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Everyday Ruins

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I wrote a few years back about the dubious pastime that is gawking at the behemoth ruins of abandoned Detroit factories and skyscrapers. It often seems to reduce the city to a sort caricature of itself, or draw attention to the spectacle of Detroit’s plight and not the substance.

But standing in front of a ruined house feels different. It’s hard not to wonder about whose one-time home you’re looking at, when it burned down, what kids sat on that upturned couch, what cartoons they watched. You gain an intimate sort of access to one family’s history, the remnants of countless stories that are now strewn as debris across a front lawn.

And when you contemplate how many iterations there are of this history, you might begin to sense the overwhelming magnitude of what has happened to Detroit. Detroit once had two million residents. After decades of suburbanization and deindustrialization, Detroit’s population is only a third of what it was at its peak. The city now has 84,000 blighted properties, according to city officials. Detroit’s population began to decline in the 1950s, but one of every three houses has been foreclosed on just since 2005.

This city was once the symbol of how American industrial capitalism could deliver a comfortable living to a wide swath of the nation’s people. Legions of auto factory workers with no advanced counted themselves among the American middle class. Many of them lived in homes like these.

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