Thursday, September 1st, 2011

What's Really Pornographic? The Point of Documenting Detroit

Early this year, John Patrick Leary, a professor of American literature at Wayne State University, published a story in Guernica called "Detroitism" about, primarily, the two competing journalistic and artistic narratives about the Motor City.

There’s the Detroit Lament, which he describes as an examination of the city’s decline that is mostly told through the examination of physical spaces. You may have heard it referred to as "ruin porn." And there’s the Detroit Utopia, stories which purport to show a new way forward for the city, be it through urban farming, $100 homes or bicycling. (Utopian depictions of Detroit, Leary noted, tend to involve young creative white people.)

Leary used the publication of two recent monographs of photographs Detroit’s ruins as a jumping-off point: Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled (now on view at the Queens Museum) and Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit. He identifies them as a part of a broader “Detroit culture boom,” which has included the massive proliferation of these two types of stories—those that declare that Detroit’s decline marks the end of American postwar prosperity, and those that suggest Detroit is coming back in ways that will create new kinds of prosperity—as well as expanded coverage on television (“Detroit 187”) and in film (Gran Torino).

One salient feature of the Detroit Utopia stories that Leary does not identify is the tendency to deny Detroit Lament stories of any and all claims to authenticity. Take, for example, this VICE Magazine article “Something, Something, Something, Detroit” with the subhed “Lazy Journalists Love Photos of Abandoned Stuff.” This story is an excellent example of this unique blend of media criticism and Detroit boosterism. It is singularly dismissive of the utility of photographing Detroit's ruins.

The section below involves photographer James Griffioen, who, as it happens, takes pictures of abandoned buildings in Detroit for a living. (Griffioen says he doesn't earn a living from this; he does sell them (you may inquire within!) but receives income from other sources, including his blog, which explains more.)

James [Griffioen] took me out to the grassy mound where he photographed a long shot of the abandoned elementary school. For several blocks on either side there’s nothing visible except waist-high grass and crumbling strips of asphalt.

“If you angle the camera the correct way it looks like you’re in the middle of nowhere—but then you turn a little to the right and there’s a well-maintained, fully functioning factory, and to the left there’s this busy office park. Still, people love to take this shot, crop it so it’s just prairie, and be like, ‘Look, this is a mile from downtown, it’s turned into woods.’”

The other problem with everybody on the prairie’s jock is nobody ever bothers to differentiate between which patches went to seed on their own and which had a little outside help.

“These blocks didn’t just fall apart by themselves, the city did this intentionally. They spent $15 million clearing everyone off the land so it could be used as an industrial park that stalled out.”

For those wondering what the logic of Do’s and Don’ts would look like applied to media criticism and urban policy instead of street fashion, here you have it: there are blocks upon blocks gone fallow, but, hey, there are one or two businesses still chugging along, and what’s more, the city spent millions of dollars to make some of these blocks empty with some future economic development plan in mind, but never followed through with it. Ta da: Detroit is doing just fantastic, thanks for asking, and to suggest otherwise with pen or camera is to deny reality.

This attitude typically comes from hip young urbanites who have good lives going for themselves in Detroit. Check out Part 1 of the Palladium Boots-sponsored Detroit Lives series, hosted by Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville, for more of this strange form of reality denial that takes place when you accuse others of denying reality. It opens with a rapid-fire series of soundbytes from “Artists” and “Musicians” talking about “ruin porn” and “pick-and-choose journalism.” One interviewee in particular, Ko of the Dirt Bombs, complains about a “story in the media” on Detroit’s renowned Cass Tech High School that focused on the abandoned old building that used to house the magnet school, and ignored the new campus right next door, which was completed in 2005. Perhaps the story was about the historical preservation battle that raged over the old building’s destruction, or that it was somewhat dangerous to have an abandoned high school across the street from an operating high school, but that does not matter to Ko—what matters is that journalists dared to turn their attention to the abandonment when there are occupied buildings and cool bands just as worthy of coverage.

