Ruin porn and the 7 Detroits

This week the Atlantic rounded up some commentary on the ever-controversial meme of Detroit ruin porn.  I found two of the pieces they featured of particular merit.

In his terrific and very lengthy essay for Guernica, John Patrick Leary, a Wayne State professor, identifies ‘three principal conventions of Detroit writing in the major media.’  First, and most frequently, ‘the Metonym,’ i.e. ‘Detroit’ as shorthand for the auto industry.  Detroit as Metonym ‘can hold other, subtler meanings, too’:

For liberals, like George Monbiot in the Guardian newspaper, “Detroit” equals dirty industry and corporate welfare. His headline “Let Detroit die,” from a 2009 article that denounced the U.S. government’s loans to the Big Three automakers, sounded a bit callous if you happen to live or work here, and are therefore more often the victim rather than the beneficiary of pollution or corporate welfare. For rightists, “Detroit” also connotes unions and other bogeymen of urban Democratic politics…

‘The second style of Detroit reportage,’ Leary continues,

I would term the Detroit Lament. The Lament turns from the purely rhetorical use of Detroit as metonym for something else to a more visceral depiction of the city’s scarred landscape, and occasionally, though only occasionally, its residents… the Lament lends itself to the visual media, and for their elegiac emphasis on loss and decline we can classify (ruin porn photo projects) Detroit Disassembled and The Ruins of Detroit in this category… These photos of uninhabited ruined spaces do little more than confirm what the most casual observer already knows about Detroit and cities like it.

‘The third major subgenre of the popular Detroit narrative,’ according to Leary,

is a backlash against the pornographic excesses of the Lament and is, at best, an attempt to find a new definition of urban vitality. The Utopians are well-meaning defenders of the city’s possibilities. Locally, they are often politically active, often young, and… often white. This class of Detroit story chronicles Detroit’s possibilities, with a heavy emphasis on art and urban agriculture on abandoned land…

While this version seems more cheerful, Leary is ready with healthy dose of skepticism:

Toby Barlow’s series of New York Times articles on bicycling and one-hundred-dollar houses in the city anticipated a gentrification-fuelled Detroit Renaissance that most honest observers must admit will never come. (If Detroit is really so full of possibilities, why do so many of the possibilities so closely resemble a cut-rate version of what western Brooklyn already looks like?)…

(Barlow himself responds by wry comment: ‘Detroit is not a utopia, but, for the time being at least, I certainly prefer it to West Brooklyn. ‘)

Of the perennial darling of ruin porn, Michigan Central Station, and its wicked but scrappy owner Matty Moroun, Leary reminds us  ‘a photograph can tell us little about the city’s real estate industry and the state’s cheaply-bought politicians. All it can do is show the catastrophic results. ‘

Matthew Newton at Thought Catalog, who writes of one example:

(I)t actually contributes to the problem by fueling the notion that Detroit (and depressed cities like it) are beyond help. The glut of disaster porn photography currently cycling on the Internet has outsiders convinced Detroit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, devoid of hope or humanity.

As Leary suggests, the simple logic of ruin porn thrives because the details themselves, the socioeconomic factors and history involved, are so complex and so resistant to easy analysis or solutions:

So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city…

Reading Leary and Newton, it occurred to me that a lot of fights between Detroit boosters, outside observers, and those who offer valid critiques of the city stem from the fact that we are really talking about multiple cities of Detroit.

Let me — with the caveat that I’m painting the broadest of stereotypes — outline what I see as at minimum, seven Detroits:

1) There is the Detroit of Leary’s Lament, are the parts of the cities that are just plain lost, the prairie parts people want to turn over to farming as well as the abandoned industrial parts like the Packard plant, the parts that are great for pheasant hunting.
2) There are the parts that are still populated fairly densely, hosting the vast majority of both its population and its school-age youth.   These ‘hoods have children in DPS, are overwhelmingly black, and it’s fair to say that in general, people are not getting the services they want in these neighborhoods.   Many live in Detroit  because they are too poor to decamp to the suburbs, where the schools & police response are better and job opportunities more plentiful.  They often don’t have cars and shop for their groceries at nearby liquor stores.  Those that do have cars often drive them uninsured since it is so damn expensive to insure a car in the city; you often see their battered 20-year-old domestic models abandoned on the side of the freeway.  If you gave them the financial means to do so many of them would gladly leave, but others are stubbornly loyal to their neighborhoods hoping conditions improve.

