Fallen City with a Heart of Gold



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. 


Pilar Saavedra-Vela
5/23/2011 11:17:14 AM

Is this then, the result of all that compassionate capitalism? This could be a glimpse into the future of the newest empire and yet, I often ask myself why European cities, war-torn and ravaged, were so carefully reconstructed, have been so lovingly preserved. Why do Americans (this term embraces all the Americas, where a passion for modern means that little is done to preserve the old) abandon the old so contemptuously? I understand the economics of Detroit's situation, but isn't it time for all those wealthy American investors to look homeward? In those magnificent old buildings I see homes for the homeless before I see another amusement-park-like American imitation of the Fallen Roman Empire. Some entrepreneur is going to get ideas about turning Detroit into a tourist destination or else attract a downtown revival for work-from-home yuppies.

Dan Pieniak
5/23/2011 10:14:43 AM

The real sad part of this story - That Detroit is beooming the "go to" place for Ruin Porn.

Carl Cess
5/14/2011 6:52:56 PM

We should all be interested in Detroit, Detroit is the plimpse into the future so many have been looking for, do people believe that? Naa! They will only believe it when they see it!

Facebook Instagram Twitter