A Trespasser's Manifesto
Words and Photos by Effy Garside Mitchell
Many have compared images of the peopleless cityspaces during the pandemic to scenes from an apocalypse, a rather quiet one. These images are like stills from a film about the end of the world.
The city in its current state feels like a barren landscape, a lush industrial wasteland at the end of humanity’s run. The city has morphed into a kind of blurry wilderness, one that for many already existed.
‘Wilderness’ is often seen as a clean, pure, ‘untouched space’, in contrast with the city. City landscapes are framed as dirty, crowded spaces, especially inner cityscapes. City streets, and those who occupy them, are deemed unsafe, dirty, and threatening.
Is a city void of its inhabitants then rendered sterile?
If you have more money you can afford more space.
Land has always been a kind of currency and wealth, which in a government mandated lockdown literally can mean the difference between infection and not.
This relationship between space and wealth is something that already existed, of course, prior to the Coronavirus. But the economy of space has come to the forefront of many articles and discussions. People have been and will continue to be at higher risk of disease when sanitation comes at a cost.
Geography, capitalism and safety exist at a gridlocked intersection.
The pandemic has made me rethink my personal spatial boundaries. With the many outdoor recreational sites in Oregon closed or restricted, how are we reimagining the ‘outdoors’, what it means, and who might go there? The outdoors might now be reframed as simply going beyond your front door.
How many of us have gotten to know our own neighbourhoods in different ways now that we've been bound within them, given time to wander inside them?
Has our inner circle gotten small enough for us to take a closer look at possibilities for recreation that lie beyond Zoom calls and Google hangouts?
Many of the newly exposed issues during the pandemic already existed, but were not part of the conversation addressed by mainstream politics and media outlets.
Local spaces such as hotels have been repurposed as shelters, which begs the question of how we were using these spaces in the first place.
Will the current crisis change our sense of the utility and ethics of space beyond the pandemic?
Urban exploration and urban camping are criminalized, and seen as forms of social deviance. Spending time with abandoned parts of the city can make us think about what we do not see, acknowledge, or know.
Who and what do we overlook and leave out of our field of vision? Who is afforded safety, and who isn’t, and what kind of stigma is created against certain spaces and the people who occupy them?
We might think of ‘the outdoors’ as our national parks or other state approved recreational spaces. But what about a cityscape that is in the process of becoming outdoors, that is becoming ruins as we speak, that will not become a state funded national heritage site preserved by city officials?
Abandoned places occupy this space between left behind and wiped away. Rotting architecture soon to be demolished and forgotten. These are modern ruins, crumbling in the process of becoming nature. They are not untouched wilderness, but rather wilderness touched by humans. Their artifice merged with wildness.
During a stay at home order we are forced to address our newly exposed spatial confines. Some have less space than others. If you’re living in a studio apartment with four other people, or in a tent on the side of the street, 6 feet may be a distance you can’t afford. Exposure places one at high risk of infection and death.
Middle-class white people are being forced to confront where we can and can’t go in ways marginalized people have long been forced to reckon with.
There are new definitions of what it means to be a social deviant. Those in power continue to be rewarded with safety, comfort and cleanliness. Some have the ability to follow social orders, while others are left behind like the forgotten buildings in Portland. Not occupied, just left, unable to be claimed, or made use of.
Urban exploring is commonly practiced by skateboarders, graffiti artists, wanderers by choice or circumstance, houseless folks or other social deviants who may feel on the outskirts of society for all kinds of socio-political reasons including poverty, social exclusion, lack of resources, political dissidence, or perhaps an amalgamation of these factors.
There is a “make do and mend” attitude to urban exploring, turning what you have into something (even if it’s the crumbs left by society) into a place fit for play and adventure.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in abandoned buildings in Portland lately, mourning the spaces we may never occupy again, but realising the potential of new spaces we have yet to uncover. Sometimes the vast decaying landscape of the local smoggy industrial district of your very own town can feel like a rainforest if only you’d switch your lens out.
Staying very local for someone usually on the move has meant looking closely at my own personal geography. Getting to know my city in a new way I hadn’t before, looking at it with new eyes. Thinking about who is permitted to take up space and stay safe in our cities and who isn’t.