Detroit is Not a Ruin


January 9, 2013 by LeVoyageur

We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes

We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes

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.

8 thoughts on “Detroit is Not a Ruin

  1. Sherri says:

    Wow! Thanks for that inspiring story of Detroit. I was born and raised outside of Detroit, but my Reaume ancestors were early settlers of Detroit; arriving around 1730. Your article made me laugh and cry. It pains me to think of the sacrifice of blood, sweat and tears our ancestors made for Detroit. But Detroit can rise again – it just takes people who see that potential for growth and decide to “build up” and not tear down. Thank you. May I share this article with my family & friends on my FB “Reaume page”?

  2. Hi! I found your blog today and have really enjoyed reading, especially this post about Detroit. Looking forward to reading your future posts!

  3. I like this entry. I also agree that we should not count Detroit out. When I think of Detroit, I see a city that can still come back once more. It will take alot of work, but it can come back. One thing to consider is this. Detroit is so much more than just cars,

    One thing to consider is what has always been important for Detroit: Geography. Detroit was in the middle of the French fur trade. It was founded as a French fur trading post and a military post. It was along a major canoe route that the voyageurs used. It was a major stop along the Underground Railroad given its location next to Canada. It was a major hub for transporting illicit liquor from Canada during Prohibition. In the late 19th-early 20th century, it was the busiest waterway in the world. It is still a busy waterway today. It is the busiest border crossing along the US-Canada border. It has a strong importance for the transporting of commerce between the USA and Canada.

    I think about it from what Detroit has always been. It has always been important for its geography. Water helped it become an important place, as did its location near major fur resources. Being the largest American city on the USA-Canada border has made it a very important city. Detroit is like a crossroads, a place of transport. There is still potential for Detroit.

    • James says:

      I agree – Detroit is a crossroads and a center at the same time. It’s funny – I have never lived in Detroit, but I have cousins there and our family has been there from before the founding of the city. I feel very connected to it as a point of geography, but also as a cultural center for my own ethnic group. If you’re interested in this I would invite you to the Facebook forum I started in which a lot about Detroit and the Great Lakes area gets discussed:–

      Soon they will be starting on a new international trade bridge in Detroit. It will be interesting in how that shapes the area and hopefully draws on local history for its name…James

      • There have been many who have basically counted Detroit out. Some people have basically said that Detroit is done and that people should just “let Detroit die”. Alot of people don’t understand what Detroit has always been, and that it is still an important place. Detroit does have alot of significance from a geographic and cultural perspective. It’s more than just automobiles. Detroit was founded for the French fur trade, and has been an entrepot from day one. It was once called “Paris of the Midwest”. Its urban design has similarities to how Paris was designed.

        I appreciate the invitation. I clicked on the link and it says it’s a broken link.

        Anyway, Detroit is still an important place. Geography, historical, transportation, and physical, have played a big part for Detroit, and continue to do so today.

  4. I tried the link, and I’ve sent a request to join. Thank you.

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