This past weekend I went to visit a friend in Detroit. I’ve been vaguely intrigued by Detroit’s story of lost grandeur for several years now, and it was so interesting to see this once great American city up close and personal. To say Detroit is a mess would be to do messes a grave injustice; it is an epically embarrassing third world level of a mess that, quite honestly, makes Strato 3 Bogota look good. In some parts, it looks like zombies invaded, bombed the crap out of everything and left few survivors. What is left is this mostly surreal, dilapidated, graffiti’d post-apocalyptic kind of place that could easily be the backdrop for many a horror movie. If I could pick a work of art to represent Detroit’s rise and fall, it would be Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (current status: Third Panel). As an English major, I can’t help but compare it to the mythical tragic hero, rise, fall, tragic flaw and all. OK, maybe I’m being a little dramatic (I am Latin, after all) but it is hard to believe that this place used to be a major economic engine and once boasted the country’s highest per-capita income.
So here is my short Detroit trip, in photographs:
Part I: Downtown. A city is born.
Downtown Detroit actually isn’t so bad. There are some vacant buildings, plenty of graffiti and it’s by no means beautiful, but it does resemble an actual city. I think there’s a big downtown revitalization project underway and there is the opera house, coffee shops, the river walk (not all that great, but not horrible either) and the financial district. Except for the fact that there are very few people walking around downtown, it’s possible to imagine this was a once bustling district of the city.
Part II: (Non) Motor City.
Detroit may be known as “Motor City” (or was, I should say) but there were surprisingly few cars on the road. Again, this could be because it was the weekend, but I’ve never been to a city whose highways are so completely devoid of cars. All of these were taken from the comfort of the car.
Part II: Neighborhoods. Where did all the people go?
I was only in Detroit for a day and a half so I can hardly say I explored lots of neighborhoods or really got a feel for the city, but the only semi-vibrant neighborhood I saw during this trip was the Eastern Market Area. I’m sure there are others, but I didn’t have time to explore.
Part IV: The Fall.
Over the years, most of my knowledge about Detroit has come from ruins photography. Some call it ruins porn because these photographers create these poignant, beautiful images and find aesthetic beauty — or at least a sense of nostalgia and significance — in scenes of decay and decrepitude. While I think there is a certain voyeuristic quality about this type of photography (I mean, something about enjoying images of spaces and structures so completely lost and abandoned seems just a little bit wrong because these structures — churches, factories, apartment buildings — they all meant something to someone at some point, and you have to assume that the people who loved, worked in and cared about them are also at least a little worse off), I have to admit I really like looking at photographs of once great buildings and spaces in decay. They give me this sense of longing, nostalgia, loss, sadness…lots of emotions, so I can’t help myself. As someone who enjoys finding beauty in unexpected places, I find something poignant and touching in the way these photographers are able to render the ugly beautiful. I do honestly believe that anything can be made beautiful from the right distance and/or perspective and this is kind of what ruins photography does. I guess that’s what the whole criticism is about; maybe ruins photography misses the point because you’re simply looking in at a problem, making it artistically aesthetic, without offering any kind of solution. I don’t know. Anyway, Detroit is a ruins photographers dream come true because so much of the city is in various states of decay and shambles. I think this is a good example of what ruins photography is, in case you’re curious.
Anyway, the whole point of this tangent is to say that much of Detroit is in shambles and it made me sad and nostalgic the way looking through old family albums, going to used record, book or antique shops or watching black and white movies does; time just never stops. Everything has a beginning, middle and end, a rise and a fall. Some rises and falls may be more dramatic or impressive, but nothing lasts forever. I don’t know why that fact makes me so sad. Maybe part of me still hopes there’s something really great out there that will last forever and seeing a city — a real life place with real life people that has seen it’s glory and downfall in such a short span of time — makes it very clear that truly, nothing lasts forever. My trip was short so I didn’t get a chance to take as many pictures or visit as many neighborhoods and spaces as I would have like to, but here are some pictures, taken mostly from the car, that show the state much of Detroit is in.
If you’re interested in graffiti art here’s an interesting article on graffiti in Detroit.
I guess this is what no one really knows. At 140 square miles Detroit’s a pretty spread out city and much of its land is covered in urban fields where houses and other structures once stood. One interesting use of unoccupied land is the Heidelberg Project, started by Tyree Guyton in 1986. I hadn’t heard about the Heidelberg Project until I started researching things to do on my trip. According to the webpage, “the Heidelberg Project is recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives.” I don’t know if this is really true. It’s nice to think that creativity and art can transform more than a few lives here and there, but it’s hard to know if it really transforms the lives of the people whose lives most need transforming. Anyway, the best way I can describe the Heidelburg Project is as a deliberate outdoor museum/junkyard that somehow comes together as a powerful and colorful collage and tribute to the city. Detroit’s lost nearly 1.2 million residents since the 1950s so it’s tough to even begin to come up with a solution for how to incorporate all that unoccupied vacant land into a much smaller, more modern and livable city. Anyway, I liked Detroit from what I saw. I’d like to spend more time there in the future to get a better feel for the city.
Read more about my U.S travels here.