On Ruined Cities and Stories of Decay

When I was a kid, I didn’t quite understand abandoned buildings.  I had no concept of how they became abandoned, or that they used to have a function.  We would drive into downtown Detroit and I would look at all the broken glass panes and the graffiti with interest, thinking it was just another district of the city. You know, the business district, the warehouse district, the abandoned district.  There’s a certain consciousness you acquire, though, growing up in the suburbs of Detroit.  And I don’t mean the nicer suburbs, I mean a run-down, struggling little suburb.  There’s a cynicism you’ve never been without, and yet a love for your decaying homeland as well.

That’s why I feel uncomfortable and annoyed at the tone of some outsiders’ commentary on the city’s declaration of bankruptcy.  At one point, I got especially angry.  I’d just tweeted a link to a really touching article entitled “We Love Detroit, Even If You Don’t,” when someone else tweeted a link to some photos, saying “Detroit’s bankrupt.  This haunting pictures [sic] show what a city looks like when capitalism doesn’t need people anymore.”  The photos he linked to were under a header claiming they show “the dramatic decline of a major American city.”

Standing in one spot on the Detroit riverfront, looking one way is a huge abandoned building...

Standing in one spot on the Detroit riverfront, looking one way is a huge abandoned building…

What were these photos that apparently fulfilled such sweeping functions? Sixteen photos of abandoned, decaying buildings: a theater closed in 1974, a couple of churches, a couple of libraries, a couple interior rooms of buildings that once housed offices, Michigan Central Station (a giant abandoned train station that’s kind of a landmark),  a couple of ballrooms, and so on.  Although some of these photos were of abandoned public service buildings which could I suppose illustrate the decrease of available city funds, most of them were only specific to the story of Detroit insofar as they were locations in Detroit.  They were basic “ruin porn,” just really good photography of decaying, ruined buildings.  It’s a genre of photography that I’ll confess to enjoying quite a bit (I’ve taken similar photos of an abandoned mental hospital north of Detroit, and they’re some of my best work), but it’s also a genre that generates a lot of photo-tourism in Detroit. That means that many peoples’ images of Detroit are from specifically cherry-picked abandoned places, meant to show processes of decay rather than showing the history of Detroit specifically.

...but looking in the other direction is the Renaissance Center, which is a major business center in the heart of downtown.

…but looking in the other direction is the Renaissance Center, which is a major business center in the heart of downtown.

There’s a better way to illustrate the decline of Detroit.  I have an idea already half-formed in my head of the sort of photo montage that would be an effective illustration of the sad facts of that once-great industrial city which has haunted the edges of my mind for my entire life.  Since I work in real estate, one project I’ve had to be involved with is doing the necessary title searching for tax foreclosures in Wayne County (which encompasses the city of Detroit and the surrounding metropolitan areas).  I take some of these thousands of addresses and look up the properties on Google maps, scrolling through the street view.  And here’s what makes me think things like, “How sad” or “I wonder what this city was like in its heyday, back when all these buildings were actually in use”: blocks of abandoned warehouses.  A collapsed and rusting-out factory.  Business blocks all boarded up.  A residential street where half the houses are abandoned and in various stages of decay.

When you want to tell the story of Detroit, the declining all-American city, show what made that city great.  Show the spaces that were once inhabited by ordinary people.  Show the businesses and industries that kept that city alive.  Punch your viewers in the gut with photo after photo of what was once functional, of the machines and businesses that used to make us a great industrial power, along with the pictures of what was once beautiful, like the ballrooms and theaters.  Show your viewers what I grew up knowing: a Detroit that’s collapsing in on itself, swaths of abandoned buildings and land like tentacles devouring the still-living, still-breathing city.  Show your viewers that Detroit’s not dead yet.  Give them the image of a city that’s still worth saving.

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