In 2006, after scheming with a friend in his first-period journalism class at Badin High School in Hamilton, Ronny Salerno went on an adventure. He hopped a fence into the abandoned, overgrown Surf Cincinnati water park and documented his explorations with his camera. The adrenaline of trespassing in that lost world of his childhood hooked him. Soon Salerno was sharing images on the Internet of structures and spaces that rested in the zone between civilization and the apocalypse. Starting a blog, Queen City Discovery (QC/D), under the pseudonym Gordon Bombay, was the next logical step. Lose the glasses and Salerno bears a more than passing resemblance to “Bombay,” the character played by Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks. Right now he’s driving northbound on I-71, steady at the wheel. As we cross the I-275 beltway on our way to a Waffle House in the outer ’burbs, he says he doesn’t do much “casual trespassing” anymore.
“Ever since getting out of school I’ve been trying not to get arrested,” he says. So far so good, which is a feat, given the number of abandoned parks, factories, airports, hotels, and tunnels he’s entered in pursuit of dereliction: the weed-choked lots and shuttered, bankrupt husks that QC/D so vividly distills. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I don’t want to waste the day,” Salerno says. “The light’s nice. I gotta go out and shoot something. So then I start looking around…”
We pull off as the last light catches Kings Island’s Eiffel Tower. Like so many Cincinnati teens, Salerno spent summers at the amusement park wrangling Beast riders. That’s when he began frequenting the Kings Mills outpost of the ubiquitous, boxy, yellow diner. We belly up to the low counter beside his friend Ashly, who’s just gotten off work cutting hair and is taking out her aggression on a Rubik’s Cube. Recently Salerno started a series photographing “Kings Waffles” regulars like her (see photo gallery). Ashly once cut his hair in the field out back. Salerno knows every cook and customer in the 24-hour diner by name and catches up with their latest drama while we wait for his Texas bacon, egg, and cheese melt and my pecan waffle.
QC/D runs the gamut from extended photo essays to shorter posts in Salerno’s “Suburbia Lost” series focusing on vacant suburban businesses—Waynesville’s defunct Der Dutchman restaurant; a dead, de-branded West Chester gas station; the much-reviled and ultimately doomed colossus of the Cincinnati North Hotel in Springdale. “Ronny gets into places the average person can’t, and he brings a rare humor and sense of wonder,” says Bob Schwartz, who runs the 5chw4r7z blog.
This isn’t photojournalism, even though that was Salerno’s major at Ohio University before he transferred to NKU for applied photography. It’s too personal, he says, too biased. Drawing inspiration from photographer Gordon Parks and local journalist Jake Mecklenborg, whose website chronicled the Cincinnati subway, Salerno simply wanted to follow his muse. And his muse goes everywhere. There’s a series on the shuttered Delta terminal at CVG. A road trip to an abandoned steam yacht on a tributary of the Ohio, replete with in-depth history about the vessel’s use by Thomas Edison for government research into anti-sub weaponry. He memorializes people too, like Avtar Gill, the Hat Sign Man, or Anderson Ferry pilot Virgil Souder. Many posts chronicle the flotsam and jetsam of economic expansion and contraction. There are other camera-toting spelunkers of the Rust Belt’s dark heart, but few do it with such awareness of how each place is significant, however lost it seems.
It turns out no one is safe around Salerno. After he takes care to pay up before our waitress goes off shift, he disappears. Suddenly, I’m staring down the barrel of the Canon 60D stashed in his trunk with a few spare lenses, a flashlight, and a pair of combat boots. Back on the highway, the Cincinnati suburbs slide by and he’s the one asking me questions, like whether I ever got a look inside the bomb shelter under Princeton High School, my alma mater. And whether I still have contacts that could get us inside.