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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.

On Ogling Detroit

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On my good friend Pete’s website, I share my thoughts on two photo exhibits showing at the National Building Museum.

If you check them out, you’ll see a lot of collapsing factories, rust, waist-high wild grasses, piles of debris, and houses that have withered away to almost nothing. These images fall firmly into the category of photojournalism known as “ruin porn,” a genre masterfully skewered by Thomas Morton in a piece entitled “Something, Something, Something Detroit.”

At its worst, ruin porn is downright misleading. (About a Detroit vista that appears in one of the NBM exhibits, Morton quips: “If you move the camera just a few inches to the left you’ll get a bustling, well-maintained food-packaging plant in frame, so be careful to crop that shit out.”) At its best the genre is incomplete, showing just one side of a very multifaceted city.

But I do think it’s vital that we see that side. The neglect of postindustrial Detroit, its buildings and its people, is an outrage. By showcasing the rubble left in the wake of the shuttered factories, now moved overseas, the NBM exhibits draw attention to the injustice. I just wish the story were told in its proper context. As I write:

Both photographers profess an interest in Detroit’s ruins as windows into a bygone era. While you view their photos, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on what exactly made that era so noteworthy. Fifty years ago, Detroit was the center of a different America, one in which a union job in an auto factory provided enough money for a home, a car, and a picket fence. In his book The Conscience of A Liberal, Paul Krugman calls it a “Middle-Class Nation.”

That’s why the decay captured in these photographs has such brutal symbolism. As factories moved overseas and union power waned, these jobs weren’t replaced. Today, two-thirds of Americans work in a service economy with sparse benefits, little job security, and an average wage barely above $30,000.

Read the whole review here, and be sure to go see the exhibits as well.

Photo: “Rolling hall, Ford Motor Company, River Rouge Complex, Dearborn” by Andrew Moore, 2008. Courtesy of the National Building Museum.