Abandoned Detroit: "Ruin Porn"

Michigan Radio recently ran a story on The Cost of Creativity, a think piece designed to show the importance of arts funding to a state with a huge budget deficit. The story included a segment that discussed photographers “parachuting in” to Detroit, taking pictures of the numerous architectural landmarks that are now in ruins, then leaving to tell a “cliche” story of urban decay. One Vice Magazine column categorized the obsession with decayed landmarks as “ruin porn,” (I found myself thinking, “that’s a good point,” then questioning the source as I glanced at the widget next to the article that featured pictures from their famous hipster critique, “Do’s/Don’ts”).

Other websites have attempted the classical objective approach. Buildings of Detroit, a project of author Dan Austin and photographer Sean Doerr, logs hundreds of photographs of formerly grand buildings now in varying states of decay, and provides a comprehensive list of architects of major city landmarks. The composition of Andrew Moore’s photographs take me further below the surface than those featured by Buildings of Detroit. Can’t Forget the Motor City shows a slightly more upbeat vision of the city, although sometimes the photographs seem a little contrived. My personal favorite? A B+W photo of two hands holding up an LP of Michael Jackson’s Thriller against a sunset. A great picture, but it could have been taken anywhere.

I used the word “objective” to describe the Buildings of Detroit website, but it’s hard to be objective when you take pictures of ruins — or pictures of anything for that matter. If you don’t address the story of how those ruins came to be, you’re missing the point. Detroit is an extreme example of the decay that many American cities, large and small, experienced as the “American Century” came to a close. Cities arose to house the millions of factory workers within walking distance of the factory. As transit, especially cars, allowed people to live miles from the factory, it brought into question the necessity of cities in the first place. And as those factories disappear to the third world due to the free trade movement, what’s the point of living in a city? You have to find some other reason, besides gainful employment, to live where you live.

But you know, it’s not just cities. What about small towns on the western prairies, whose populations have dwindled since farm consolidation and the rise of monoculture? Or the struggling coal-towns and mill-towns of the Appalachians, whose work dried up as the coal ran out, or the jobs went to Brazil? I guess what I am searching for is the glue that holds these simultaneous (and apparently non-related) events together.

A couple of possibilities. (1) In America, you can always reinvent yourself, and if something doesn’t go the way you want it to go in Detroit, just pick up and move to Iowa. And if Iowa sucks, move on to New Mexico. There’s no reason to settle. There’s no force that can cause you to put down serious roots. (2) Collective thinking in America — between business interests, government, and public policy experts — is not capable of thinking ahead more than about six months. Businesses see short-term profits… or they may see long term profits, but are too possessed in where the money is coming from right now to plan for the future. Politicians are only thinking as far as the next election cycle. Few people in positions of influence are saying, “what do we do when the coal runs out?” On farms, “what do we do when the aquifer dries up?” In cities, “What do we do if nobody wants to live here anymore?”

These are tough questions, indeed. Certainly, Roman advisers were telling Emperors that the Empire was getting too big, that it was getting tougher to train good soldiers to fight the barbarians. Certainly, advisers told the British parliamentarians that it was getting expensive to run an Empire upon which the sun never set, and that the willpower of its soldiers was fading, after two world wars, and countless years of keeping their boots on the necks of colonial subjects. The response from those in power has typically been to ignore the advice, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand, or to reject the advise as patently wrong. Even serious global disturbances don’t seem to shake our leaders, and making tough decisions is not something leaders engage in for pleasure, despite the fact that we’ve appointed or elected them to make those hard decisions.

My god. It’s thirty minutes later and I still haven’t made my point. But… I can’t put a point on that. Not every situation has a clean resolution. Human nature is not bound to change. The Greeks called it Hubris. Res ipsa loquitor... the thing explains itself.

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