After this opening salvo, the disembodied voice of Toby Barlow, professional Detroit booster, tells us that because Detroit has lost one million people over the last four decades, “As a human being you do have a sense of your own voice and your own physical presence and your own possibility. When you’re riding down a big, wide city boulevard and you’re the only thing on it you feel a little like The Omega Man. You know, it’s like, ‘I am here,’ you know, ‘This is my city!’” You and I know The Omega Man as I am Legend—it’s a postapocalyptic thriller. You see, it’s okay to invoke postapocalyptic imagery when discussing Detroit if you don't benefit directly from the ruin and the waste in the form of a coffee table book.

And young hip Detroiters do benefit directly from the city’s abandonment. It’s a version of Brooklyn gentrification made all the more grotesque because it provides these people with a pedestal of righteousness to stand on and declare that there is nothing wrong with the city.

Immediately after Barlow speaks, a DJ/Producer tells us that the city of three-quarters of a million people is a “blank canvas,” an objectively false statement brutally lacking in history and context, which mirrors Leary’s critique of ruin photography and the Detroit Lament.

For Leary, one photo in particular encapsulates the “overwrought melodrama” typical of Detroit Lament photography (and journalism): a photo by Moore taken in a house now left open to the outdoors with a graffito that reads “God has left Detroit.” Ahistorical and contextless, the photo is little more than a visual “Whoa, bro.” Leary is right to point out: “Who ever said God was here in the first place?” (This is related to another valid criticism of "ruin porn" in its omission of people, another version of ahistoricism.)

Given all this bickering over who has the story right, what seems like a more reasonable question is: how many people have, overall, “left” Detroit? According to the US Census Bureau, a better graffito might read “237,500 people have left Detroit.” That’s what the numbers told us a few months back, and that’s why I’m packing my Jansport full of black Montana cans, a Holga and 20 rolls of 120 color slide film that I will have cross-processed for my monograph: The Number 237,500 Spray-Painted Onto Blighted Properties in Detroit, in Weird Colors with Shaved Negative Carrier.

The United States Constitution mandates that we make a count of ourselves every ten years so that we may properly apportion the number of Representatives in our lower house, and in more modern times, the Census also helps federal agencies divvy up their funding, some of which is doled out on a formula basis, in proportion with population. For a city, the most obvious of these is perhaps the Community Development Block Grant, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development gives out on a population formula basis—the smaller your city gets, the less money it receives.

Detroit, the Census Bureau tells us, lost 237,500 residents since the day we all woke up to discover the Y2K bug had not launched all of our nukes. That is about one-quarter of Detroit’s population circa 2000. Maybe they moved out, maybe they died, maybe they were out of town for the entire duration of the Census, maybe new arrivals just didn’t replace the various outgoing folks, but either way, our trusted temporary federal employees found that Detroit had shrunk a great deal more than it seems anyone expected. (Especially Detroit’s City Hall, who, in an unintentional hat tip to the year 2000, are demanding a recount.)

237,500 might not sound like much to someone in Chicago or Los Angeles, but in normal urban America, especially in the Midwest, that is a lot of people. Try this: Jersey City: population 247,597. Or try Orlando, FL, population 238,300, meaning such a loss would leave it with about 800 people, or approximately the number of horticulturalists that the city's Magic Kingdom employs. Madison, WI, population 233,209, would not survive such devastation, but at least it would get rid of Scott Walker. Likewise, so long Providence, Salt Lake City, Richmond or Baton Rouge.

If the number of people who left Detroit in the last decade all moved to the same place, it would be America’s 80th largest city, and, assuming they didn’t also flee Michigan (which they probably did), it would be the second largest city in the state, behind Detroit. It would fall into that category of mid-size cities that no one feels that passionately about, that motley crew that consists of dusty state capitals, large municipalities in sprawling Southland metropolises, and the mill towns of early American industry in Upstate New York, Central Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, each of which seems to feature its own regional take on processed meat.

Not to retread the territory of a Detroit Lament, but on a visit to Detroit last November, it was hard not to notice the abandonment. You’ve likely seen photographs of the Michigan Central Depot and the remains of the Packard Plant, both of which have been closed for decades, but have you driven down the residential streets of the East Side—or the West Side for that matter—and seen a block pockmarked with fire blighted homes, or worse yet, blocks where you can see clear through to the next street? Grandiose and symbolic as the larger ruins are, the neighborhoods of Detroit tell the real story.

