Ruin Porn, Secret Spaces and the Tour of Empty Buildings

A surprisingly large number of people want to visit and photograph dilapidated buildings, abandoned factories, rusting amusement parks, crumbling shopping malls and other outposts of urban decline. They believe the images they capture in places like Detroit, East Cleveland and Gary, Indiana illustrate the pointlessness of human activity and the inevitability of the march of time. Their haunting photographs are known as Ruin Porn and a tourism subgenre called Urban Exploration is emerging to accommodate them.

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Not everyone is enamored with this development. Those working to help struggling cities accuse the urban explorers of exploitation. They say the photographers and those who enable them trivialize the underlying problems that plague the inner cities and contribute nothing in terms of solutions.  

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You can view several evocative photographs and read more about the controversy surrounding Ruin Porn here

Little Towns, Big Problems

You don’t have to travel to an American Rust Belt city to see vacant buildings. The formerly bustling commercial districts of countless small and medium-sized towns also suffer from abandonment and neglect.

Believe it or not, there is an upside to this.

Many of the empty buildings blighting smaller downtowns possess the same strange allure that draws people to their counterparts in large urban areas.

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Communities can capitalize on people’s fascination with decrepit buildings and help their downtowns start to make a comeback. How? By creating events that entice people into the old commercial areas and allow them to safely explore and photograph the abandoned buildings to their hearts’ content.

These events are not hard to put together. They do not have to be elaborate or expensive. They do, however, need to be collaborative.

Finding Partners

The best way to promote an abandoned building event is to offer it under the auspices of the local downtown development or renovation organization.

If you live in the US, there may be an officially designated Main Street group you can approach. Main Street America, the organization that awards the designation, is a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can find out more about them here.

If you don’t have an official Main Street organization, don’t despair. Many cities have active renovation groups led by Chambers of Commerce, merchants associations, community foundations, economic development offices or committed cadres of volunteers. 

Take a look at the revitalization group’s website and any other material they’ve published. What are their objectives? Have they offered programs in the past? What kind? If you can’t find anything specific, use the following suggestion regarding promotion from Main Street America’s website to help you think about what type of an event you might create:

“Communicate your commercial district's unique characteristics, its cultural traditions, architecture, and history and activities to shoppers, investors, potential business and property owners, and visitors.”

Most folks working in historic preservation have different skills than those of us working in local history tourism. They are grant writers, renovation professionals, environmentalists, architects, city planners and community development experts. Generally speaking they are not event planners, tour designers or marketing people. This is where tourism entrepreneurs, local historians and destination managers can make a meaningful contribution.

If you develop a well-thought out proposal for an event that benefits the organization and dovetails with their goals, you’ll probably find a receptive audience. 

Let’s take a look at two possibilities.

The Secret Spaces Tour

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Goal - To draw people into downtown. The program focuses on local history and preservation. It also highlights the positive nature of the renovation group’s role in the community and is a significant fundraiser for the organization. 

Program Overview - For one afternoon tour participants have access to areas in historic downtown buildings that are normally off-limits such as basements, upper floors, attics and back rooms. A host at each location provides details about the structure’s history and reveals what clues it holds to the town’s past. Tour goers travel from building to building at their own pace and visit the stops in whatever order they like. People are encouraged to take pictures and to post their favorites on the organization’s Facebook page or website. Visitors are also asked to share stories and any memorabilia they may have of downtown in days gone by.

Target Audience – The general public, especially photographers, local history buffs and long-time residents

Main Tasks -

•        Identify four or five appropriate buildings and convince property owners to participate.

•        Perform background research on the various locations and find as many vintage images of downtown as possible.

•        Recruit and train volunteers to serve as building hosts.

•        Produce collateral material such as posters, programs, maps, tickets, etc.

•        Promote the program.

The Tour of Empty Buildings

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Goal - This is a business event designed to showcase empty downtown commercial properties. The goals are to attract potential buyers, investors and tenants; to highlight possible new and innovative uses for the old spaces; and to allow people interested in revitalizing downtown to meet, network and socialize.

Program Overview - For one afternoon business people have access to vacant and partially vacant historic downtown buildings.  A host at each location provides details about square footage, needed renovations, possible uses for the space and information on historic tax credits and other financial incentives, if applicable. As with the Secret Spaces Tour described above, participants travel from building to building visiting the stops in whatever order they like. At the end of the open house period, everyone is encouraged to attend a reception in one of the vacant properties or at a nearby historic space that has already been renovated.

Target Audience – Entrepreneurs and microbusiness owners; retail businesses; people looking for shared workspaces; professional service providers; commercial real estate agents and brokers; bankers; nonprofit and other community organizations; local government officials; Chamber of Commerce staff; construction, interior design and renovation experts; historic preservation professionals; economic development people; financial and tax advisers; and the local media.

Main Tasks -              

  • Identify four or five available buildings and convince property owners to participate.
  • Perform background research on the history of the various locations; find as many vintage images of downtown as possible; collect details such as square footage, the types of renovations needed and other pertinent information.
  • Recruit and train real estate agents, preservation experts and/or renovation pros to serve as building hosts.
  • Produce collateral material such as building spec sheets, invitations, posters, programs, maps, tickets, etc.
  • Find a venue for the reception and set up catering.
  • Promote the program.

Learning from Iowa

The Tour of Empty Buildings was offered in Webster City, Iowa in April of 2013. Webster City’s population is approximately 8,000 and there were 14 empty buildings downtown. For details on how they organized their tour, watch this 45-minute video of Deb Brown, Executive Director of the Webster City Area Chamber of Commerce. She also wrote a book called The Tour of Empty Buildings which is available on Amazon. 

For an overview of Jefferson, Iowa's program, read the blog post Empty Buildings Tour Will Leave Your Head Full of Great Ideas.

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The two tours described in this post can happily coexist. They can even focus on the same buildings. The Secret Spaces Tour appeals to such a wide range of people, it tends to be a very lucrative event generating more than enough revenue to cover its own costs as well as the expenses associated with the Tour of Empty Buildings.  

No matter how shabby your downtown buildings are today, they are key components of your town’s broader story. Try thinking of them as assets rather than liabilities. Experiment with these popular, profitable, and easy to run events. They have the potential to provide excellent returns – both tangible and intangible - for years to come.  

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