What's Really Pornographic? The Point of Documenting Detroit

by Willy Staley

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.