But what Detroit is doing with its neighborhoods, using federal funds, makes the debate over ruin porn even more interesting. The Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which was authorized under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2008, provides grant money to state and local governments to “acquire and redevelop foreclosed properties that might otherwise become sources of abandonment or blight within their communities.” In the first round of funding (there have been three), Detroit received $47 million, of which $16 million went towards demolition. HUD put a ten percent cap on the amount of funds that can be put toward demolition of blighted structures, but Detroit asked for and received a waiver that allowed for a thirty percent allocation.

Mayor Dave Bing announced his plan to take down 3,000 abandoned structures in one year a little more than a year ago, and he came close to meeting his goal. He plans to take down 10,000 blighted buildings by the end of his term. The mayor’s website has three links under the heading “Initiatives": a job-creation project called Detroit Works, a volunteer project called Believe in Detroit—and then there is the Residential Demolition Program. This is absolutely central to the city’s plans for long-term stability, and they may very well be right—no one knows yet whether “rightsizing” really works.

We can take a brief look at how it works. Here is a list of addresses on one street in Detroit, West Robinwood Street, that Mayor Bing’s administration has planned to raze using federal funds:

151 W Robinwood, 184 W Robinwood, 192 W Robinwood, 215 W Robinwood, 223 W Robinwood, 231 W Robinwood, 440 W Robinwood, 446 W Robinwood, 447 W Robinwood, 454 W Robinwood, 457 W Robinwood, 462 W Robinwood, 48 W Robinwood, 480 W Robinwood, 500 W Robinwood, 506 W Robinwood, 512 W Robinwood, 525 W Robinwood, 533 W Robinwood, 541 W Robinwood, 556 W Robinwood, 561 W Robinwood, 576 W Robinwood, 590 W Robinwood, 618 W Robinwood, 64 W Robinwood, 674 W Robinwood, 680 W Robinwood, 681 W Robinwood, 690 W Robinwood.

I count 30. West Robinwood Street lies just inside of 7 Mile, east of Woodward Avenue, in a neighborhood called Grixdale Farms, which was subdivided and built in the 1920s and 30s on a man named John Grix’s land. The street exists for only two blocks—i.e., all those structures listed above are on two blocks—and runs right under where Grix’s farmhouse stood, if we can trust olde-timey maps; it ends where the nearby Palmer Park golf course’s front nine were built. Homes in Grixdale Farms, the neighborhood website tells us, “enjoy some of the best architectural elements available to middle class Americans in the early and mid 1900’s.”

You can see all of W. Robinwood here in this panorama made by none other than the above-mentioned James Griffioen: 60 of 66 structures on W. Robinwood are abandoned (let’s imagine James Griffioen interviewed by VICE: “But what about the other six!?”). Bing’s bulldozers will leave 30 abandoned structures standing, at least after phase one of the demolition.

Detroit is in such a position that the best thing it thinks it can do with a massive chunk of federal change is use it to tear down blight on streets like West Robinwood to save them for the people who still live there, but still leave behind a lot of blight. A necessary measure in the short term that offers very little in the long-term, “rightsizing,” as it is euphemistically called in planning circles, is little more than an urban mastectomy—vacant homes bring down surrounding home values, and provide safe haven for illicit activity, and are in this sense a cancer on the neighborhood. This is not some knowledge unique to urban planners and community activists, either. You can watch 8 Mile to see some citizen-led Detroit rightsizing: The movie’s hero and his friends identify a vacant home as the source of many neighborhood problems, specifically a recent rape, so they burn it down to prevent that from happening again.

What the characters of 8 Mile and Mayor Bing have in common is that they cannot offer Detroit a cogent vision for exactly what will happen to the neighborhood after the demolitions. While blight-as-cancer is a useful metaphor pre-demolition, it falls apart afterwards. Mayor Bing’s NSP3 plan—for the third round of NSP funding—allocates only $1.2 million for demolition, out of a $22 million grant, but also only allocates $1.5 million for redevelopment. Acquisition and rehabilitation get the lion’s share of the grant, with $17 million apportioned, which is fantastic news. But all that money can only fight blight, and blight actually isn’t the “cancer” itself but a secondary symptom of the actual illness that plagues the city—a lack of jobs, commerce, safety, and now, people. It’s not just that 237,500 people left in the last decade; overall, 1,135,791 left in the last six decades.

