January 9, 2013 by LeVoyageur
Detroit Self-Portrait is a collaborative project between the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit Institute of Arts that provides a forum for Detroiters and others connected to it to publish their own images of the city. Hundreds if not thousands of people have contributed photographs that illustrate the city from all points of view – from urban gardens to children at play around city fountains, from the waterfront to the high-rises.
The troubles of Detroit have received a lot of press lately. If, by ‘lately’ you mean the past 45 years. My entire life, from the vantage point of growing up in Northern Michigan, Detroit has always been described as one big trouble spot. White Flight was probably the first political term of art I heard. Detroit was dangerous and to be avoided – no good except for the Tigers was ever going to come out of Detroit, or so I learned.
So the recent fascination with Detroit’s crumbling housing stock and abandoned industrial and transportation sites (and let’s be honest, these industrial buildings have been abandoned by their owners to waste way not by the people of Detroit) is yet another link in the chain of bad press for the Motor City.
French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre put Detroit on the map as the capital of “Ruin Porn”, a picture bible of sorts for cultural cynics everywhere. Detroit became the place where you could see the drama of unfolding decay – a true urban wasteland. Their photographs we are told are “about modernity” and have come to symbolize the “destructive cost of capitalism.”
Now hundreds of articles, blog posts, and similar “art projects” have allowed this narrative to gain strength, becoming a story in its own right. The danger of course is that the long-suffering city will fall victim to it – that this false narrative will become the real narrative and that the decay so beautifully documented will come to be a self-fulfilling prophecy ending any hope of regeneration.
But a counter-narrative arose more or less simultaneously. It is due in part to projects like Detroit Self-Portrait and the work of other organizations that value what Detroit is and know what Detroit can be. This counter-narrative comes from the many Detroit cultural organizations that are telling Detroit’s story, which goes beyond riots and the auto industry. Creative energy is being channeled by people who live and work in Detroit in a way that is remembering its history, growing its gardens, and making its art. Detroit is rising up and casting out its demons.
I have heard for years great ideas for Detroit: that is should be a cradle of experimentation; a cityscape returned to nature; a possible Midwestern Silicon Valley. It would be the great 21st century American city: smaller, leaner, better. Although these ideas are part of the counter-narrative, they have yet to fully develop. But if they do, it will not be because a certain sector of culture-makers want the story of Detroit to be about lost glory and dangerous old buildings.
It will be because the city of Detroit is made up of people who care deeply about it as the place they live – not as a project or an art piece of a forgotten civilization. It will be because people understand that transformation and regeneration are inevitable parts of life.
Someone may ask, If I’ve never lived there, why should I care? I care about Detroit in part because there are so many people who do not. I care about Detroit because there are so many forces that think its irrelevant and doomed. I care about Detroit for the many generations of my family who did live there from the days when it was still a shoreline dotted with cabins, through the 20th century. And I care about Detroit as Michigan’s first city, a great American city which is past due for a little shine.
The cynics will always be trying to tear down what others build up. But they cannot (and must not) dominate the story of Detroit. Their period of influence is coming to an end. Progress is about building and Detroit is still being built.