Let’s Abandon the Industrial-Decay Porn and Take a Closer Look at What’s Growing in Detroit

If you got all your information about Detroit from the blogosphere, the mainstream media, or the photography section of your local bookstore and never actually visited the Motor City, you could be forgiven for assuming that it’s one giant, bombed-out wasteland. That’s certainly the impression conveyed by many of the artists who have been criss-crossing the city over the last few years, lovingly documenting all of the city’s abandoned factories, houses, schools, and train stations.

As a Michigan native and as one of the people who helped to plan the launch of Xconomy Detroit, I want to lodge a plea: Enough already.

At Xconomy, our focus is on the technology-related enterprises working to ensure a prosperous, sustainable future for Detroit and our other home cities of Boston, San Diego, and Seattle. That doesn’t mean we wear blinders: we know that conditions are desperate in southeast Michigan, and unemployment is out of control. It will be a long time before the region finds a set of new industries and employers who can bring back anything resembling the auto industry’s halcyon days from the mid-20th century.

But that’s exactly why we think the public discussion about Detroit needs to look forward. If people can focus on innovation rather than decay, renewal rather than ruins, they might just have a better chance of creating something of value.

I’m not denying that many photos of derelict structures in Detroit have a haunting allure. The crumbling plaster, peeling paint, and scattered furnishings in these emptied-out buildings lend a sort of texture and poignance that you certainly don’t get from images of more modern architecture, or even from old pictures of these same Detroit landmarks when they were new.

But I would argue that the texture in these photos is only skin-deep. What messages are the creators of these images really trying to convey? Often, it seems to be little more than a kind of wistfulness, sometimes tinged with schadenfreude. It’s just so sad that the city that was once the fourth most populous in the United States is now pervaded by emptiness. It’s so shocking what kind of neglect can set in when the bottom falls out of a region’s economy. It’s so ironic that the sort of decay and destruction you might expect to see in Sarajevo or the former East Germany can be found in the heart of an American city. Like drivers who gawk at an accident on the highway, we can’t avert our gaze.

Well, you know what? You can find empty, abandoned structures in virtually every city in the U.S., not to mention the country’s vast rural stretches. Abandonment isn’t always the sign of a civilization’s collapse. Sometimes it just means that people picked up and left in a hurry. The only real message you can take from these images is that the real estate these buildings stand on isn’t yet valuable enough to warrant redevelopment.

In the end, most of the images of Detroit’s abandoned structures have a fetishistic, ultimately unsatisfying quality. They are the industrial equivalent of necrophilia.

I can’t show you the actual photographs of Detroit’s so-called ruins here, since most of them are copyrighted, but you can find them pretty easily online. A pair of French photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, are among the leading perpetrators—Time Magazine thought their work significant enough to put a whole slideshow online. Then there’s New York photographer Andrew Moore, who has published in The New Yorker and has put out an entire book entitled Detroit Disassembled (which may have to compete for shelf space with Marchand and Meffre’s forthcoming book The Ruins of Detroit). There’s even a whole Flickr photo pool devoted to “Abandoned Michigan.”

There is, of course, a more thoughtful way to handle this kind of photography. Detroit resident James Griffioen, who writes the popular and photo-laden blog Sweet Juniper!, is careful to investigate and contextualize the images he makes of his troubled hometown; after documenting the huge piles of books and confidential student records left behind in closed school buildings around Detroit, for example, he went to great lengths to find out why the materials had been abandoned, and who was responsible for them. My concern is that few of the photographers scouring Detroit for arresting images take this kind of care, or bother to seek out the city’s more encouraging stories, such as the successes of the independent retailers featured in Griffioen’s recent series “But Where Do You Shop?

I had lunch this week with a young, very talented Cambridge, MA-based photographer named Dave St. Germain. He told me an interesting story. He’d signed up to visit Detroit as part of a spring-break photographic expedition organized by one of Boston’s leading schools of photography. But before the trip could even begin, all of the other students withdrew; St. Germain said he got the sense that Michigan just didn’t compare very well with the previous year’s spring break destination (Florida).

I drew two points from this story. One, among some photographers and photographic instructors, there’s an idea virus that Detroit is some kind of treacherous but intriguing foreign destination, like a domestic version of Kabul. Two, when push comes to shove, most of these artists don’t really care about Detroit’s travails, and would rather take their cameras somewhere sunny and warm.

So let me add to my earlier plea to the photographers scouring Detroit. Enough with the industrial porn. How about showing us some of what’s promising, exciting, and green in in the city? There are plenty of real, live examples that anybody who wants to look can find. There’s the Hantz Farms urban agriculture project, or the growing gardens of the Georgia Street Community Collective. The Creative Corridor is gradually taking shape along Woodward Avenue. There are scores of destinations listed on the Metro Detroit Greenmap, a project of the volunteer group Sustainable Detroit.

It would be wrong to try to whitewash Detroit’s very real problems, and I’m not asking the photographers who seem so riveted by rust and broken glass to censor themselves. But there are people who are committed to rebuilding Detroit, and their stories are interesting and important as well. If more people paid attention to the rebuilding effort, it could help create things a lot more valuable than schadenfreude.

[Update 11/11/12: Here’s a thoughtful piece from the New York Times Magazine on the “ruin porn” phenomenon in Detroit, which continues unabated more than two years after I wrote this column.]

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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