Detroit and the temptation of ruin

In Detroit, they call it “Ruin Porn”: images of a 35-acre abandoned automotive plant, the 18-story abandoned railway station (modeled, in turn, on ancient Roman baths), and other vast and decayed structures.

I can certainly understand why citizens of Detroit would object to the aestheticization of poverty and abandonment–to their city’s being used to produce marketable images of tragic grandeur. But the story of Detroit is tragic, in the Aristotelian sense. Recall the plot: the city rises from a few thousand residents to 1.8 million when hubristic men like Henry Ford invent forms of mass production that transform work itself. Black people migrate there from the South, face violent hostility, but manage to obtain political and cultural power. The city builds cars, weapons, and pop music that conquer the world. It becomes a model of modernity, vividly depicted by Diego Rivera on the walls of its world-class museum. And then Detroit collapses to 700,000 people who live amid the empty shells of its industrial past, while the nation looks away.

There is nothing new about treating a tragic fall as sublime. “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Or: “It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

In fact, because the Detroit Institute of Arts is an encyclopedic collection, one can find on its walls many images of ruin. For example, Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael paints the Jewish cemetery of 17th-century Amsterdam falling to pieces in a wild storm, as a momento mori. I don’t know why he picks Jewish graves, but perhaps because their dead are dead for good (in his view), not subject to resurrection.

van Ruisdeal, “The Jewish Cemetery” (ca. 1654)

The American Frederic Church imagines the coast of Syria as a kind of museum or theme park of ruins: Roman, Gothic, and Islamic piled almost on top of each other.

Frederic Edwin Church. “Syria by the Sea” (1873)

Anselm Kiefer paints a vast three dimensional canvass, parts of it literally burnt by the artist. He means to represent a particular brick factory in India (one that manufactures its own walls and sells the same walls, brick-by-brick, to consumers) and also the ovens of Auschwitz–which was another kind of Jewish cemetery.

Anselm Kiefer, “Das Gewiert” (1997)

The DIA even includes a whole Gothic side chapel moved to Detroit from a chateau in Lorraine–reconstructed there from a real Old World ruin. When you stand inside it, with its streaked and burnished stone and stained glass all around you, you are in a late-medieval building, inside a much larger structure patterned on the ruins of ancient Rome, near the center of a modern American city that is partly falling into ruin.

The DIA itself is hardly ruinous. On a Friday night, it is packed with visitors of all ages and backgrounds who stroll through its magnificent galleries, listen to live jazz, or play chess. But the collection, whose market value might reach $1 billion, will likely be sold to make a small dent in the bankrupt city’s pension obligations. In the best case, the purchasers will be a consortium of foundations whose wealth derived from Detroit and which have pledged to give the art back once they buy it. It’s a strange twist that some of the objects they may buy and return to the city from which their endowments came will be “ruin porn” of other times and places.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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  • Thomas R. Flanagan

    There is a rather
    contemporary irony in the decline of Detroit, for its uncertain future was
    foreshadowed in the minds of its local champions a half century prior to its
    demise. Human artifacts persist as
    statements made in powerful moments – they are aspects of an extracorporeal
    memory that is interpreted anew by each generation if not by each new
    observer. When the wind blows from the
    right direction, whispers from history breathe depth into the newfound meaning.

    In 1965 a
    decision had been made to conduct a 5-year study of the Detroit area with the
    objective of anticipating needs for sustainable growth and a high quality of
    life. The research was intended to link
    perspectives on the economic, social, cultural and physical problems facing man
    in communities like the Urban Detroit Area.
    The effort was championed by the Chairman of the Board of The Detroit
    Edison Company.

    To lead the
    research efforts, Constantinos Doxiadis – a then world renowned philosophical
    architect and urban planner – was engaged to apply the emerging science of
    complex human settlements (“ekistics”).
    Doxiadis worked alongside researchers at Wayne State University, and for
    generations the implemented designs were celebrated.

    The back story is
    that during this period even within Doxiadis’ close circle of researchers a
    gnawing truth was cutting its teeth.
    Design which is catalyzed, led and owned by the elite layer of a society
    – regardless of how well intentioned – will be unbalanced unless specific provisions
    are made to include all distinct community perspectives in authentic
    participation with the designers.

    I am not making
    the point that greater citizen input might have foreseen the way with which
    Detroit collapsed, but rather that greater representation of the future from
    those of us who live life upon the sidewalks that we travel may have called for
    greater resiliency in the plan. It is,
    of course, unfair to kick or criticize a man or a community when it is down. All of the then understood precautions were
    taken to assure that the best of available thinking was drawn into the design
    of the urban area.

    In the short
    term, good things happened in Detroit, and from within Doxiadis’ team at that
    time emerged one of the founding members of the Club of Rome who subsequently
    developed and validated an approach that now does allow individuals of all
    levels of skill to participate equitably and fully in complex civic
    planning. This individual —- Dr.
    Alexander N. Christakis, left the Club of Rome when it found itself unwilling
    to deal with the challenge of broad-scale citizen engagement in its newly
    adopted design practice, and Aleco subsequently founded the Institute for 21st
    Century Agoras.

    The Greeks today
    may still glorify some of the ruins of the past – however, like citizens of
    Detroit, they also are obliged to take up the struggle to discover new
    futures. As a statement of hope for the
    human condition, we might recognize that the experiences gathered during the
    golden age of Detroit do continue to influence the future even as the city struggles
    to rediscover itself.

    artifacts might well be seen as glorified ruins in a poet’s maudlin and
    peripatetic eyes, yet in at least this one case the wisdom that flowed through
    and beyond those specific artifacts is alive and evolving.