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For our outing this time, we teamed up with sound artist and urban explorer extraordinaire Chelsea Southard and her friend Ni. I had stumbled upon Chelsea’s work shortly before coming to Boston and, still a relative stranger to the city, taken the initiative to ask if she would like to meet up and show Paul (aka my special person – yes we’re done with aliases!) and me around some of the more alternative sights.
Lucky for us, Chelsea said yes – and invited us for a day out at a mystery location in Western Massachusetts. She had some test field recording to do for Things/Time, a public sound installation combining the art of glass-making and sounds of the abandoned train tunnels under Tremont St in Boston, which she would go on to record a few weeks later. Ni was there to assist her.
So on a hot morning in late June, the two of them picked the two of us up from our temporary digs in Cambridge for what would turn out to be one of the best days of the whole trip. The mystery location, as was revealed to us in the car, was the notorious Belchertown State School. Abandoned in 1992 after exactly 70 years of operation, the 876-acre area, with some twenty crumbling buildings scattered throughout the positively out-of-control vegetation, is quite the maze today. Our tour guides knew their way around it; we were only happy to follow their lead.
Despite its name, the Belchertown State School for the Care and Custody of Feeble Minded Persons was no school at all, but an institution for people with intellectual and learning disabilities. In the 1970s, at the peak of its prime, this “town within a town” cloistered 1,500 patients, their age ranging from 1 to 88, in 13 dorms.
For almost half a century the institution was able to operate without much scrutiny and to conceal the horrors taking place behind its polished facade. But as the socially progressive 1970s rolled on and the first law protecting the civil rights of disabled people was passed, the truth about Belchertown finally started to come to light.
“The dehumanizing, overcrowded conditions at the Belchertown State School” were revealed in a 1971 newspaper article entitled The Tragedy of Belchertown. Patient neglect, unnecessary and cruel medical procedures, staff brutality and possibly sexual abuse (I haven’t been able to verify that, but the claim is out there) were all parts of life at Belchertown. You may read the well-documented history on Wikipedia, but be warned that some of the descriptions are the stuff of nightmares. Just ask Paul…
Over the following 20 years the school was brought under direct supervision of a federal judge and relative improvements to the living conditions of the patients were introduced. It was a little too little a little too late, however, and in 1992 the final patient left the school. As of now, there are no active development plans for the dilapidated and hazardous property.
Sadly, the tragedy of Belchertown is not an isolated one. New England and Massachusetts in particular are famous for their abundance of abandoned asylums with deeply troubling histories of institutional abuse, often fictionalized in Hollywood productions from Shutter Island to American Horror Story. Many of these productions only serve to further mystify and demean the lives of people with disabilities by portraying them not as the protagonists of their own narratives, but as “weird” and “crazy” background props along the hero’s journey.
Arguably, many urban explorers who participate in “asylum tourism” are guilty of the exact same thing when reveling in the “spookiness” of these places, which they have so courageously entered and conquered. It’s true that Paul and I had a lot of fun with our new friends at Belchertown – then again, we didn’t know the full history until after we came home that night and hit the world wide web – but I hesitate to talk about it too much. The story of Belchertown is so much bigger than our story.
And in a lot of ways, that story is still ongoing. Institutional abuse and anti-disability action continue to take place in our so-called modern societies. Perhaps the ruins of the closed-down Belchertown State School can serve as a reminder that although we still have a long way to go, the road will always be paved with smaller victories.
Starting with the what seemed to be the main building of the area. Inside was a large hall with a stage and a speaker’s platform as well as an underground basketball court engulfed in total darkness (read: no photos exist) among other spaces.
In we go!
This is what the effects of time look like.
The long building was connected with corridors on both sides.
You had to watch your head.
Cleaner than my work desk.
The textures we saw around the area were absolutely beautiful.
I have a dream… that someday this shit will be closed down for good.
The second floor!
This is where the patients and orderlies would sit.
Vegetation had taken over parts of many of the buildings.
Coming out again. The Belchertown State School was built in a Colonial Revival style, imitating elements of American colonial architecture.
Visibility over the area was almost non-existent. If you didn’t know your way, you would almost surely get lost.
Our merry troupe of explorers: Paul on the left, Chelsea and Ni on the right. Notice the neoclassical column situation.
Inside the next building, we found more gorgeous textures.
It wasn’t closed.
Nor was this one locked.
I actually really like the curtains!
This seemed to be the kitchen area.
This is why forgetting to bring a breathing mask wasn’t such a great idea.
I think I’ve seen this lamp being sold for 150 € at Hipster Depot.
The headboards in the corner may indicate a resting area.
The clock strikes no more at the Belchertown State School.