Now, after six decades of hucksterish boosterism—stadiums, casinos, Renaissance Centers!—Detroit has finally decided that it will have no massive reboot. The city is packing it in by tearing down thousands of vestiges of its old self, its gangrenous appendages that need to be amputated. It has finally come to terms with what it has become.

All that our college-educated neophyte boosters have to offer us is denial of this diagnosis, and denial prevents treatment. Those who deny Detroit’s illness benefit from it; and they have created a sexy counterargument (even using the word porn!) that dismisses all documentation of Detroit’s decline out of hand, claiming the moral high ground while doing so.

Recently, a rapper from Detroit, Danny Brown, has made a strong case for ruin porn being not only a worthwhile, compelling art, but that it is also the best way of describing the reality. He isn’t moralistic about it, either. If anything, he sounds frustrated. On the back half of his latest offering, XXX, Brown gets a bit more serious, eschewing his punchlines about blowjobs and cheap beer for downbeat ballads about substance abuse, some of which are quite personal. From there, he has two back-to-back tracks about the Motor City’s current state, which are nothing short of devastating.

“Fields” comes first, where Danny, on the hook, describes the rhythm of what it’s like to drive down a block in Detroit: “And where I lived, it was house, field, field. Field, field, house, abandoned house, field, field.” He recollects memories from his childhood, mentioning an old friend’s house, which he describes as “just another shortcut to the store.”

The next track, “Scrap or Die” is where Danny makes things even more interesting, as we find out what his role is in all this blight. It takes the form of a street rap standby: the crime story track. But instead of telling another tale about a motel-room heist or a harrowing trip down the 95 corridor with a trunk full of coke, Danny describes in detail the process of stealing scrap metal from abandoned houses, and selling it at junkyards.

Tonight’s that night we about to get right
piled up in the van with a couple flashlights
metal crowbar gon’ get us through the door
take everything, nigga, fuck the landlord
so now we at the place skullies on bare-faced
bout to leave this bitch bare, strip the whole damn place
my Unc’ took outside, he stripping out the gutters
so we inside tearing up this motherfucker
bust open the walls just to get the wiring
took the hot water tank and leftover appliances
aluminum siding, and had to come back
cause the furnace so big it wouldn’t fit in the back

From the abandoned house, Danny takes his loot to the junkyard, where he gets shorted by the man running the operation. As he and his uncle go to steal computers from a shuttered school (Detroit, by the way, has made plans to close half of their public schools by 2014) he gets caught by police. One more hook, and the song is over.

This is the life of one musician from Detroit. It doesn’t sound like he thinks its ruin provides a great landscape for creativity. While Mayor Bing has planned to destroy Detroit to save Detroit, Danny must destroy Detroit to save himself.

And so the city is in such a state that it is destroying itself through both formal and informal channels, and the two may be feeding into one another in ways it might take decades to understand.

With so much of Detroit about to disappear, does this not provide us with an excellent opportunity to document that which we will not be able to document in the near future? Instead of decrying voyeurism, why not consider these photographs and stories a reminder that in America we actually do abandon our neighbors and let our cities die, time and time again.

That, or we can just read about Slow’s Bar-B-Q every few months. Have your pick.

Willy Staley also has a Tumblr.

Photo by Emily Flores.

47 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#713)

I live in Baltimore, which has a mini-me version of Detroit's problems. Anyone who's seen season four of the Wire knows about "vacants," houses that are empty and boarded up (sometimes, even more creepily, the windows are blocked up with cinder blocks). You really can find blocks where every house is boarded up, but, not to sound too much like the protesting-too-much folks quoted in this story, those areas really do make up a pretty small portion of the city's area. It is a real problem, though, and the city has tried various strategies for fixing it. One current initiative is to make it easier for neighbors of collapsing vacants and empty lots where houses once stood to acquire the property, on the logic that they can turn them into a side yard or garden (in a city where rowhouse neighborhoods traditionally meant little outdoor space for city dwellers) that they'd maintain better than the city could.

laurel (#4,035)

I wonder about the future of the empty plots too. If the city owns them but does nothing with them, they'll be almost as much a blight on their neighborhoods as abandoned houses. Letting adjacent neighbors who are able to care for their properties have them might improve neighborhood quality of life and property values.

