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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

A Sunday in Holyoke, July 2013


I’ve written before about the (admittedly dubious and absolutely from a middle-class perspective) “upside” of living in an economically depressed area: The remains of a bygone industrial era are everywhere I look, waiting to be explored and photographed. Unlike Seattle or San Francisco, there is no economic imperative to tear down those empty factories or re-purpose them into condos for upwardly-mobile hipsters (uh… like me, I guess). And nowhere is that more true than in Holyoke. There are more abandoned spaces in Holyoke than I could explore in a lifetime of weekends. In 2010 I made a trailer for a (non-existent) film, titled Paper City, and included lots of footage of abandoned Holyoke. In 2011, after connecting with a local group of explorers, I photographed several paper mills in Holyoke. Some of those places are gone now, or at least more difficult to access, but that still leaves a million other paper mills, power plants, funeral homes, hotels and schools to see.

Although I love these places, it’s incumbent upon me to acknowledge that these empty buildings signify something entirely different to the people who lived and worked in Holyoke. The closing of the paper mills, in particular, caused real pain and suffering in the lives of hundreds (thousands?) of people who had worked there for decades. The scraps left behind – calendars, magazines, stacks of unsold paper and unused rag, coffee mugs, hard hats, and Rolodex files – are reminders of those lives, those people, who woke up one morning to find that the world had changed, and they were no longer needed.

On this sweltering Sunday in July 2013, we visited two locations. After happily climbing around the catwalks for an hour or so, I realized that I had been hearing helicopters circling overhead for the entire morning. We went up to the roof to take a look, and verified that they were, indeed, police helicopters, obviously looking for something or someone. Back inside, one of my companions hissed at me: We have a problem. My car was parked in a spot that I thought was legal, and I could see it from one of the windows of the building. As we watched, a police cruiser pulled up to my car, stopped, parked. The officer got out, slowly walked around my car, looked in the windows, noted the license plate number. He got back in his car, and (we could only assume) called it in. As you might imagine, I nearly shat myself. What should we do? Maybe three of us should wade across a stream and make our way into downtown with all of our camera gear, then I could make my way back through the woods to my car and play dumb… “Is there a problem, officer? I was just watching birds in the wooded area over there (right next to the abandoned power plant…).” No, that’s ridiculous! Maybe we should all go back to the car! No, how about if you circle a mile around that way, so that you’re coming to the car from the opposite direction? That’s impossible! I would have to swim in the river to get over there, and the river is looking scary…

And then the cop just drove away. The next day, we found out that a little girl had fallen in the river Saturday night. The helicopters (and probably the street cops, as well) had been searching for her. I felt a rush of relief because they hadn’t been searching for me, followed by a sick heaviness because, well, ugh. I can’t even imagine the grief.

Spooked, we moved on to the second location. As we navigated the massive complex, dark clouds rolled in and it began to rain, loudly. It was magical. I stood at a window near the roof and looked out over the red brick buildings of Holyoke, the greenery asserting itself in every neglected corner, creepers gradually entombing the old factories. One of my favorite things, aesthetically speaking, is green vegetation against red brick, and Holyoke has that in abundance. Lightning splashed across the scene, thunder rumbled and crashed like boulders rolling down a mountain and destroying great swaths of trees. And yet it was warm! Another one of my very favorite things about where we live: electrical storms in the summer. I was safe inside, enjoying the spectacle, in a building that was too well-built to be demolished, eating granola with my friends. It was a good day.

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One Comment

  1. Great pic’s Jason, thanks Jim for being a great tour guide!

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