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Chatting With the Graphic Memoirist of Abandoned Buildings

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New York-based graphic novelist Kristen Radtke calls herself "a junkie" for abandoned buildings. She wakes up at night and looks at photos of derelict mills in Colorado, saves up all her money to fly to Iceland to sketch houses buried in volcanic ash, and travels to Japan for the sole purpose of visiting Mitsubishi's former mining island, full of desolate concrete buildings but no people. She's currently at work on a graphic memoir about abandoned places and their secret histories. Curbed chatted with Kristen about drawing debris, desertion tales of towns around the world, and the cultural obsession with ruin porn. She also shared a few beautiful illustrations from her upcoming graphic novel.

How did you first become interested in abandoned places?

It started when I was going to college in Chicago. A couple of friends and I went to Gary, Indiana, which looked post-apocalyptic to me, as an 18-year-old. We went at 6 a.m.; the sun was just coming up, and there were no people. We wandered into this old abandoned Methodist church (below). It was beautiful; the stained glass was still intact, but everything else was crumbling: the wood, the bricks. We found all of these plastic bags filled with old pictures.

What happened to Gary? Why can you buy a house for one dollar there?

The steel industry was based there. They called it the "City of the Century" and it was supposed to be the new America. Before that, Indiana was almost completely uninhabited by people because it had terrible land. But then U.S. Steel went and bought miles and miles of this land because it was so cheap. But steel production is not as relevant as it used to be, so the jobs all went away.

Where have you traveled in your search of abandoned buildings?

I spent time on an island off the coast of Iceland called Heimaey. It was covered in volcanic ash in 1973, and everyone was evacuated. Several months later, when the volcano had stopped erupting, people moved back and built houses on the other side of the island. One side of the island is still completely covered in volcanic ash, with all of the buildings still underneath. It's extraordinary. Artists have come in and started planting rare foliage in the volcanic ash.

What sort of 'hidden histories' are you writing about?

I'm fascinated by the biggest fire in American history, which happened in 1871 on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire. It happened a couple hundred miles north in this town called Peshtigo, Wisconsin. It was this crazy combination of wind and topography and drought that caused the first firestorm that we have in recorded history. Thousands of people died, over a million acres were burned.

The fire was so extreme that it was literally leaping across Lake Michigan, and set Michigan on fire. It was the most extreme fire America has ever seen. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, two hours south of there, and it was this legend. But I realized that nobody else in the country is really taught about it at all.

What's your favorite abandoned place?

There's this island off the coast of Japan called Hashima Island (above and below), which was actually owned by Mitsubishi. It was a coal-mining island that was once the most densely populated plot of land on earth. It's now completely abandoned. Some of the first examples of what today we would call "project housing", the concrete block housing, happened there before it happened anywhere else in the world.

What does it look like?

It looks a lot like a ship, because it's built on this long, thin rock, and all of the buildings are very gray and weather-beaten. Actually, the U.S. navy mistook it for a ship during World War II, and was hurling torpedoes at its base, trying to blow up this ship in the distance. They didn't realize it was an island.

What kind of buildings are the most fun to illustrate?

I really like doing interiors. I like ones with evidence of people left behind, rather than things that are really geometric and sterile. I love drawing debris. I want to see lots of wreckage, but so often things have been cleared out by people, or by a government. I love walking in and seeing someone's bed post.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by abandoned buildings?

Because we're all terrified! You can go to the Parthenon or Siem Reap or the Mayan ruins and take pictures and be like, "Isn't this cool, this civilization was so old and had nothing to do with us?" It seems very separate. But then you look at pictures of a decaying Art Deco skyscraper in front of streetlights that don't light anymore, and it's like our lives—just vacated.

And now there's the term "ruin porn."

There are ways that looking at abandoned buildings can seem exploitive, which is why people got so angry about the way things were being reported in Detroit. This is a town that's in the middle of an incredibly tragic crisis, and people are still trying to live there, and we're almost sexualizing it. We were all looking at it in a way that was just watching, and not trying to engage with the problems at all.

What's the biggest challenge of this project?

It's hard to document a place that's been torn apart by war. It feels like it's not my story to tell.

What has surprised you the most about your research?

It was so mind-boggling to me that the most densely populated plot of land on earth—Hashima Island in Japan—could then be empty. It's like we're brought there for a specific purpose, for an industry, and then we bleed that place dry of its resources. Or we find a better resource somewhere else, and abandon it. We inhabit places until the function wears out. And then we leave.

· Kristen Radtke [Official site]
· All Curbed Interviews posts [Curbed National]
· All Artistry posts [Curbed National]
· All Abandonment Issues posts [Curbed National]