PoisonIvy (#1,229)

@jfruh I would argue that the vacants take up wide swaths of Baltimore, but they are in the parts that middle class folks never see, so don't notice. And Baltimore's open-air drug markets of the 1980s and 90s should be a cautionary tale to urban planners in Detroit who think that empty lots are the solution to the problem of vacant homes. It took tremendous police presence to shut down those markets, and I'm not sure that Detroit has the kind of municipal money to make that happen. That said, I don't know what the answer is. Baltimore has benefited from suburbanites priced out of the greater DC area coming and gentrifying large areas of the city. I'm not sure that there is any similar driver in the greater Detroit area to encourage suburbanites to move back into the city.

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

@PoisonIvy very true about DC, and I'd argue that the stretches of vacants I see from the amtrak line through bmore (an admittedly middle class vantage point…) is more than a small portion of the city–or, at least, more than a pretty small problem.

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

Great article, I have the seen the decay growing for decades when visiting relatives in Detroit. But I still agree with Bing – when you over-expand, you need to scale back. It's simple military strategy/urban planning. I assume urban planners are all over this.

grammar (#2,400)

Thanks for this, Willy. It's really great.

Rollo (#3,202)

Born and raised in Detroit and I endorse this. The only place I've ever been that's ever truly reminded me of Detroit is the Ninth Ward, and the thing that most struck me there is that people don't really actually get how obliterated it was by Katrina, even though they think they get it! And I think the same is true of Detroit's obliteration, even with all the "ruin porn," so more "porn," please!

Rollo (#3,202)

Allow me to add, slightly less glibly, that the style of much of the "ruin porn" out there often obscures (as the Guernica piece points out) the very reality that I'd like to see gain more exposure. So what I'd really like to see is more work that TRULY reveals the city, and doesn't just try to aestheticize it, or mask it in defensive boosterism.

wallsdonotfall (#6,378)

Is there art that actively improves, not just documents, Detroit? (And I'm not talking about organic farms, as wonderful as they might be.) I'm thinking of something like what Theaster Gates is trying to do in Woodlawn, on the South Side of Chicago–build something useful and hopefully permanent in the community he grew up in.

squidpants (#48,195)

@wallsdonotfall there's the Heidelberg Project, but I'm not sure what good it's done:

deepomega (#1,720)

Really really great piece. That's all.

iantenna (#5,160)

fantastic piece. i'm fairly ignorant on the prevailing ideas amongst urban planners but have an earnest, and possibly dumb, question. what are the major arguments against preserving certain neighborhoods and relocating residents from other parts of town there? i understand that people who've lived in a house their whole life have serious attachments to the house/neighborhood and i respect that but it makes more sense to me to create a smaller city with higher population density than some piecemeal demolition that ends up with 5 occupied houses in a 10 square block area or whatever. is it logistically impossible? am i being way too insensitive to the individuals living in x, y, or z neigborhood? what am i missing?

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

@iantenna I am no urban planner, but I assume eminent domain can give the city the right to move people around. If they can kick you out to build a road, they must be able to kick you out to plant an orchard.

churlishgreen (#49,256)

@iantenna The thing is, Detroit is huge and sprawling. It takes me 40 minutes of freeway driving to get from my sister's house just outside one part of the city to my parents' house, just outside another part.

Leaving aside the decay, much of the city doesn't look conventionally "urban" at all–there are a lot of single family houses with yards, small low-rise commercial buildings, and so on. That's one of the drivers of the "rightsizing" effort, using limited resources in a more efficient way. Other cities, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, are experimenting with interesting programs to use vacant land for community-run gardens and parks, but I'm not sure this kind of thing could be scaled up to the magnitude Detroit needs, or whether a Philadelphia-type park program could be implemented without a strong partner like PennPraxis.

graham @twitter (#53,554)

@iantenna Not an urban planner, but I am a grad student at Pitt getting a MSW in Community Organizing & Social Administration, I'm not going to attempt to summarize an entire semester of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment, but I can suggest that you check out Root Shock by Mindy Fullilove or familiarize yourself with the concept of uprooting neighborhoods and I'd also look at The Hill District in Pittsburgh, although uprooted for separate motivations, the effects of which are still being felt today. Hopefully that can help you out!

