Buildings reclaimed by nature.

Buildings reclaimed by nature.

Collected images.
Jan. 15 2010 9:31 AM

American Ruins

Nature is taking back these buildings.

American Ruins. Click here to launch slide show.

I photograph the ruins of urban America. Ruins are open, vulnerable, and evocative. As building fragments, they invite us to imagine how they were before their demise.

Ruins constantly change. City workers seal windows and doorways and sometimes try to cover up dereliction by painting fake windows and doors on the seals. Scavengers steal carvings, statues, metal pipes, wires, and even bricks and stones. Arsonists often destroy buildings entirely, leaving behind a vacant lot and not even a memory of what stood there before. Abandoned and derelict buildings quickly become hosts to vegetation on their roofs and in their walls. The rain and wind accelerate their descent into ruin. Often, unscrupulous contractors and businesspeople use ruins as dumps for discarded old tires and broken appliances. Ruins are potential homes for the homeless and offices for drug dealers.

In Highland Park, Mich., there used to be a ruined house painted bright orange. Clearly visible from the Davison Freeway, it surprised drivers accustomed to seeing only burned-out hulks as they drove by. * Perhaps unsettled by the attention this strange orange ruin attracted, city workers soon had it demolished.


Click here to see a slide show of urban ruins.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2010: This article originally misidentified the Davison Freeway as the Davidson Freeway. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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

  Slate Plus
March 30 2015 11:32 AM The “How Does a U.N. Official Work?” Transcript What’s it like to manage the U.N.’s Ebola response? Read a transcript of Adam Davidson’s conversation with the assistant secretary-general for field support.