Monday, January 03, 2011


Michigan Monday: Things Fall Apart

Richard Howell, in yesterday's comments section, noted the remarkable photos of Detroit printed recently by Britain's Guardian. You can see those photos here.

It's not the first time that outsiders have seen the decay of Detroit as a ripe source of art, nor will it be the last.

One question is why do people continually photograph the most tragic parts of that city? To me, as a (mediocre) photographer, the answer is pretty clear-- because those are the most compelling, unique images that the city has to offer. Detroit is beautiful, but it is beautiful in large part because it has been largely allowed to return to nature.

I see it even in what I choose to photograph. For example, if I am in New York I tend to take pictures that take advantage of the skyline, and the contrast between nature and humanscape. For example, this picture, taken from the reservoir in Central Park, where they rent the cute little rowboats (as always, you can enlarge the photo by clicking on it):

Contrast that with a few of my pictures from Detroit:

Having looked at the Guardian photos, a New York Razorite made the following observation in an email (I would also recommend Sleepy Walleye's comment below):

Every time I look at pictures of Detroit, aside from the human aspect, the tragedy is that beauty and craftsmanship like the one left to rot and decay into dust is just not possible to reproduce any more in this day and age ANYWHERE in the world. The simple truth is that structures such as the Plaza Hotel, the Public Library, Michigan Central Station and many more, would be impossible to build not just because they would be exorbitant, but because that craftsmanship is literally extinct.

To me, given America is a relatively young nation, letting Detroit and all its landmarks decay like that, is equivalent to Italy letting Florence crumble to pitiful ruins after the Medici family was no longer a powerhouse and economic flourish no longer a factor.

Detroit is not just a mere blight of the iconic American auto industry and a reflection of its tragic fall, it is a cultural suicide and a shame for all the rest of America.

Where are the roving gangs of post-apocalyptic cannibals? The gladiatorial arenas built in the shambles of union auto factories?
The photos in the Gaurdian are mostly of once-beautiful places. If these buildings had been maintained or restored to their original state they would be far more visually interesting than many of the functioning properties in Detroit. So I disagree with the idea that they are fascinating merely because they are going back to a "natural" state. They are beautiful, even in their current state because of the care and craftsmanship that went into constructing them. Which is a lot more than anyone can say about The Renaissance Center, Cobo Hall or Joe Louis Arena.

These pictures are fascinating for the story the tell and the lessons they might teach if only enough of us would pay attention.

They make me angry and sad. What a waste.

I completely agreed, but sadly we don't have those buildings in a restored state; that's not an option.

Detroit always makes me sad.
Is it really not an option? Should we continue to sprawl our living and working spaces out over our farms and forests? The most "green" buildings are those that are already built. Surely some of those buildings - or at least features of them, could be salvaged.
And What about the furnishings and books that we see in those pictures. Is there any organization out there that can redistribute some of these resources? I'm going to look into that.
Walleye- I am saying that taking a picture of a renovated building isn't an option, exactly because of the poor choices you describe.
The photos in the Guardian provoked such sadness for me as well. I can't express it, but there is something about the correlation between poverty and the loss of community, religious faith, education and culture that keeps creeping in.

I mourn the loss of the churches and the other beautiful buildings in the photos. However, the one of the ballroom with the broken piano make me imagine it at its peak and the stories that room holds. I imagine glamorous parties, ladies in extravagantly elegant dresses, men in tuxedos, Champagne flowing... those in attendance laughing and dancing. I hope none of them have returned to see it in this state of ruin. I hope they remember it as it was.
I have a weird perspective of all of these pictures because I don't know I was born in 1965 and by the time I was aware of the city of Detroit it had long stopped being a "real " city. As a kid I went to NYC, and a few other places where they had subways and tall buildings and lots of people.. it was sort of... bustling I guess. Active. Alive. As a young kid we belonged to the Detroit Boat Club which was on Belle Isle and to get there from GP you have to take Jefferson pretty much all the way there. g the way there were these horrific bombed out buildings like a war zone. My mom was never afraid to dive through these areas alone with me because she was a Social Worker and she did "home calls" in these neighborhoods. After she left my Dad, and her Former Delta Zeta Mrs. M.D. gig, she instead worked for Wayne County Social Services..She knew exactly what kind of City Detroit was because she lived it every day. She gave out food stamps and all of that and managed cases and did some terribly sad work all day long. She used to talk about it alll of the time and talk about how the city used to be so great but now it is in ruin, and you would not see the kind of stuff you see here in a place like NYC or Boston or anywhere else.
Then when I was 8 she took me to Spain and the Canary Islands. For two weeks we went to Madrid and Tenerife and Las Palmas. In Madrid we rode the subway and walked through Retiro Park and toured museums and felt safe. There were very few buildings in ruin - Nothing like what you would see on Jefferson Ave. There was a Subway where you could get around. There were tons of people The place was ALIVE. It was famous for more than just all of the Murders and mayhem...
I think Detroit once was just like Madrid.. Something happened,. though I think even way before the 67 riots, or whatever SOMETHING happened where it stopped being a "real" city. Soon a lot of the jobs were in like Southfield and places. None were downtown anymore. Soon no one wanted to live in the city To live in Detroit and have that as part of your address was a disgrace. Even the city of "East Detroit" changed its name to EASTPOINTE.. SO ODD! I never have been able to figure out when it happened but to me the most emblematic structure in Detroit is the "People Mover." It goes around in a very small circle and really does not go ANYWHERE. to me this speaks volumes about where Detroit is now, but the problem is I never remember it any other way. I used to hear my grandparents talk about how they met each other a these dances they would have places. My grandmother worked "in the Federal Building" which I guess was a great place to work. My Grandfather had two meatpacking plants - one down by Eastern Market and one in Ypsilanti... My family's roots go deep in Detroit - Both side of my family had been there since the early 1900s. They are all gone from there now.. so weird. So SAD. Its more than just old decaying buildings... The point is not that no one cares enough to fix them up...Its that a long time ago no one valued them enough to keep them up.
Anon. 2:51--