Megadith (#47,829)

Excellent article. I live here and I can hardly comprehend how complex the solutions to our problems will have to be, but I'm certain that the media gawking at our flaws is not part of that. There are fantastic things going on here and I'm confident we'll eventually have a safer, happier Detroit.

(Do you mean 94 corridor? We don't have 95 here)

@Megadith I think Willy meant the 95 corridor that runs down the East Coast, which is where Jay-Z is driving (I think) when he gets pulled over in "99 Problems."

TwoDollars (#2,898)

This is a great article to remind everyone that Detroit is an actual place with grave issues. I'm a preservationist with a love-hate relationship to "ruin porn" – it's important to remember these structures and bring awareness, but I think the surreal nature of the photos actually further distances viewers from the place itself. I'm also on the fence about Bing's planned shrinkage. Increasing empty lots can be devastating but density is so crucial to a city's success. I'm crossing my fingers that there is some happen medium here.

shift-work (#47,869)

The "Detroitism" article is by Leary, not Leahy. As a Detroiter, I'd rather have "hip young urbanites" doing anything besides taking endless photos of "Ruin Porn". The fact that national journalists and trendseekers are buzzing in to photograph the same things we've had to live with for the last 30+ years for their yearly "Holy Shit, Detroit Might Mean Something" pieces starts to wear one down. The fact that their doing what every college freshmen photography class has been doing since the riots adds to the sense of staleness. But hey, I'm just a resident, what do I know?

Ta-Nehisi Coates made this excellent contribution to the discussion, one that is neither a lament, nor focuses on young, white people:

dropoutphd (#47,926)

I've spent some time writing about Detroit and the one critique I have of this article (which is good in many ways) is the focus on young white people and the reliance on romanticizing the city. The ruin porn, to me, is more about taking a dangerously nostalgic view of the past that is void of people, but especially people of color. The people coming to the city seem to have a "white man's burden" mentality in a way that I find troubling. That said, there is A LOT of good in the city and there is a powerful movement here that can do good, so long as we stop to critique.

shoptips16 (#48,111)

what a beautiful i wish i can go

gregorg (#30)

Yes yes, but as a longtime reader of Griffioen's blog, I can't but feel you're not giving him fair credit for reaching a similar conclusion. He was one of the first to call bullshit on the emergent ruin porn, or more specifically, as the Vice story relayed, on the Detroit Trend Story, in which journos and photographers would airdrop in to get some iconic [sic] abandonment and/or hipster farmer material, and then take off.

In addition to a steady and unflinching documentation of life and culture of Detroit, Jim's also called out–in ways that maybe only a white, overeducated outsider can–the suburbs which are pretty intricately linked to Detroit's problems.

churlishgreen (#49,256)

@gregorg As a Sweet Juniper fan and a metro Detroit native (I remember Coleman Young and the "hostile suburbs," most of my friends' parents literally refused to go anywhere in the city when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s) I agree with all of this.

This piece first pissed me off, then I sort of got it. Eulogizing Detroit — where I was born, but not raised — does seem premature through the lens of ruin porn. And it effectively closes off the city for those too easily led by the concept that Detroit is Dead: the NCAA held the Final Four in Detroit in 2009, the Frozen Four there the next year. Sports may not be a proxy for civic or economic viability (cf. Marlins, Florida), but Detroit has the perennially-contending Tigers and Red Wings and rebounding Lions. I've been there over the past 5 years and found neither the oppressive view of ruin porn nor the boosterism of hipsters.

I'm rooting for Detroit in more ways than one. But I do get that we need to be realistic as to what is really happening there, day to day, with the citizenry, minus the sensationalism.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

Reading this did invoke some substantial opinions and feelings, yet, I choose to point out the awful crop job in the photo(s) of the tire stacked houses. And then you wrote, "Not to retread…"! I see what you're doing, touche.

To be fair, the tire-house is from a panoramic photo of the street in question, regarding which the photographer instructed us all to ignore the poor stitching. (I actually quite liked the stitching!)

