I dropped the library copy of “Building Ghost” by Jim Burlingame into my nine year old son’s lap, hoping he’d hold onto it as we pulled away from the library. He immediately started flipping through it as I explained it was a book about a part of Olympia’s history.
Specifically, it was a book with pictures of new buildings placed next to photos of the same location in the past.
“Building Ghosts” pairs a series of photos Burlingame took in 2014 of vacant buildings with historic photos of the the same location at some point in the past. Also included in the book is a well thought out essay on why he did what he did.
Burlingame’s book is like that, it makes you think harder about seemingly anonymous corners of Olympia. It’s easy for us to roll around in the prettier and more stately buildings in town, but much more of our human history revolves around small anonymous houses on the edge of town replaced by strip malls on roads like Martin Way.
He starts the essay in the front of the book talking about the experiences at the old video store on the westside, how anonymous strip mall commercialism is unrecognized human history:
All around us, we have chances to see the literal infrastructure we pass through and spend time in every day as aspects of another kind of infrastructure altogether: the brick by brick accretion of details that sustain the meaning of those locations, both for individuals and the community they’re a part of. Of course, the latter is made up of an ever-changing set of members, most of whom don’t have much knowledge of the earlier incarnations of the places they frequent. Thus the near-invisibility — yet ubiquity — of these pillars means there’s a phantom palace overlaid upon the mundane world we know.
I bolded that last phrase, because I’m trying to set up the criticism of my next point nicely.
This book makes me want another book. As much as I like Jim’s effort here, it seems like more of a proof of concept than a finished piece. That he took his 2014 photos before researching what historic photos were available of the same locations means (as my son figured out) that they’re often of different perspectives.
I would have also like there to be a way for his essay to not be separated from the photos. The ideas are so powerful that reading them across the same wide pages the photos were laid out on was tiring. I’ve read and reread the essay and it speaks to me. I really like it, but laid out narrower, next to the photos, would have been better.
The way he talks about trying to draw out the mundane past into the mundane future and the phantom palace (and later in the essay his “pillars of light” vs. Springsteen’s darkness on the edge of town) makes me want more.