I know people who saw amazing shows there-- including Iggy Pop on a five foot stage, so a 5'1" man could see.

And, before that, the very kind of parties you describe.

And yes, it breaks their hearts.
As a disclosure up front: I am not from Detroit, but only a resident of the state of Michigan for the last dozen years.

The city and region are beautiful with the lakes and rivers. There really is nothing like the Great Lakes which are nearby and Lac St. Claire which connects the Detroit River with Lake Huron is great too.

It is sad that the city of Detroit, once the fourth largest city in the USA with a population of two million people, and still today the second largest city in all of the Midwest behind only Chicago, is in the sad sad state of abandonment that is in.

There are many cities, never quite as large as Detroit, but some just as old, that are in similar disrepair and have been forgotten: Cleveland, Buffalo, and Rochester come to mind. Cleveland is so like Detroit. It has such a rich history, and besides all the Cleveland jokes, it is really, or once was depending upon your perspective, such a beautiful place.

Is it racial strife, the suburbanization of America in the 1950's aided and abbetted by the auto industry, the building of monstrous nameless malls and strip malls and other blights upon the landscape, that caused this or are these just the symptoms.

Maybe most people just wanted (and continue to want) bigger houses, more closet space, master suites larger than the houses our grandparents grew up in, and a new car every three years to drive to and fro and to cart all the stuff they buy at the mall back to their home.

It makes you wonder, if a city, founded in 1701, and rebuilt in the 20th century around the automobile and the consumer culture, could wind up like this, then what could happen to a place like LA with its never ending suburbs?
To Mark:
I am not sure if I am happy or sad that you know those with the memories. I do know that all day I have thought of how it would play out in a movie: the opening scene is an elderly lady shedding tears upon seeing the ruin. Then, the story begins as she is at a party in the ballroom with her fiance. She meets someone who turns her life upside down in such a way that the entire course of her life is altered.

To Scott:
I agree. So many cities currently share this unfortunate blight and many more will as we all reach for the "better."
What is scary to me looking at these pictures is that so many of these beautiful structures were past their prime, even when I was a child. I went to the Central station only one time in my life when I was about 10 to see my cousins off when they took the train and moved to CA.

You remember Mr. Parducci on Colonial? He was 'really' old (Italian gentleman) when we moved to the street and he was a master artisan from Italy who had designed and helped create the ornamentation and fresco on these buildings. Breathtaking work

We use to drive down Mack and Jefferson to DT Detroit when I was a kid and the only nice section was as us passed through Indian Village.

It is trul a city of old beauty and great sadness.
I've only been to Detroit three times in my life.

All I know is that some cities have come back, or at least started to get up off the mat.

DC is an exception because of the Federal Govt, but its a TOTALLY different city than it was even 20 years ago. And if someone from 1975 was set down here today they would not recognize how Washington has come from those dark days of urban decay.

A better comparison would be Pittsburgh. Its industries were destroyed long ago, earlier than Detroit's. Somehow, however, civic and political leaders had their act together, and although diminished, downtown Pittsburgh is alive, beautiful and full of action.

Cleveland is not in quite as good shape, but its not dead.

And Boston in the 70's was a pretty scary place, from what I've heard.

Anyone who visited NYC before Giuliani and his people cleaned up Times Square remember a very different place than the Disneyfied version that it is now.
"The most "green" buildings are those that are already built" sleepywalleye said at some point and how true is that?
It made me think of a trend I've seen in NYC, which I found appalling initially and quickly have come to totally reconsider. I'm talking about those grand old banks with majestic pillars and awe inspiring iron work that you see mostly in Downtown Manhattan or in Brooklyn Heights. I was initially horrified at the sight of the Duane Reade drugstore sign outside or Trader Joe's Grocery.
But then gaudy neon lit shelves of shampoo and Benadryl or refrigerators stacked full of yoghurt and turkey sausage, could never detract from the masterful craftsmanship of the tile work or the elegant grandeur of beautifully constructed archways and impressive columns. And in the end, the shampoo and Benadryl and yoghurt and sausages are paying to keep them standing proud, not a sad pile of crumbled history. Maybe who knows? their prime will come again. After all drugstore shelves are just furniture, not history.
DC had Marion Berry; Detroit had Coleman Young follwed by Kwayme Kilpatrick. Ithink that speaks volumes
Those photographs are stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking, in equal parts, because there's still enough of the buildings' original substance in them to show possibility.

The light that the photographers achieve, or capture, is phenomenal: ghostly, phenomenal . . .

They are like seeing a family member who has dazzling potential but a sad, inescapable shortcoming that prevents her from achieving it.
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