Much has been written about the death and decay of Detroit, Michigan. Especially in the last five years, major news outlets have been covering the story as if it were news; like it was something that had just happened and not the long, slow, inexorable dissolution that it is and has always been. Our understanding of the ruination of Detroit has been shaped a great deal, I think, by these images captured by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They have appeared in Time, Huffington Post, and all over the internet. The Marchand/Meffre exhibition is mainly concerned mucking around in wreckage and making a spectacle out of the scale of the desolation. They show big iconic buildings like Michigan Central Station and old assembly plants all abandoned and empty. The images are eerie and apocalyptic-looking because many of the places still retain some of their character as places—they just no longer have people in them. It’s the lack of activity that is disconcerting. They are spaces that ought to have people in them and do not. What’s sad about Detroit is that despite its decline, it still has to go about its business being a large, swarming city.
I prefer these pictures I copied from Google maps on one of my daydream roadtrips. Rather than making Detroit look abandoned, they make it seems as though it was never all that inhabited to begin with.
Detroit was a city built to hold 2 million people. Today, only about 700,000 people live within the city limits. During the 90s and the early aughts, the city embarked on an aggressive effort to condemn and demolish tracts and tracts of abandoned structures throughout the city. In the years that followed, trees and prairie grasses native to southeastern Michigan reclaimed entire city blocks. Many of the central neighborhoods in Detroit look like this now. These pictures were taken in East Poletown and Core City.
Detroit grew big from industrialization. From 1900 to 1950, with the rise of the auto industry and mechanized manufacturing, it probably grew faster than any city in the world. It was one of the first cities to be blessed by large-scale global trade. Anybody who bought a car was sending his money to Detroit. Compare the picture below with those above. It was taken in Black Bottom in the 1920s—more or less the same place, just 90 years earlier.
Modernity tore down Detroit as precipitously as it built it up. It is a stark example of how development always its end in destruction and how one can often necessitate the other: Progress dismantling the past.