When the house next door is abandoned: a photo essay.

Collected images.
March 5 2009 6:35 AM

Paired Houses, but One Is Abandoned

A photo essay.

Click here for a photo essay on abandoned houses.

In Camden, N.J., perhaps the poorest American city I regularly visit, I photograph what I call paired houses: two dwellings, side by side, one occupied, the other empty. Those living in the occupied home often have their lives made more difficult by what happens on the other side of a shared wall. If I see a neighbor or meet the resident of one of the occupied houses, I ask how they're coping. They tell me that people throw trash in the front and back yards of the vacant unit, causing foul smells and attracting rats. Physical problems in the empty shell cause accelerated decay in the occupied house. Water may be left running in the unoccupied unit, causing moisture to migrate next door. In cold weather, pipes burst. Joists rot and collapse, tearing bricks out of the shared wall. And if the empty dwelling is not properly sealed, prostitutes and drug addicts may break in and start fires.

If a resident of a middle-class neighborhood dies or moves to a nursing home, or if a dwelling burns, the empty house is usually guarded or secured by the owner's family. The police keep an eye out for it. Neighbors, well-aware of the impact of a deteriorating eyesore on property values, alert city officials whenever they see a house falling into disrepair. The situation is quickly brought under control.

Advertisement

It's different in a crumbling inner city like Camden. Even Walt Whitman's old house at 328 Mickle St.—the only home he ever owned—was by the 1980s adjacent to a vacant three-story dwelling and just two houses away from a ruin. House values in Camden are low and likely to remain so since the population of the city is declining, unemployment is high, and there is little new demand for houses. The number of vacant houses is likely to increase; many will eventually be acquired by the city, which is too poor either to board them up or to demolish them.

As if afraid to disappear anonymously, people who live adjacent to abandoned homes are actually more likely to decorate the fronts of their houses during holidays than those who live more securely.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his Web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

How Canada’s Shooting Tragedies Have Shaped Its Gun Control Politics

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive

Is he right?

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 9:19 PM The Phone Call Is Twenty Minutes of Pitch-Perfect, Wrenching Cinema
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.