On Gukanjima, the Washington Heights of Japan


Today we dreamed of traveling to a small island off the coast of Japan called Gukanjima. Only three-quarters of a mile around, during its heyday it nevertheless was home to over 5000 people, which for decades made it the world’s most densely populated island. Looking at pictures of it now, we imagine a city block dislodged from Manhattan and floating out to sea. In 1974, however, the coal mines on which it was built were closed and the island quickly (forcibly? the details are unclear) abandoned, leaving behind a depopulated, dead city.

But as much as we would like to visit this decaying island and exalt in its ruins, we know that the likelihood of this ever happening — even if it were open to tourists, which it’s not — are slim to none, and so we console ourselves with thoughts of another Pompeii, this one much closer at hand. Like Gukanjima, it is filled with the unimaginably beautiful wreckage of an urban past; haunted by the random detritus of the ambivalent population who left it behind; and now slowly caving in to the only forces (namely, nature and capital) with enough power and stamina to completely eradicate the past. What? You don’t know this place? It’s right here in Manhattan!

We close our eyes and drift off, imagining the Edwardian estates and opulent apartment palaces that used to exist in Washington Heights, vestiges of which can still be found under the layers of cheap paint and dust, and most of all in the sepia tones of undated photographs from a gilded era that — outside of this hollow, painful nostalgia — will never exist.

WH Staircase

Thanks to Slog for tipping us off about Gukanjima.

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