A few miles south of where I live there’s an old DC prison complex which used to be known as Lorton Reformatory. Several years ago, they shut the place down and transformed a few of the larger buildings into a new “Arts Center” where painters, sculptors, and other creative folks can rent studio space and teach classes.
But the new Arts Center seems to be faltering. The parking lot is usually 90% empty, even on a beautiful weekend, like this past one. It’s a shame. It seemed like good idea to re-purpose the prison in a way that would promote the arts and provide a community asset. But the place always seems vacant and lifeless. People — the magic ingredient in any succesful public place — are conspicuously absent.
In the vast overgrown space beyond the Arts Center, many of the other prison buildings have languished and been invaded by pear saplings and honeysuckle.
Here there is real magic.
Here, among the dust and weeds and crumbling brick, neglect has created places that are magnetic, ingriguing, perhaps even poetic.
Why is it so much more thrilling to explore the accidental art of these abandoned landscapes than the intentional art being created inside the refurbished buildings?
Is it the way nature creeps in to the hardest, most barren places and makes them soft again?
Is it the voices of the past that linger beneath broken concrete and smothering vines?
Is it the way these landscapes make clear how small, how transient, our best human efforts really are?
Why is the human handprint so much more captivating once all the humans are gone?