Detroit Ruin City
“Do you have any books with pictures of abandoned buildings?” demanded a customer of a bookseller friend of mine at Leopold’s Books in Detroit. The man marched to the cash register and abruptly blurted out his question, looking, perhaps, for one of the recent pair of books on Detroit’s industrial ruins and its abandoned homes, Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled and Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s forthcoming The Ruins of Detroit. These two books, along with the architectural history Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins, are part of a small Detroit culture boom over the last year. Besides the new books by Moore and Marchand and Meffre, photographers have chronicled the city’s decaying structures in the likes of Slate.com, the New York Review of Books online, and Time, which moved a troupe of Detroit bloggers to an old mansion on the city’s east side, an old-fashioned news bureau mixed with a bizarro-Real World social experiment. A new graphic novel, Sword of My Mouth, imagines a band of survivors living in a depopulated Detroit after the Rapture has swept up the righteous, a clever satire of the clichéd description of Detroit’s “post-apocalyptic” landscape and the moralizing that has always bolstered public discussion of the social problems of American cities. And while empty buildings would seem more suited to still rather than moving images, filmmakers like Julien Temple have recently explored industrial ruins in his Detroitsploitation documentary Requiem for Detroit?, while Detroit boosters respond with their own, sunnier films (Johnny Knoxville’s Detroit Lives and Florent Tillon’s Detroit Wild City) about entrepreneurs, artists, and urban farmers amidst the ruins.
Detroiters often react testily to this kind of attention (as I do), even when it is done skillfully and with good intentions, as much of it is. Some of the criticism of negative publicity is just boosterism, as when the City Council denounced the producers of the ABC crime drama Detroit 187 for peddling the idea that there are criminals in Detroit. Others, weary of condescending criticism from outsiders, will defend Detroit’s reputation, or at least their privileged right to defame it, something like defending a bad parent: I can say anything I want about the old man, but don’t you dare. Ruin photography, in particular, has been criticized for its “pornographic” sensationalism, and my bookseller friend won’t sell much of it for that reason. And others roll their eyes at all the positive attention heaped on the young, mostly white “creatives,” which glosses over the city’s deep structural problems and the diversity of ideas to help fix them. So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city. And to see oneself portrayed in this way, as a curiosity to be lamented or studied, is jarring for any Detroiter, who is of course also an American, with all the sense of self-confidence and native-born privilege that we’re taught to associate with the United States.
View the slideshow Derelict Detroit here