Editor note: Make sure to also check out an article from the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader on this topic, “Turning Suffering into a Still Life: ‘Ruin porn’ aesthetically disconnects human suffering from devastation”
Leave it to the French to find a strange and poignant beauty in the reeling and degraded remnants of the once-great American nation. This past April, after more than five years of exploration amid the back alleys, ruined halls, pot-holed streets, and emptied factories of the failing Queen of Midwestern Cities, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre released their photographic homage to the place, The Ruins of Detroit. And the results of these two French artists' prurient and somewhat sordid interest in the fallen city reveals—in much the same way that porn reveals—something about the hidden beliefs, latent habits of thought, and dark submerged impulses that exist in some subterranean place in the heart of our culture.
Detroit’s fall is poignant in both its rapidity and completeness. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, up until the 1960s, Detroit was widely acknowledged to be a key American manufacturing center. The city's population swelled mid-last century to become the fifth-largest of all American cities, and, as Detroit's rose, the local cityscape filled with beautiful monumental structures: The United Artists Theater, the Whitney Building, the Farwell Building, Michigan Central Station. As Edmund Wilson said of Detroit in the 1930s, as was quoted in Thomas Sugrue’s essay accompanying the book, “You can see here, as it is impossible to do in a more varied and complex city, the whole structure of an industrial society.” Detroit was famous for making cars of course, but also for its establishing a massive war manufacturing works during World War II, for producing a national musical sound, and for being a touchpoint for industrial caprice and the accompanying labor unrest. “There is no better place than Detroit to observe the dialectical forces of modern capitalism,” Segrue writes, “often in their most exaggerated forms. Detroit is a place of both permanence and evanescence, of creation and destruction, of monumentality and disposability, of place and placelessness, of power and disempowerment.”
The initial frontispiece (untitled) image in The Ruins of Detroit shows a plastered, faded aerial photograph of Detroit at its height. Parts of the image-within-the-image are peeling away, revealing chipped and gouged paint on the wall underneath, and in the middle of the image someone has spray-painted, "You are here," with an arrow pointing to the top of a central muscular skyscraper. Despite the fading colors of the photographed city, the peeling paper and wall paint, and the spray paint, the image still clearly shows a once-regal city. The buildings in the picture are strong, ornate, erect—if somewhat overly muscular in that way of America during its 20th century rise to power and riches. The boulevards are wide, and they angle in toward several lovely open public spaces and walking plazas. Detroit at its height was as beautiful and golden a place as there was in the world, which is world's away from what the city is now.
Today, all-but abandoned by a diminished industrial base (that moved off-shore) and all-but evacuated by the white middle-class (that fled to the suburbs), Detroit has become, symbolically speaking, an urban hooker with a heart of gold. Compare for instance the faded photo of Detroit at its apex to another look at the same landscape taken by Marchand and Meffre from inside a now-ruined downtown building, “View on Woodward Avene, Broderick Tower." In the latter image, the city's once-elegant buildings have faded to squalidness. They are cracked and crumbling, hard and gray. The wide boulevard is uninviting, almost devoid of the former bustle of the mid-20th century version of the city. And this doesn’t even begin to describe the cracked, dingy, neglected interior of the Broderick Tower. Detroit in this image is a clearly diminished place, whose strength and beauty has faded under sustained abandonment. The once-beautiful woman, at least in these artists' view, has been used up and cruelly cast aside.
Dozens and dozens of images in The Ruins of Detroit explore this loss of vitality and beauty. And many reveal the violence inherent in such decay and ruin. In "Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel," the irrevocable destruction is fully on display. The once-luxurious, excessively ornate decor of the ballroom—all the plaster and marble and gilt that once covered the arches, vaults, recessed window bays, and doorways—is now cracked, crumbling, and turned to dust. The walls and floors are coated with ghost-white and dingy residue as thick as after a nuclear winter. And in the middle of the room, resting on its side as if violently cast aside, a grand piano gives another hint at the space's former grandeur. It looks, in its toppled state in this image, much like the "Dying Gaul," if that sculpture had been left out on the field of battle. These ruins, this decay—the dying piano seems to be saying with its wrenching last words—this is a death not just of a city and its monuments. This is the death, the piano gasps, of an entire culture.
On their website, Marchand and Meffre justify their sordid interest in Detroit by saying that "ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes ... the volatile result of the change of eras and the fall of empires. This fragility leads us to watch them one very last time: to be dismayed, or to admire, it makes us wonder about the permanence of things." What this means is scores of images of imploding or exploding buildings, blown-out, windowless, and element-ravaged; suddenly abandoned and ruin-strewn spaces, including schools, libraries, theaters, ballrooms, churches, and other sad remnants of a formerly thriving culture; and emptiness and squalor where a beautiful and vibrant city once existed. These photos of a shockingly ruined Detroit illustrate how transient and fleeting are youth, beauty, power, wealth—especially in a nation unwilling or unable to protect or care for such virtues.
Fascination with the ruin of Detroit, of course, is not particularly new. Books and photographic projects started appearing just before the turn of the last century, when what was happening to the city was becoming more apparent to observers. The DetroitYes web project, for example, has chronicled the decline of Detroit online since late 1997. The website, run by the artist Lowell Boileau includes thousands of web images, descriptions of lost and ruined historical and cultural treasures, and a discussion forum. And in Camilo Jose Vergara's book American Ruins parts of Detroit are featured alongside the ruined and decayed areas of other cities like New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Gary, and Los Angeles. Still, the fascination with Detroit as the emblematic paragon of American decay has accelerated in recent years, coinciding with the recessionary times since 2008. In the past year alone, three large-format coffee table books depicting the squalor and ruin of Detroit have been released by major publishers. These include Marchand and Meffre’s book, as well as Lost Detroit by author Dan Austin and photographer Sean Doerr and Detroit Disassembled by Philip Levine and Andrew Moore.
To understand why Detroit so fascinates us today, we’d have to look back to what the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype, which, while nearly as old as literature itself, continues to fascinate a variety of cultures. Characters as diverse as Mary Magdalene (from the New Testament) and Vasantasena from an ancient Sanskrit drama, Fantine from Les Miserables and Violetta Valery from La Traviata, and Vivian Ward from the movie Pretty Woman, Latika from Slumdog Millionaire, and pretty much any Heather Graham role (Boogie Nights, Hangover, etc…) are typically seen as a symbolic representations of good people (women) forced into desperate life situations by powers beyond their control. These characters serve as gentle warnings that even good people sometimes end up—despite their best intentions, despite their natural goodness—in less than savory life situations. Detroit has been degraded, debased, and turned to a shadow of what she once was, not by any inherent fault of her own—or, more to the point, by any fault of our own—but just because that’s the nature of the world.
Some cities in this world, in this heartless country of ours, are meant to be treated and feted like royalty. And others are meant to sell themselves off piecemeal to keep from starving. That’s just how it goes.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
All photos, which originally appeared in Marchand and Meffre’s book The Ruins of Detroit, are included here courtesy of Steidl Press.