkness, and then we found a way to master the darkness by distributing artificial light. 

Abandoned Pennsylvania:  "I've Got The Power...."

"I've Got The Power........It's gettin' it's gettin' it's gettin' kinda hectic”  {EXPLORE}Can you spot the wire hanger still in place on the wall?

Today, the Plymouth Light Plant still stands, in a state of semi-abandonment.  The front portion of the building, bordering Bridge Street, is used as a rental storage facility, while the back portion of the structure remains unused.  The grounds around the back, with all of the “High Voltage” electrical service structures, make up the UGI Electrical Service Plymouth Substation. 

Power I
Power A

A big “thanks” to the Plymouth Historical Society for providing me with the information about the Plymouth Power Plant!  I was unable find anything on my own…..

Power Ghost Sign

Luzerne County Gas & Electric Corporation “ghost sign” overlooking the Susquehanna River

Power H
a Power

Power 9

Power 7

Power 6
Power 5

Power 4
Power 3
Power 2
Power J
Power F
Power B
Power C
Power E
I've Got The Power
Power G

Power 12

Smokestack as it looks from the front of the home

that belonged to my grandparents on Beade Street

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Cheri Sundra © 2012
All Rights Reserved

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