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March 23, 2009

Traces of Everyday Life on Desolation Row


by contributor Robert Hariman

These photographs were placed on a Facebook page to provide continued documentation of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. The photos were taken on March 19, several weeks after the paper went out of business. This picture could be from more than one corporate office today.

You are looking at the hardware of the white collar workplace: computer, phone, other electronic paraphernalia, ergonomic chair, files, wastebasket, paper littering every surface. . . . . Welcome to my world. On the good days, a place like this is humming with energy, activity, and deadlines, and, of course, arguments, delays, and frustrations, but also coffee breaks, conversations, and jokes. Places like this becoming living communities where people spend a lot of their time, give a lot of their talents, and find an important source of meaning, identity, and self-respect.

In the days of The Organization Man, the office was thought to be the source of Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. When you look at the shabby, barren, modernist decor, the label seems to apply again. But times had changed and now work looks pretty good, and the desolation comes not from the work but from business shutting down. When only the hardware is left, there’s nothing there.

Nothing there, except for a few traces of personality.

I love the way that people decorate their desks and cubicles to remake the impersonal space into something richer. Usually you see signs of those other important sources of personal meaning, family and friends, and you learn something about the individual. The gaping, empty shelves in this cubicle shout out the fact that the work has been taken away, yet the little dog, the trinkets stuck on the bulletin board, the book, photograph, ball cap, and even the box of tissues remind us that a real person worked here.

The unemployment statistic was created in an instant, and someone will have taken a few hours to box up some things and then walked away from the rest, but the signs of a past life linger on.


Material signs of a missing spirit–could this figurine be any more apt?

She was someone’s small homage to the imagination–a fairy the same color as the impersonal office decor and yet evocative of another world. She sits precariously on the cubicle divider in front of a stack of papers, a symbol of vulnerability and crash that reveals just now fragile newspapers are today. And not only newspapers.

Though obviously an inexpensive bit of kitsch, it’s sad that the figurine was abandoned along with the old editions awaiting recycling. But perhaps it wasn’t abandoned, and left instead as a good luck charm. A promise that spirit and creativity can return to desolation row.

Cross-posted from No Caption Needed.

The photographs were taken by Dean Krakel and put up at his Facebook page as “What They Left Behind”; the link was sent to me by photographer David Sutton.

  • Bill

    fairy or angel? are our guardian angels letting us down?

  • Progresssive Mom

    I noticed in the first shot real desolation — every scrap that said “I’m human and I work here” is gone. No photos, no trinkets, no mug.
    Also no keyboard and no monitor. No mouse or mouse pad. Just the hard drive left behind … Pun intentional.

  • Clem Guttata

    My first reaction is surprise at such expensive Hermann Miller Aeron chairs–I see four of them, so it’s not like a one-off. Even purchased in bulk those have got to run at least $500-$600+ each. (Last I checked, if I went out to buy one new it would cost me $800+ from an Internet discounter.)

  • yg bluig

    Clem, that’s the point.
    Just a few years ago, this newspaper could afford expensive chairs and cubicles for its employees to have a place to work.
    Now they can’t.

  • wisewebwoman

    I’m struck by the fragility of it all. As if a strong wind whistling through could blow it all away, partitions, desks, chairs, all flotsam in the modern office. Not like the solid oak pieces of old in wainscotted offices with mahogany floor to ceiling bookshelves and sometimes a fireplace.

  • cenoxo


    Reality meets virtuality.

  • wiregrips

    ‘…(all) the snooz lay ’round about,

  • harla

    For the last year or so, I’ve been having dreams about wandering through empty office spaces and empty parking lots of closed businesses with a keen sense of isolation. I’ve been looking for stable employment for 3 years. This kind of touches on that. Nowadays, if you are lucky enough to get some kind of assignment, don’t bother to personalize your space. It’ll be only so much more stuff to haul the day they send you home.
    I worked for 2 years in a large, four-story building that less than 1/2 filled by the time my position was eliminated. From what I heard from old-timers, the parking lot of this software development company once overflowed with employees’ cars and people had to park on the grass. Now it’s 1/5 full, at least. Then they got bought by a larger company and, well, you know the story.
    Anyway, sometimes I would wander down to the “empty floor” which the company had cleaned out in hopes of leasing the space. There you had dozens of abandoned cubicles, an empty, defunct cafeteria where German workers still liked to play foozball, and a ping-pong room favored by Asian workers. I snooped around the empty cubicles and found a nice world map down there which I took home with me. It’s very eerie knowing real people once worked there, someone “lived” in this little spot, now so desolate and impersonal, except for a a few push pins.
    Wish I had taken pictures. Actually, I wish I had a nice enough camera to go around and document business closings all over town.

  • harla

    PS, probably the only thing more depressing to me is abandoned retail space.

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