They Paved Paradise & Put Up A Parking Lot – Urban Sprawl

Urban Sprawl; Or Why I Always Thought Farms Were Abandoned

media copyright of Lost Americana
Looking pretty much dead East you can still see what’s left of one farm. Across the street now sits a Target & Kohls, twenty years earlier there was a barn &  house here. You can see them in my photo below

If you have been following the Lost Americana documentary for anytime chances are you have heard me talk about living & growing up in Illinois. (If not wait for it, I’ve got a lot of practice on bragging about the state I’m from while living on & off again in Texas. Texans know how to brag about a state). Where I grew up, Joliet, IL, was essentially outside of the sprawl that was the Chicago suburbs. Back in the 1970s & 80s there was a distinct area that defined where the suburbs ended and where the city of Joliet and its surrounding suburbs, or farming towns started and that distinction was farm fields.

Farm towns like Plainfield, Channahon & New Lenox , were separated by farm fields themselves from Joliet, but still close enough that those who worked in Joliet, but wanted more land and house would move to. This is where I started my journey photographing old barns & farm houses.

If this isn’t your first time seeing my work, you might also know I’ve been photographing these ruins of rural America since 1995, or the very young age of 21. And at that age I was under the impression that these buildings were just being left to rot because the farmers who owned them knew the tide was rolling in and suburban development wasn’t far away.

Half of my early collection of photos was from around this area and most of the places are gone now. So is that distinct area of farmland that separated Joliet from the Chicago suburbs. I use to vigorously defend my hometown as not being just another suburb, but a city of its own, but now that has become harder to do. Harder still is to get to the country side. It use to take just a short 5 minutes driving west of Joliet and you’d be in cornfields as far as the eye could see. Now it takes 15 to 20 depending on the time of the day and Joliet along with the burbs stretch into neighboring Kendall County.

media copyright of Lost Americana
In 1996 I took this photo standing not to far from the one where I was in the image above. This view is looking more Northeast.
farms to parking lots for walmart & target media copyright of Lost Americana
The barn & farm house in the photo above where most likely right where I was standing when I took this photo.

What A Localized View Does To Your Perception

The reason I’m going into detail about the area I grew up in isn’t to wax poetic about my hometown, but to give an example of what happens when your view of an issue is only based on effects that you’ve experienced first hand. For the longest time I thought the sole reason farms were being abandoned was to make way for population growth. It wasn’t until I started traveling West, far away from urban areas that I started to realize it was the exact opposite. That farms were being left vacant because of population decline. That family farmers and there 5 kids weren’t playing the yard in front of a big red barn on summer days and that Main Streets weren’t filled with men in overalls and women in dresses. It wasn’t what Norman Rockwell would have painted.

I believe, that many people like myself who live/lived on the edge of the rural-urban divide feel that when I talk about the loss of farms they’re picturing the very same scenario I saw growing up, farms being displaced for subdivisions and strip malls. And while much of that is true, a 2002 report had estimated that America was losing 2 acres of farm land a minute, it still has very little effect on the majority of the farm land and the communities that surround them in this country.  I think it took me almost a decade of traveling around the country before I put the rise of abandoned farms, with the decline of small towns.

And this gets to a bigger point of how I feel so much of this has been missed. People, not just the media, seem to focus on the big immediate losses; factories closing, mills closing, mines closing, so when they see two, or three families move out of town over the course of a year, they don’t associate that as a loss. It also doesn’t get factored in that even if you live in a small 500 person town, chances are you don’t know all the residents and there’s been another 3-5 families that left you don’t know about. Add to that kids who graduate from high school, go off to college, or a job not to return again as residents leaving only the parents behind. Or the other towns in your county seeing the same losses.

Your block might look the same, maybe there aren’t any abandoned houses, but things have gotten quite now and before you know it a decade has gone by and your town has lost 10-15% of it’s population… Silently.

Walmarts replacing farm land urban sprawl
I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan, but putting a Walmart on top of the some of the best soil in the world seems like paving paradise.
media copyright of Lost Americana
If I had stayed in this spot for 15 years, when I turned around to get back to my truck, I would have been looking at the Walmart in the photo above.

A Promise To Look At Urban Sprawl

One of the aspects I have not researched much is the topic of “urban sprawl.” I think this is because a lot of the places I have found myself in the last decade are those areas that are known as “non-metropolitan counties” (a county without a town of 2,500 residents). As the documentary moves on I’ll be looking into states like Ohio, Kentucky, New York that are facing ever expanding urban areas and see where that topic leads the documentary.

I’d like to thank a few of my followers on Instagram from Indiana for really bringing this topic up. I think I let my personal perception of the places I’ve visited over the last 10 years out West, cloud my search on some of the topics facing rural farm communities. And just like I won’t be focusing a significant amount of the documentary on the rural drug epidemic, it like urban sprawl are two things that I  have to mention if I want a complete story on the changes happening in rural agricultural America.