Monday, January 24, 2011


I highly recommend John Patrick Leary's outstanding essay, "Detroitism," about the so-called "ruin porn" that has attracted so much recent attention to Detroit:

That some of the recent focus on Detroit ruins is exploitative in its depiction of Detroit’s impoverishment bears repeating, but more compelling are the reasons for our contemporary fascination with images of first-world urban decline, and not just in the Motor City. Ruin websites, photography collections, and urban exploration blogs chronicle industrial ruins across North America and Europe, from Youngstown, Ohio to Bucharest, Romania. Yet Detroit remains the Mecca of urban ruins. Its impressive collection of pre-Depression skyscrapers have been memorably lionized as a “American Acropolis” by Camilo José Vergara, the pioneering photographer of American ghetto landscapes. Buildings that have escaped the wrecking ball have also, for the most part, escaped gentrification, since most of Detroit’s economic elite remain sequestered in the suburbs, with little of the desire for urbanity that one finds among the leisure classes of Chicago, New York, London, or Philadelphia. Nor has the city ever been able to do on any significant scale what Pittsburgh has accomplished with its defunct Homestead steel mill, now a shopping mall, or what New York has done with upscale condos in old warehouses—leverage the hollow shells of a productive economy into the shell games of the credit economy.

For media workers from more prosperous cities, Detroit’s spaces of ruination appear to tell a history, or at least evoke a vague sense of historical pathos, absent in those other, wealthier cities. Indeed, one of the notable features of this Detroit boom is the fact that few of the people driving it actually live here. For someone from New York, Paris, or San Francisco, history seems more visible here, and this is the visual fascination that Detroit holds. As Marchand and Meffre write on their website, “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension.” In a country perennially plagued with a historical amnesia, ruins are rare permanent reminders of a history unsuited to the war memorials and equestrian statues that dot the national landscape. Another reason for the fascination with Detroit’s decline is less about history, though, and more about the future.

The whole article is quite insightful. A couple of points:

1. Detroit fascinates for a number of reasons. One is our obsession with post-apocalyptic landscapes in popular culture. Detroit is evidently as close as you can get in the U.S. to this. But these ruin photos also interest because they represent a lost tradition in American architecture that many people miss--the monumental and ornate building. Modernism is great in many ways, but there's something lost in prioritizing the display of materials than hiding them behind an beautifully tiled ceiling.

That architecture dominated much of late 19th and early 20th century American urban building. Most of it is gone now, a victim of urban renewal. But the complete abandonment of Detroit created conditions where no one wanted to tear it down and start over. That's bad, but it also allows us to see those buildings today, even in a decrepit condition. I'd love to see them restored, unlikely as that might be.

2. Detroit has a lot going against it. Its economy was based on big industry, which is mostly gone from the U.S. It's cold, which is a real strike in a mobile economy. But other cities have similar problems and some of them have done much better. Pittsburgh is a classic example. Even Akron has recast itself as a medical industry town and has done a pretty good job of revitalization.

What makes Detroit so different? I'd say this might have something to do with it:

This is a map of neighborhood segregation. Blue=African-American. Yellow=Latino. Red=white.

In a deeply segregated nation, no major city is more starkly segregated than Detroit. White people simply abandoned Detroit and continue to abandon it today. What's more, the desire among young people for urban experiences doesn't seem to have come to Detroit, or if it has, those young people are moving to other cities rather that revitalize their own. Of course, Akron and Pittsburgh also suffer from racial segregation. All three cities saw large migrations of both white and black southerners after World War I for industrial work. What makes Detroit different? I'm not really sure, but I can say that white Detroiters reacted against black migration by moving to suburbs very early. After successfully unionizing in the 1930s, race politics quickly trumped class politics for many people. And the suburbanization there was more profound and more long-lasting than in other cities.

So Detroit may be screwed, but let's not strictly ascribe massive economic forces as the reason. These were choices made by individuals and choices that continue to be made by the descendants of those individuals to deinvest in the city and avoid it like the plague. Detroit is a legacy of racism as much as deindustrialization. I'm not quite sure the ruin porn photographers quite get that. Certainly their buildings are almost devoid of life, which isn't quite right.