Almost forgotten New England


Bob Kimberly captures decay along the East Coast.

Bob Kimberly said he wonders how he ever ended up living on an Island. As a young man, Kimberly was eager to get away from Springfield, his hometown, to pretty much anywhere else in the country — the further the better. There wasn’t a city that wasn’t appealing to him.

Kimberly felt particularly pulled to New York City, or as he termed it, “the city where things happen.” It loomed large in his imagination as a young Springfielder, and sparked a lifelong passion for photography. Kimberly spent many years wandering around the endless tangle of New York City streets with his camera. Sometimes he’d find something interesting, sometimes he wouldn’t.

Eventually, in 1974, he found his way to Martha’s Vineyard, where he started painting houses for a living. He continued taking pictures, sometimes in New York but increasingly, starting in the early ’90s, Kimberly turned his camera to New England mill towns.

“I thought, I have this boat reservation, I might as well do something with it,” Kimberly said of his trips off-Island, when he’d pull off the highway and start snapping photos. Through these trips, he has documented the changing landscape of once vigorous industrial centers — Taunton, Brockton, Worcester, Springfield, Holyoke, Manchester, N.H., and Rumford, Maine — before they are all torn down.

“These are ugly, sad places — a town that has fallen on hard times, all the factories are dead, there’s a lot of poor people — it’s really alarming. But I just like poking around.”

It strikes him as ironic that so long after having fled the quiet of Springfield, he finds himself drawn back to his childhood town and others like it — what he calls the “crummy mill towns” that pepper the East Coast.

“You can’t say these places are pretty, but there’s something about them that’s so intriguing,” Kimberly said.

Kimberly can remember when many of the textile and other factories he visited still operated in these towns. They were vibrant, bustling. Now they seem empty and forgotten.

In Kimberly’s pictures, the hulking mills and industrial complexes that once gave meaning to town life have become sad versions of their former selves. They lurk on the edge of the river that inevitably runs along most New England cities, and seem to have little to say. Kimberly focuses on them in an effort to understand what these buildings can communicate about the the town in which they stand.

“Before I moved [to Martha’s Vineyard], I worked in a few factories in southern New England,” Kimberly said. “It was grim. Glad I did it when I was young. Those jobs and those factories are disappearing fast, along with the old tenements and three-decker houses that seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid. Also disappearing are lots of funky, unique structures that were family restaurants and such. What’s replacing all that are bland box stores and corporate buildings, look-alike chain stores and multi-unit condominiums.”

“They used to have a lot of pride in the cities,” Kimberly said. “When I was a kid, you dressed up to go downtown, and you went and behaved yourself to go to lunch at department stores.”

He remembers a building he once photographed in Great Barrington. The next time he visited, the building had been torn down. “The old world is fading fast,” Kimberly said. “There’s a bit of an effort to restore the factories, but they’re tearing them down like crazy, so you have to get there quick.”

Kimberly has made several trips to Springfield for this project, but isn’t encouraged by what he sees. “Springfield has gone to hell,” he said. “A tornado hit in 2013 and tore the city up. The city was at a loss with what to do; companies had moved away, so the city bought into this concept, and is turning half of the downtown into a casino. I don’t know what else they can do, but they’re going for it.”

Kimberly describes Springfield city center as an almost cancerous mass at the center of town life, with businesses boarded up, torn-down buildings, not much construction. As you move farther away from the city center, things change. “Then there’s a liquor store, a tattoo parlor, a beauty salon — somehow they hang on — a nail salon or something, and maybe the methadone clinic,” he said. “As you get out of town, there’s a strip that’s unimaginative and ugly, a drugstore, maybe a Walmart. And everyone goes to the Walmart. It has reduced everything, and they’re tearing things down.”

“I think it’s a bad change,” Kimberly said. “People haven’t stepped away enough to know what the value of [these buildings] is. If the mom-and-pop stores fail, then the chain stores come in.

“The stuff I’m looking for, it’s the stuff that people don’t want to see anymore,” Kimberly said. “In a way for me, it’s a fantasy — you wouldn’t see something like that on Martha’s Vineyard. In another sense, it’s a flashback, like a dream of my childhood.”

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