Detroit’s Grand Past
Glenn Moomau reviews
The Ruins of Detroit
by Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre
The Ruins of Detroit is one of the most significant in a burgeoning series of texts—both print and digital—that documents this nation’s abandoned structures, from penitentiaries and asylums to the labyrinthine factory complexes of the Midwest and Northeast. The place famously known as Motor City, once the ultimate expression of 20th century American industrial culture, has long been the icon of post-industrial devastation. It’s a well-known historical irony that Motown’s invention of the mass produced automobile created the seeds for its demise in the sprawl and decentralization that cars and freeways allowed, most significantly by allowing white flight to the suburbs and the easy removal of assembly-lines to locations outside the reach of organized labor. The passage of time makes viewing these once-formidable factories and ornate buildings even more compelling as we realize just how ephemeral are the visible and powerful representations of a civilization at its most robust.
The book’s French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre, dedicated five years to this project, employing a strict method of using one camera to capture their jointly composed images. In their introduction, Marchand and Meffre state, “Ruins are a fantastic land where one no longer knows whether reality slips into a dream or whether, on the contrary, dream makes a brutal return into the most violent of realities.” Their pictures bear out this sense of liminal borders. While photography can’t provide the sensory experience of visiting these ruins or offer the full scale of Detroit’s transformation, the order and choice of images certainly creates a synecdochic effect. For instance, one photo with its accompanying caption provides a long shot of an abandoned elementary school now standing alone on prairie that was once a heavily populated ethnic neighborhood of single-family homes. The juxtaposition of building and grassy expanse gracefully suggests the radical demographic facts: a devastated tax base supported by 700,000 residents in a 143-square mile city that once comfortably fitted two million, a place that some historians locate as the birth of a now-denuded American middle class.
As an historical account of early-to-mid 20th century architecture, the book certainly overwhelms viewers with the contrast to today’s architectural realities. Whether the images are of factories, downtown office buildings, small apartment houses, or the abandoned homes of the well-to-do, all strongly point out that the designs, materials, and construction are on a level unthinkable today. One gets the sense that those who financed, designed, and built these structures intended them to last not for 75 but for hundreds of years. The photographers point out that the smaller buildings display a confident, almost manic exuberance in the pastiche of architectural styles that include “Victorian, Moorish, Tudor, Classical, Art Deco, Modern, Gothic and Medieval influences.”
Many of the photographs are logically organized around a structure, showing both exterior and interior shots. The organization—and the switch from full page to groups of images—creates a relentless rhythm that suggests a far greater devastation than could be contained in any photographic series. Marchand and Meffre do a wonderful job of capturing in two dimensions the dizzying scale of Detroit’s commercial buildings while also offering intimate glimpses into the smaller closed spaces of abandoned hotels, apartments, and classrooms. Some photographs confuse the senses by jamming together both scale and intimacy as in their stunning exterior shot of the mammoth Cass Industrial High School that shows an institutional grid of gaping windows that leads the eye into trashed classrooms the photographers explore in successive pages.
Most dramatic—even at times melodramatic—are these interior shots of abandoned schools, churches, hotels, and theatres, where the visible signs of human activity remain in derelict stillness, as if the inhabitants of these spaces suddenly fled a great catastrophe so quickly they left clothes hanging in closets and food in refrigerators.
Ruins are by nature ironic, for the optimistic society that created new buildings couldn’t foresee how time would treat them, and the photographers relentlessly document these ironies. One of the most compelling series focuses on the French Renaissance-styled Michigan Theater that once seated 4,000, having had more recently a three-story parking garage crudely inserted into its grand lobby and lofty theater space. The building itself was constructed on the same spot where, in a garage, Henry Ford designed his first car. As the photographers glumly point out, “History had come full circle in the Michigan Theater.” They balance these observations by noting that two of the derelict buildings they record—the Fort Shelby and Book-Cadillac hotels—have now been restored.
Because the book focuses on Detroit’s grand past, it naturally makes little mention of the city’s latest attempts at renewal: a smaller, refurbished downtown and factory lofts that have attracted young professionals and artists, two new sports stadia, and an investment in tourist gambling that has given Detroit the distinction of being the largest American city that uses casino hotels as a revenue enhancer. Even so, outside of the gentrified downtown and a few upscale neighborhoods, it remains a violent, impoverished city. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, Detroit’s median household income was $25,000.
Commentators have been arguing over the significance of texts such as TROD, some decrying them as “ruin porn” that aestheticizes the surface but fails to explore the huge social dislocations and power shifts that preceded these wrecked vistas. Others have praised these projects as important documentary work that preserves a grand era of industrial architecture and design that has been lost in this late-capitalist age where efficiency has replaced majesty. Because their project stretched over five years, Marchand and Meffre were able to document some structures as they were being stripped and trashed, and they also annotate the buildings that have since been demolished. One apt criticism of ruin photography is that it privileges the structures over a city’s denizens, and certainly these photos fail to document that, in some instances, residents live adjacent to and even inside some of these “abandoned” buildings.
It must be frustrating for sincere urban activists to see both professionals and tourists with cameras flocking to Detroit to take in its decaying past, and the popularity of ruin exploration, with the thrill of entering abandoned and posted spaces, distracts from the social cost of the collapsed institutions and businesses that once served its citizens in a far different way. While other books on Detroit offer more contextual information to complement the photographs, TROD has a fine introductory essay by urban historian Thomas J. Sugrue followed by one written by the photographers. Equally important are the precise, spare annotations by the photographers that echo the grave tone of their photos. In the end, Marchand and Meffre’s stunningly haunted images utterly respect their material, and that care balances the inherent exploitation that any photographic image bears. One has only to watch the current reality television show, truTV’s Hardcore Pawn—that takes place in a Detroit loan shop—to see real photographic exploitation at work, with a never ending stream of desperate citizens trying to sell near worthless objects to buy groceries and illegal drugs. What finally convinced me of Meffre and Marchand’s seriousness, aside from the brilliant compositions, editorial choices, and a half decade commitment to their project, were their closing remarks. Rather than come up with abstract generalizations, they end their book with a potent question: “Are these ruins the shocking and grandiose testimony to the American Dream?”
After meditating on their work for a few months, I would answer that the empty buildings aren’t just testimony, but an indictment.
Glenn Moomau is the author of Ted Nugent Condominium, a memoir. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Memoir (and), storySouth, Link, Bomb, Living Blues, Gargoyle, and The Washington Post, among other publications. He teaches writing at American University.