The Neighborhood of Empty Houses
I came to realize my neighbors were nothing but empty houses. Homes over an extended grassy lot piled high with a diverse collection of belongings — from furniture and books to anniversary gifts. It has been over three years since I found these homes, and only recently, in my quarantined state, has my curiosity grown. Encapsulated in a single photo, a wooden plaque with white, hand-painted letters reading “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY” remains a nagging mystery. Dated 1980, the center of the plaque held two horseshoes, each painted with a couple’s name. Beside it, inside a plastic sleeve, a card dedicated to them with a pressed — now unrecognizable — flower and a four-leaf clover. The photo brought back a rush of memories of the surreal parcel of land I found it in.
I was staying at my uncle’s place over the spring of 2017. I had nowhere to go for spring break, and my uncle, who lived in North Carolina, welcomed me to his home. This was the second time I visited his residence; in the fall of 2016, my university forced me to evacuate the city because of Hurricane Matthew. At the time, my concern about the hurricane overpowered my curiosity about the neighboring houses.
With no hurricane to distract me, it was impossible to not think about the houses. Only a thin layer of new growth separated me from the first building, a brick barn that loomed ominously over the woods. Its sight pierced my confidence when I walked past. I frequented these woods with the hope of photographing the wildlife, waking up before five to watch the world come alive. The forest bed was blanketed in dry, hay-like vegetation and formed canopies from fallen branches. My uncle told me that these woods used to be an old farm, and there was evidence of this; the ground was littered with old farm tools, teapots, and small home utensils, which small trees sometimes pushed out of the earth — such as unsettlingly enough, a large saw blade. Often, I saw chicken wire strangle the base of trees; one such wire held the skull of a decaying canine.
The homes that surrounded my uncle’s property made me increasingly anxious. I used one of my early mornings to investigate — at least the brick barn. I trod carefully across the new growth. Shafts of crepuscular rays split the cold mist, revealing the decrepitude of the barn. Indeed, it was unused. A rusted mechanical hoe, metal shards, and scraps of wood littered the perimeter of the building. On closer inspection, the barn’s brick appearance was just mimicry; a thick rubber siding, peeling off from water damage, revealed weather-worn wood. Dead vines hugged the building while adolescent pine trees found their home around the tin awning. Inside was a thick layer of dirt, pine, wooden planks, and troughs containing only dead birds.
The barn opened to a hazy chartreuse field; the dew-laden grass and the wings of thousands of insects glowed from the morning light. The light revealed the features of another building past the barn; a two-story home, embedded in the forest — its roof bearing multiple holes. The first floor, made of layered concrete, was largely intact, however, the rest of the home made of wood had little to no walls. The poor structural integrity, made evident by its worrying crepitation, made it a plausible scenario that venturing inside would bring me harm. I only briefly ascended to the second floor, however, the roosting hornets above the staircase triggered my immense fear of aggressive, stinging insects, and promptly left the building.
On the other side of the field, a hundred feet away, two more houses and a moving truck were thoroughly abandoned. A motley collection of a few dozen fire extinguishers, varying from designs from the 1970s through the 80s, filled the front porch. To me, the moving truck in front of the house that still contained boxes filled me with disquiet, as it, along with the frantic state of the houses, felt like the owners left in haste. I looked up the docket number and could see that the truck was labeled “inactive,” an obvious descriptor, but it left lots to be desired as to why a full rental truck was left here to rust.
Like a hazardous yard sale, an impassable admixture of molded home furnishings and rusted tools populated the porches and home interiors. Day by day, I took the time to explore each house — five in total. On the last day, I came across the anniversary box; it was in a thin building with only a powdering of paint left. A warped, wooden door, long since disconnected from the house, rested over the entrance, inviting me to move it aside. It was a garage of sorts, with dusted furniture and boxes piled high. It felt wrong to explore these houses, so I only documented what I found with photos.
I soon learned that all but two houses that surrounded my uncle were empty and left to rot. Even the ones that were lived in could be easily confused with being abandoned. The only evidence I saw of someone living was a large dog that assertively barked when I got near. I averted my gaze and briskly walked past, full knowing that a pathetic excuse of a fence was all that kept it from lunging at me. When I arrived here, I felt my uncle’s neighborhood was highly populated, but that vanished completely, and I felt alone. It unnerved me that I did not sense it earlier. I spent weeks there treading carefully, feeling as though I was being watched or judged, but my exploration fell on absent eyes.
The haunting emptiness of the neighborhood extended itself to its cemetery. From a survey in 1981, nearly half of the graves were unmarked. And I believe it to be true now. Even what I would presume as recent burials based on the loose dirt was unmarked. Trees acted as temporary graves with red bricks labeled “unknown” piled around them. I saw the edge of a cut stone sticking out of a clump of moss; I reached down and pulled the moss from the earth, revealing two additional graves only marked “Husband” and “Wife.” I noticed many more graves were hiding, partially buried. I felt uncomfortable walking around the cemetery, as I was undoubtedly walking on the resting places of many loved ones — their neglect begs the question of whether they are remembered anymore. Like these nameless graves, the abandoned buildings marked only a presence. The anniversary plaque with a couple’s name is all I had as a key to the past, and I could not let its history fade away.
I discovered the husband written on the plaque died seven years ago. He was a contemporary and American literature professor and dabbled in Greek and Shakespearean plays as both a historical supervisor and director. His university had a drive to send funds to support war-stricken Korea and flood relief to Holland, an event locally titled the de Watersnoodramp, a massive flood that shook the country in 1953. As the “head of unusual stunts” — whatever that means — he headed the shoe-shining efforts to raise money. He quipped that “the status of today’s politician could rise or fall according to the way he shines shoes.” I found far less information on his wife, although I discovered more of her entrepreneurial pursuits, which involved the abandoned properties I came across forty years later. The property’s only purpose was to hold a business office address, which dissolved a year after the husband died.
The question of why the properties were left to the elements still tugs at my interest, but I think not knowing keeps it alive in my head. I was not there, like the golden field which bore witness to the families’ vicissitudes and even knowing the partial story, I am still curious to see what it saw. In the back of my mind, the homes continued to thrive, stuck in the perpetual state of decay I found them in, occasionally bubbling up to the surface so I can ask, “what happened”?