3) In contrast are the parts that are relatively safe, some of them actually doing better now than at any time in the past 40 years — Midtown comes to mind first, but also downtown, Brush Park, Southwest, Corktown, possibly Woodbridge.  This is the Detroit most closely identified with Leary’s Utopians, not only limited to white people:  for every Ryan Cooley or Toby Barlow, there’s a Torya Blanchard.  These tend to be child-free, people who don’t have a personal stake in city schools except sometimes as alumni, less dependent on the police because they can afford home alarm systems, manage to organize neighborhood patrols, can rely on WSU’s security force (in Midtown at least).  But property crime is still an issue, and there have been well-publicized tensions with the homeless population since these are often closer to downtown.  These people for the most part choose to live here, and many of them are not even from the Detroit area, let alone natives of the city itself.   Many of them would love to be able to live without a car (especially after they experience a break-in or car theft), but this remains generally impractical.  How else would you get to Costco and Best Buy in Madison Heights?  Detroit #3 does its best to get its shopping done within the city, but there are some things you just can’t get at Eastern Market or La Colmena.  (Disclosure:  when I lived in Detroit this tended to be the crowd I ran with.)

4) Detroit #4 is a somewhat older group, some with children, living in mainly single-family communities — Rosedale Park, Indian Village, etc.   They are mostly well-off people, both black and white, though even these neighborhoods have struggled in recent years with foreclosure.  They sometimes have kids but those kids either go to the elite DPS schools (Cass Tech, Renaissance, etc.) or to private schools.  Except for those who are underwater on their mortgages, most could afford to live in the suburbs but choose to stay where they are.  Many of them work for or are retired from DPS or the city, and consequently are part of the strong interest groups protecting those vested interests, one can imagine, the same ones that are the bogeymen of Leary’s first genre of Detroit narrative.  City Council members and other elected officials often call these neighborhoods home, insulated from the worst of the problems of the city they administer.

In some neighborhoods (Lafayette Park, Palmer Woods) security is less of an issue as they pay for round the clock surveillance.  Other #4 neighborhoods are downwardly mobile, slipping into Detroit #2, places which supply the national media with a steady diet of horrific cautionary tales of what can happen when nice well-meaning people move to Detroit — stories about property crime, lack of police response, etc.   Such stories end in tears with the protagonist, whether white, or more frequently these days, black, fleeing for safer pastures.   (My first reaction to each of these stories served as a reminder that in Detroit as in any other major city, out-of-towners need to pick their neighborhoods with care.  One horror story was set in Boston-Edison, the other, I believe, in East English Village, neither of which has been heading in the right direction over the past decade.  Caveat emptor! is the Detroit newcomer’s mantra.  But am I blaming the victim?)

5) There are the immigrant parts like Southwest, the city of Hamtramck, and the Arab neighborhoods spilling over the border with Dearborn, which have children too but attract out of town visitors for dining and festivals, and may have comparatively intact social networks.

These different types of neighborhoods sit cheek by jowl with one another.  For example, Michigan Central Station falls into #1, but it is located in Corktown which is increasingly #3 and next to Southwest which is #5.

As Leary points out, ‘(O)ne of the notable features of this Detroit boom is the fact that few of the people driving it actually live here.’  Consequently, let us acknowledge two more partially overlapping Detroits, composed of: 6)  Detroiters who left the city at any point in the past 60 years, and who serve as a kind of peanut gallery; and 7)  People who live in the suburbs but work in the city.

Unless they work in human services (as I did for a year) or for the city or DPS, many in Detroit #3 and #4 have limited experience with Detroit #2, especially on its physical turf, for a couple of reasons.  Partly because one of the keys to functioning successfully in Detroit is being able to gauge safety; this typically precludes, say, taking an evening stroll along McNichols on the east side, or venturing anywhere out of your car in certain parts of Highland Park.  The other part is most people (especially white people) don’t have any reason to go to the really troubled neighborhoods in the first place (the exception being gay bars, many of which are for various reasons located in the hood) — they don’t work there, and there is plenty of cheap housing available in better neighborhoods.

These groups also have different levels of reliance on city services.  Middle- or upper-income people who choose to move to, or remain in the city, are able to do so because for various reasons they have little need for the public services the city provides.  As I mentioned, they have adequate private security that they don’t need to rely on response from police; if they have school-age children they can afford to send them to private school; and they can afford the stratospheric costs of car and home insurance.  Needless to say, most of the middle class does not fall into this category, which is why their numbers have dwindled.