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Choire Sicha you're right. Instead of "awful" I easily could've used "appropriate" or "eye-catching". Still noteworthy and definitely a good image to represent the writing. I'm taking back my slight negativity.

assembledwrong (#13,310)

Slow's is PHENOMENAL. Don't knock Slow's, even if it is overexposed.

Seriously, just reading about it makes me hungry.

assembledwrong (#13,310)

@Choire Sicha It's delicious and wicked cheap. A pint is, like, five bucks. I recently discovered how good their macaroni is paired with the North Carolina and Apple barbecue sauces. Spicy+Sweet+Cheese= My Version of Heaven.

bluebears (#5,902)

It's not that I dislike this article rather that I just feel exhausted with the endless intellectual examination of the media's reporting on the city of Detroit. It's a big (though not nearly as big anymore population wise) and very old city, there are of course many facets to any examination of it just like any other city. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. To fully understand where the city is now you need to understand where America is now and where America was in 1990, 1980, 1970, 1960 etc.

Detroit isn't an island. It's not a puzzle for other Americans to tent their fingers and ponder in the direction of. It's an extreme example of the entire country.

assembledwrong (#13,310)

@bluebears Detroit isn't an island

It has one though!

Shyid (#49,498)

@bluebears "It's not a puzzle for other Americans to tent their fingers and ponder in the direction of."

Dave Bry (#422)

Great piece. It doesn't seem like you could ever have too much documentation of what is indisputably an important and interesting story: What a happens when a huge city shrinks? And, yes, these structures are going to be gone: let's take pictures of them while we can. You can see the problem people have with the cheap quick ruin porn that doesn't do anything other than say, "Whoa, bro!" And the concern that so many of those pictures will scare away people and potential investment. But people like to look at pictures like that. (Guilty: I like to look at such pictures.) But that in itself shouldn't be a problem. As long as people don't let it end there, as long as people do try to figure out what should be done, the best way forward, "rightsizing" or otherwise, for the people who do and will continue to live in Detroit. Ooof. That's a lot of words to say not a lot of thought. Basically: Great piece.

C_Webb (#855)

This was great, because (among other things) it does such a wonderful job of showing the narrative aspect of urban planning, i.e. "this is the story we want to tell about this place/want this place to tell." MORE LIKE THIS PLZ.

robertgspence (#2,004)

The Detroit Works Project is not a jobs program. You harp on both (all?) sides for being ignoring realities, but you clearly joined them by failing to research the City's massive future planning effort. Which means you just wrote a meta Laments piece.

DWP is Mayor Bing's rightsizing effort (you know that website you linked to? read it!). It's actually an attempt at holistically evaluating the City and then bringing all stakeholders–City gov't, state/fed gov'ts, private business, and philanthropic efforts–together in hopes of creating a better place for the 750k people who still live there. (NB: You also spent most of your piece ignoring these three-quarters of a million people, just like the derivative ruin porn you were trying to distinguish as inferior to Griffeon, et al's work). Yes, it clearly admits that none of these programs were never sufficiently managed, but the goal is to focus investment, be it HUD projects, new business, or philanthropic grants, in the neighborhoods that are most sustainable going forward.

You know what plays a huge roll in DWP? Land acquisition. The grand vision is to move people from "distressed" neighborhoods (hey, Grixdale!) to "transitional" and "steady" neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why the City has to acquire land, and they include having space in the transitional/steady neighborhoods to move people to, preventing people from moving to distressed neighborhoods, and doing what they can to combat the current/potential land speculation problems. This is what that NSP money is going towards.

And as a followup to the Grixdale neighborhood specifically, check out Pingree Farms. A manufacturing firm landed a nice defense contract and has gone to work reinvesting in the neighborhood. They refurbished 4 manufacturing warehouses and started buying up the vacant land in the area, hiring farmers, and raising crops and animals that get sent home with the employees and (the remaining, unmentionable) neighbors.

Despite my disagreements, I too would love to see more of this writing. Discussions are never a bad thing to expand.

skahammer (#587)

I would like to propose a moratorium on describing metaphorical statements ("the city is a blank canvas") as "objectively false."

