Jim Percy compares his interest in photographing certain areas of Pennsylvania to the drive that leads undersea explorers to the wreckage of the Titanic.
"It's seeing something that hasn't been touched by human hands in years," explains Percy, who with his wife, Holly Harris, runs the Facebook project "Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places — Western PA."
This, of course, does not speak well of the area's economic history over the previous few decades. But as is obvious from the way they have trekked from Erie to Waynesburg in Jim's pickup to collect images of roadside relics, Harris and Percy love the half-state in all its tattered glory.
"In New England, they refurbish the old colonial stuff," says Jim. He's 46 and a dead ringer for a jolly Rush Limbaugh, down to the cigar. "Here, we abandon our history and just move on. It's still here but it becomes invisible."
Harris and Percy make the invisible visible by uploading images of neglected landmarks for an ever-growing online fandom. Sifting through their collection, you're reminded of how much of Western Pennsylvania has just been discarded. Some are small locations, like a boarded-up gas station or derelict driving range. But many of these aged and battered structures once would have socially and economically defined a town: schools and churches, factories and mine entrances, hotels and theaters (with the blank marquee a constant trope), even entire roads and bridges. In McKeesport, the entire downtown was game for the project. (Holly got a stupendously ironic shot of the shuttered McKeesport Business Growth Center.)
Jim, a native of Bethel Park, has been exploring abandoned places since he was a teen-ager. "My friends and I would just walk up to an old factory or mine and go in," he says. "It was the thing to do back then." (He now abides by a strict no-trespassing rule.)
Abandoned, Old & Interesting began inauspiciously. Harris and Percy, who own a Vocelli Pizza franchise in Pleasant Hills, got the urban-explorer itch from time to time and posted their photos on their personal Facebook profiles. In July 2011, they started the Abandoned, Old & Interesting account, as well as a concurrent account on the photography site Panoramio.
At first, the audience was mostly limited to friends and family. Then, last August, the Harris and Percy spread the word to fellow pizza-slingers at a state convention of Vocelli franchisees, and a few local history groups promoted it. By Aug. 22, their page had 4,000 "likes" and by Sept. 1, they had 7,000. Then it went viral. As of mid-October, more than 86,000 people had "liked" the page and gotten images of run-down Pennsylvania in their news feeds.
The eeriest photos came from Lincoln Way, a (formerly) residential street in a section of Clairton where Jim and Holly refuse to send delivery drivers. Weeds and shrubs grow through the sidewalks and up the sides of the houses, every one of which is uninhabited. There are still curtains in many windows, and a rusted car peeks out of a half-shut garage. "I still don't know what happened," says Jim. "I checked the [tax] assessor's website and [the houses] have had the same owners since the '70s. It's like everyone walked out one day."
Explanations and other commentaries are usually offered by a community of Facebook users. "In some cases, we won't have any idea what [a place] was and 30 messages later we will know all about it," says Holly.
In September, for example, she posted a photo of a boarded-up one-room schoolhouse in Rogersville. One commenter identified it as the Crouse School House, leading another to link to a 1912 class photo on the Flickr account of a Greene County historian, showing 21 students and a teacher standing outside of the school. Then another commenter declared she'd just seen the face of one of her distant forefathers for the first time.
Thanks to the former prominence of many of these places, people often have strong memories of or associations with them: a grandfather who worked at that factory, a first date at that movie theater. This project shows how these structures still stand, both in the physical world and in the collective consciousness. (It also draws predictable bickering about whether industry or unions decimated the area.)
Jim is one of the youngest members of the Masonic Lodge in Elizabeth, and among the younger frequenters of local cigar shops. At both places, he's fond of listening to stories and getting ideas for new exploration sites from old-timers. "Basically, my mission is simple," he says. "I don't think people should forget the past."