Misery Tourism, Literally: The Wilson Street Memorial

The following is the first in a potential series of articles profiling depressing places and miserable locales. If you know of a particularly dispiriting hellhole or pit of despair in your hometown, take some picture and send them to us. We may decide to feature your neighborhood shitstain on the site!

June 6th, 2016. 198 Wilson Street, Manchester, New Hampshire. After midnight, before dawn. A cigarette butt is left smoldering on the rear porch of an inner city apartment. No one notices as it ignites a fire that quickly spreads along the outside of the building, scaling the back wall. Within an hour and a half, the entire tenement is in flames. Thirty people are left homeless and a family of four (mother, boyfriend, two kids, one his, one not) are killed.

Immediately a makeshift memorial begins to materialize in front of the building’s immolated husk. A small cross is tied to a road sign in front of the ruins. It’s soon joined by several mylar balloons of the sort that you’d use to mark the site of a children’s birthday party. Mourners leave candles and flowers, both real and artificial, along with close to a dozen stuffed animals of all different sizes and breeds. A quarter of a city block is transformed into a monument to universal tears, a reminder of humanity’s capacity for shared grief, our ability to pencil bereavement into the calendar of community events.

Under normal circumstances, a tasteful period of time would be allowed to pass―probably a few weeks, maybe a month―and then the city or the property owner would quietly arrange for the memorial to be cleaned up. The wilted flowers and deflated balloons would join the dirty stuffed animals and dollar store religious relics in the bottom of a trash bag (or two or three), and the sidewalk would be returned to the custody of pedestrians and the homeless. But for whatever reason―it could be, perhaps, that the city’s budget was too tight, or maybe the landlord’s heart was two sizes too small―this didn’t happen on Wilson Street. In fact, nothing happened at all. Everything was just left there, on the street corner, in the heart of a city with over 100,000 residents, to decay.

Summer became fall became winter. The eyesore was pelted by rain, and it spent several weeks completely covered by snow. At the time I’m writing this, over 10 months have passed, and it’s still there.

The slideshow above shows the memorial in its present condition: weatherbeaten, trampled, covered in broken glass, a discrete disposal site for empty beer bottles and cigarette packs. I won’t try to force any labored comparisons between its sorry state and a city that has been one of the hardest hit by America’s heroin epidemic. It’s better to appreciate the spectacle for what it is, without interpretation. Why try to force meaning onto beauty?

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