Tuesday, May 14, 2019

It Takes a Village

With the proliferation of ghost hunting and other less-than-objective reality television shows available throughout the last decade or so, I always default to imagining that the regionally accessible list of every "well known" locale for such haunts has long since been exhausted. Sometimes, all that it takes to break this facade and minor hubris is a well-timed and sudden "discovery" late one Friday night, spent otherwise doing nothing. You have the cluster of medical facilities on the fringe of the larger metropolitan areas nearby (Philadelphia and New York) and the tried and true smaller facilities in my home state of New Jersey and you can tell yourself that there are only so many times you can visit and take the same photographs of familiar broken cinder blocks and causeways.

Even outside of the realm of abandoned institutional properties, recycling these visits purely for capturing some sort of media becomes redundant. Surely, always worth a day out, but always yielding diminishing returns when it comes to the photographic proof. There was a running joke when we lived in Piscataway that we had "done Watchung to death," resorting to its hiking trails and abandoned village when we could not muster the cleverness to discover someplace new. The fact that we can access these places often enough that they become familiar is a hidden blessing itself, in a way, but that does not take away from the undeniable fact and feeling of mystery that you feel wandering these places for the first time -- and that inkling of a new experience, one that was apparently not that far away, found me in bed around two am on a Friday night / Saturday morning.

You see, with all the ilk and cynicism that social media brings (and there is plenty of both to go around), I somehow stumbled into a private group over the years of abandoned and historic places in the tri-state area. Of course, they are rife with visitors experiencing those familiar locales referenced above, but it is wonderful to see their own personal takeaways from their adventures, making their own histories amongst our own histories on top of the infinitely-heavier histories of the sites themselves. I will see these pictures, click through, smile at the words shared, and that is usually the end of the shared experience. But every so often, a user will share a place that I had never heard of, or one that will likely never be popularly shared (such as an old farm on a family's private piece of land). What struck me that Friday night was this uncanny in-between: there was familiarity in the pictures shared, but I knew that I had never been there. So I read through some comments and did some minor research.

In some regards, to the people who enjoy this stuff as I do, the Letchworth Village can almost be regarded as a sister-property of the New York City Farm Colony that we've visited (and used) however many times before. In fact, they are forever linked in research due to their histories that bound them together in the documentary that brought light to the medical injustice and malpractice of their time. For all of the wrong reasons, Letchworth Village and the New York City Farm Colony were a part of a greater, disappointing conversation -- and seeing the pictures that a stranger shared, I instantly could grasp it.

Many have written of its history and can go into greater depths than I will, but the Village began its existence with the highest hopes and with the greatest of intentions. Similar to the Farm Colony, it sought to create a softer place of treatment and refuge, in a time when those with varying ailments and disabilities could anticipate being abandoned at anonymous, institutional, and uncaring asylums. None of its buildings were particularly monolithic and it was designed after a sprawling estate, giving it the aesthetic of a summer retreat with lodgings all over a hilly farm property. To the public eye it maintained this softness, at least for a little while. In 1950, it was even the location of the first trial case of the polio vaccination.

But through legal cases and photo-investigative journalism, the caring front of the Letchworth Village deteriorated throughout the decades, and rightfully so. Lack of funding for new construction cramped many patients into filthy living accomodations with little to no educational or productive direction. Violence towards and from the staff was common and even after the site closed in the nineties, those formerly under the employ of the Village rarely chose to speak of their experiences there. While Letchworth Village may have been created with the purest of intentions, reality and neglect failed to see it through to such fruition.

Today, visitors can access the property with great ease. A long, paved loop goes through the main property, passing perhaps a dozen buildings in disrepair. Signs are posted warning against trespassing into the buildings and off of the paved walkways. Paranormal investigations conducted on those programs referenced in the header have undoubtedly drawn many to ignore these warnings and peer inside the structures themselves (no comment), but the public can easily and legally enjoy the property (ignoring its rather grim history) with no concerns of consequences, so long as they remain on the walking path.

Broken windows and disregarded barricades are numerous, whether due to vandalism or just the creep of time. Knowing today of what happened at Letchworth, it was a bit difficult to imagine the place functioning as a medical institution -- even in the bright sun of a spring day and with the jarring juxtaposition of condemned structures on a walking trail, the place feels more natural as it is. Perhaps it is that all-too human predisposition to overlook a sordid past, if only to make the present more palatable. (Fortunately, although it ultimately may not be any true reconciliation, there is a memorial for those who suffered at the institution in the nearby cemetery.) 

Maybe it is easier to see it for its odd, unique beauty today, rather than dwell on the individual hells that existed there, not even thirty years ago. Seeing an old man relaxing under a tree with his dog and a young couple walking a stroller with their baby, maybe these small gifts of peace are some whimsical and existential apology for what happened there. But that uncanny feeling never really wavered as I walked the trail. There was pain here, borne from a system that was unable or unwilling to commit to what it had promised. The grounds are beautiful; a look inside some of the buildings reveal its true character. 

Further reading: