Well-Soiled Machine

In my last post, I mentioned that I got insanely sick with an awful respiratory infection after spending a few days out shooting (and so did several friends). It’s now been three weeks, and my chest cough is still killing me. I’m also still convinced it’s from breathing something questionable inside a building. And I don’t know exactly which one was the culprit, but this place is currently suspect #1.

I didn’t take many photos here, because…the place isn’t very photogenic. This is a bombed out old factory in a bombed out part of town, and the whole experience was sketchy to say the least.

Another relic of this city’s lost industry, this old factory was built in 1917 and served as the largest manufacturer of machine tools in the country. By the 1980s, several factors, including an economic recession and increased reliance on imported goods, began the company’s downward spiral. Their main clientele — auto and steel makers — were struggling to stay afloat themselves. By 1983, the total annual shipments of metal cutting machine tools had tanked by over $2 billion.

At the same time, the company was taking drastic efforts to cut costs. They slashed their workforce by more than half and closed 15 manufacturing facilities. Sales dropped proportionately by several hundred million dollars between 1980 and 1983.

Over the next decade and a half, there would be multiple acquisitions and sales as the company worked to stay above water. Eventually, this plant was shuttered, division by division, between the late 90s and early 2000s.

In 2011, a local garbage disposal company leased the building with intent to use it as storage for recyclable materials — cardboard and paper. Two months later, they began illegally filling it with trash. By the following year, thousands of tons of garbage filled the space from floor to ceiling.

The garbage disposal company then filed to demolish the property, claiming that there was no asbestos in the building. This was a lie: An abatement company had previously quoted $1.5 million for the asbestos removal. The city rejected their proposal.

They ignored the order and began demolition anyway, releasing unabated asbestos into the air and groundwater. The EPA soon caught wind of the operation and intervened. The owner of the disposal company was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison and given a restitution order of $7.8 million. His employee was sentenced to a year.

The EPA removed 4,000 tons of hazardous waste and asbestos from the site, but thousands of tons of garbage still remain. It’s absolutely disgusting. The city estimates a $5.9 million cost to finish the cleanup, which is money it doesn’t have.

On our first drive around the building, we noticed several suits and ties walking around with clipboards. I can only assume they were city employees evaluating the site. After we finished shooting, we were greeted by a very nervous-looking man from an active building across the street. He thought we’d been sent by the EPA and was relieved to hear we were just photographers.

I knew none of this going into the place. Imagine my pleasant surprise.

I run into a lot of really disgusting things shooting old buildings. And yet nothing has ever turned my stomach the way this place did. The smell + visual of thousands of tons of rotting garbage made me want to throw up. If I had known what was waiting inside, honestly, I’d have never gone in.

See you at the next one.


  1. Mama Smith

    Still managed to come away with a couple of beauties Amanda. I hope you feel better soon!

  2. I’m ill just looking at your images…yes, this place seems to be a likely culprit for the respirator woes that beset the group.
    Hope you are all better now.

    • Amanda

      Still coughing, but it’s on its way out. I didn’t put a mask on right away because the garbage was around a corner, and there was decent airflow. Soon as I saw the trash, I grabbed my resp…but was probably too late. I switched to cartridge p100s anyways. Put them through their paces a few days ago and they’re much better.

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