Four Ghost Towns to Call Home

By Rezwan Islam, AJ+

This town is coming like a ghost town

No job to be found in this country

Can’t go on no more.

- “Ghost Town,” The Specials

When we hear about ghost towns, we think of a bunch of dilapidated and abandoned houses with empty streets straight out of a Western or horror movie. In reality, there is nothing more haunting than a once-thriving town being abandoned, the echoes and remnants left behind and the din of voices gone quiet. What signifies a typical ghost town is the sense of emptiness.

There are many reasons why once-prosperous towns become ghost towns. Areas are vacated by residents due to the depletion of mining sources, deindustrialization, civil conflict, lack of jobs, natural or manmade disasters and patterns of urban development. A lot can happen. Each ghost town has a different story to tell. They bear the narrative of a glorious past, a slow decline and a transformation: some into open-air museums, others just plain disappearing, but each becoming part of history — for better or worse.

“It used to be full of people. Buses loaded with tourists used to come every Saturday. Lots of weddings were celebrated here.” — Erica Panzeri, Member of Friends of Consonno

Consonno (Cunsòn) is a ghost town near Milan, Italy. It was built on a farming village by Count Mario Bagno in 1962 with the idea that it could become an entertainment destination, the Las Vegas of Italy. It became very popular — tourists flocked to visit and the bars were full. Consonno had a 100-foot-high tower, a dance floor and malls.

But the area around town suffered from several landslides, and a large avalanche in 1976 blocked the only road leading to town. After that, the town went quickly into decline. It’s been empty for four decades. A group of volunteers formed “Friends of Consonno” to keep the town’s green areas clean as often as possible. They organize events and keep a small bar open in the summer, hoping it will come alive again one day. The heirs of Count Bagno have put the ruins of Consonno on sale for $13 million, but they have yet to find a buyer.

“I thought people will get interested to come to this village and take photos if I put dolls everywhere.” — Tsukimi Ayano (65), Doll Maker

Japan is encountering a different problem. Thousands of towns and villages are slowly being depopulated, with homes and infrastructure crumbling as young people shift toward metro cities. The remote village of Nagoro lies in the valleys of Shikoku, Japan. As young people have left for big cities in search of work, the village has shrunk. Only around 30 people live in Nagoro now, with most of its shops and residences permanently shuttered. You have to drive 90 minutes to a nearby city to buy groceries.

More than a decade ago, doll maker Tsukimi Ayano returned to her home in Nagoro and was saddened by the departing people, who had migrated or passed away. So she started making dolls by hand. Each doll represents someone who has moved away or died. She makes the giant dolls from straw, fabric, and old clothes, and places them around houses, fields, trees, streets, and at a bus stop, where they wait for a bus that never arrives. The village school, once filled with children and teachers, has now been replaced with dozens of dolls sitting in their places, waiting for class to begin. Today, Nagoro is teeming with more than 350 of Ayano’s dolls, frozen in time.

Tsukimi hopes that visitors will come to Nagoro to see the dolls, and browse on Google Street View if they can’t come.

“I think what this town needs is young people. The environment and caring about their communities. And that’s probably true for most places.” — Tighe Bullock (26), City Councilman

In ghost towns we see the cycle of opportunity and decline, tales of hopes and dreams sought and abandoned. Thurmond, West Virginia, is situated along the New River. It became a boom town in the 1900s thanks to coal. The prosperity of the town started to wane by the 1930s as the Great Depression swept the country. In the 1990s, the National Park Service came up with a plan to develop Thurmond into a tourist site with a walking museum to capture the old coal-mining ambiance. But funding was only secured for restoration of the depot and stabilization of the commercial buildings. The federal government started buying houses and land from the local residents, and most people moved out. Tighe Bullock’s family could afford to not sell their home. When he was born in Thurmond, there were about 80 people, but there’s only five now. His and another family are all that exist in Thurmond, and they all help govern the town. In February 2015, Thurmond passed a nondiscrimination ordinance for LGBT community members. For them, it was a matter of principle.

Life in Thurmond is slow, with the nearest gas station seven miles away. The sound of the river and the swaying of the building when the trains roll through remains a memory for its past residents. Tighe hopes that young people with entrepreneurial aspirations, and compassion for nature and heritage, could bring the town back to life.

“A man only lives once. Death comes only once, this is our village and we love it. The greatest pain is we can’t do anything.” — Father Hani (55), Parish Priest

Sometimes people have to leave their hometown against their will. There were 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq in 1987, according to a census. Many were displaced during the 2003 Iraq war. Now those who remain are being persecuted by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, and many fear that the age of Christians in Mesopotamia is coming to an end.

Seven thousand people, mostly Christians, lived in Telaskof, Iraq, before an ISIS offensive in August 2014. Many families living there fled to nearby villages or left Iraq. The town was retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga shortly afterward, but its residents fear for their lives and have yet to return. ISIS assaults on the town are still frequent, as Telaskof is within rocket and mortar range of ISIS positions on the Nineveh Plain to the south. Father Rani Hanna (55) is the parish priest of Telaskof’s St. George Catholic Church. He lives three miles away and visits his church in Telaskof daily to set an example for his people. The church asks young people to not leave the land or immigrate, but instead protect their heritage in the world-famous Mesopotamian civilization. Some of these towns are in danger of total disappearance, like Mohenjo-daro, the ancient city in modern-day Pakistan. But hope still remains for people who will live anywhere just to survive, make it home and march forward.

When it all falls, when it all falls down
We’ll be two souls in a ghost town
- “Ghost Town,” Madonna
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