How many writers are in such a hurry to discharge the critical blunderbuss that they're willing to shoot off their own feet? We can save them all with this one simple rule.

Shyid (#49,498)

Despite the attempts to down play the term, this article is still Ruins Porn. Just long winded Ruins Porn, perhaps the equivalent of a dirty romance novel with a saucy cover. It’s porn because it’s absolutely exploitive. The writer clearly has no emotional connection to the city but is more than prepared to write a two page article laughing at its attempts to fix itself whilst providing no constructive criticism as to how they should better handle the situation. The writer, from California, living in New York, spent a week in Detroit, and now he is qualified to give a pass to journalists like himself that attempt to cover the emotional stress that has built up over the last 110 years? (From prohibition, to the arsenal of democracy, to the civil rights movement, etc?) Absolutely not.

To that point, the debunking of the Vice Magazine article is poorly grounded. One of the key elements in their article was how outside journalists pop in and point out all of Detroit’s problems as if the world or even Detroit itself hadn’t realized them. Furthermore, every one of them acts as if they are doing Detroit a favor whence all they can really do is point and laugh. It’s almost as if there is a hat full of ideas written on pieces of paper that writers fall back on when they are hard up for a story, and Detroit is one of those slips in the hat. This is what the Vice article pointed out, and is subsequently why Detroiter’s laughed so hard when they read it. Unfortunately Statley’s article falls victim to their parody.

Look at all of the click ads on this page, on this site. The writer spent two pages telling us Detroit has abandon stuff, poking fun at the solutions, and preemptively defending himself against responses like this. It is porn, because it is exploitative.

As to the final point of the article, sure, it needs to be documented. However, let the people who care about the city, who know how to see it in both lights handle the documentation. They are more than aware of the hard times, and do not need the writers definition of ‘help’ via defending other articles such as this.

Shyid (#49,498)

And, to my above point, where is the author's response to any of our comments? How do we know this isn't just a fire and forget kind of thing for him?

Slapdash (#174)

Between 400 and 450, when the barbarians were sacking shit left, right, and center, Rome's population dropped to 200k, down from a million or so ~100 CE. And it kept dropping, going down to 75k-100k by 500, and bottoming out in the 20k-30k range.

No ruin porn, though. That came later.

Talk about misleading focus. America's race-driven policy of separating city politically from the metro unit makes it seem as if there's something horribly wrong or different about Detroit. The metro region is barely different from any other in the country, with concentrations of growth and decline. But the way that black-majority center cities are deprived of the wealth of the metro is the story — unfortunately a story that's all to common and that few want to hear.

petra (#57,271)

aaaargh, as someone who has spent the last five years in Detroit and the five before that in the suburbs, this article annoys the crap out of me on so many levels, most of which have already been addressed in previous comments. However, I'd like to add that much of the statements in this piece seem purely speculative; and I'm sorry, but it's hard to take such things seriously when, as someone else pointed out, it's pretty clear you haven't spent much time here or have any strong connection to Michigan. For example, you state that most of the people who left the city in the past decade "probably" also "fled" Michigan. Where did you come up with that? I'd do my own speculative ranting about it but it's late so I'll let the Atlantic summarize for me:

It's a good article that, unlike this, actually does look beyond the two typical narratives.

I am a musician and Techno fan, so I regularly visit Detroit. I love the City, but I see it through a particular set of rose-colored glasses: my friends that live there, the musicians I appreciate.

It is a city with a very odd, empty feeling to it, but it's a place where real people live and work. I hope that the Government gets it together and makes things a little better, but waiting for the government to make things better is a loser's game.

And the unfortunate truth that people don't want to talk about when it comes to Detroit — at least people other than Detroiters — is that Detroit is what the end stage of institutionalized racism looks like. It's what's left when everyone (black, white, or whatever) who can afford to leaves.

But it's a cool place to go, especially for the Electronic Music Festival Memorial Day weekend, or for Taste of Detroit on the 4th of July Weekend. PIcnicing on Belle Isle… Visiting Somewhere In Detroit's mini-Techno museum … Melodies & Memories — one of the world's best 'spend all day and leave poor' record stores on earth … breakfast at the Clique on E Jefferson …

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