Public services provision is even more important for poor people, of course.  The inner suburbs, especially housing, became comparatively less expensive compared to the city itself over the past ten years, and consequently even the poor are finding it in their financial best interest to leave.  If you are very poor and wish to make a better life for yourself and your children, your odds are simply better in the suburbs.

The ruin pornsters who present the most public view of the city are fascinated by Detroit #1 — this is what the national media tends to show.  DPS students, regardless of where they live, culturally inhabit Detroit #2 and #6, and even their experience of DPS is completely different from the Cass Tech students from Detroit #4.  The younger Utopians live in the optimistic and thriving Detroit #3, protected from many of the problems of Detroit #2, and frustrated by the national focus on Detroit #1 which they feel ignores their accomplishments.

Detroit #6, a group that likely outnumbers current residents (though to my knowledge no one tracks them), help shape the image and discourse of the city. Some, particularly the older and more conservative, throw peanuts and are amused by Detroit #3, who they consider naive, or view it with sadness as they compare it to the Detroit they remember.  Many others still feel goodwill toward the city, but simply can’t justify the financial sacrifices required to live there.  Attitude toward the suburbs from Detroit #1-5 is also mixed:  there’s a residue of militant hostility left over from the Coleman Young area among many (the News and Free Press love to quote these people), but many others have one foot out the door (especially families with children of school age).  Many in Detroit #2 and #4 are vested in the dysfunctional status quo;  these are the citizens who most militantly oppose state appointed DPS financial manager Robert Bobb, and are terrified by the mayor’s Detroit Works Project, which they fear to be a forced resettlement plan.

Needless to say, the disparate collection of societies that lie within the political boundaries of Detroit defy even my simple description or categorization.  It is possible to live, work, and socialize in different versions of Detroit and to belong in multiple versions, but it is just as easy to avoid a particular version entirely most of the time.

Consequently, the media default to the easiest and most familiar Detroits, #1 and #2.  Another reason for this is statistical.  In terms of sheer population, Detroit #2 still vastly outnumbers the other groups and will continue to for some time, and it is their numbers and their suffering which dominate the city’s miserable income, employment, health, crime, education, and literacy rankings.

The emphasis on Detroit #1 is especially mystifying to people who live or work in the city, because their lives don’t revolve around the ruins — the buildings they work in are not abandoned, nor do most of them live in abandoned houses or on the prairie.

Consider Detroit #7, which is not at all reflected in the city’s population numbers because they aren’t residents.  In theory, everyone could move out of Detroit and there would still be a tax base of the workers at Wayne State, GM, Compuware, Henry Ford, the DMC, Mexicantown restaurants, Comerica Park, the Fox, Eastern Market, the state’s offices on the Boulevard, University of Detroit Mercy, the various federal buildings, the casinos, the DIA, the newspapers, Lafayette & American Coney Island, etc.  A significant share of the employees (not to mention the leadership) of each of these institutions (Mexicantown possibly excepted) commute in from the suburbs and support Detroit bars, restaurants, and other businesses.  These are, of course, mainly clustered in the central area between the river and the New Center, precisely the section of town that is the strongest right now.  And most of these institutions have made it clear: they survived the 1967 riots, they survived year after year of Devils’ Night arson, they have survived six decades of population loss.

Leary writes,

While unique in its scale, however, Detroit’s entrenched infrastructural and economic problems are themselves as American as apple pie, reproduced on varying scales in Newark, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Camden…

Like Detroit, though, these cities remain full of people who go about their business, head to work, recreate, and in general live pretty normal lives in the city every single day.  For us, it is a place to see a ballgame; to enjoy a margarita; to enjoy live music outdoors at the jazz festival or DEMF, or indoors at the Majestic; to attend class; to see a doctor;  to schmooze at fundraisers;  and yes, to go to work.  That’s more than you can say of the vast majority of incorporated places in Michigan, let alone the USA.  That more than anything is why we are so bemused by the national conversation about the city of Detroit as some place that is dying, an uninhabited ruin.

Detroit hit 1.8 million people in the 1940s not because people loved it, but because people loved being able to earn a great living there, and many of them were all too eager to leave.  So in at least one paradoxical respect, Detroit might be better off today than it was then.  It’s not enough to just like Detroit; you have to either love it, or have no other options, to live in the city.  In the best scenario, the only people left will be those who love it and don’t want to be anywhere else, however few they are.

Advertisements

One response to “Ruin porn and the 7 Detroits

  1. Pingback: Cycling as activism | Motown To Tree Town

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s