“Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” – Groucho Marx
In 2010, I viewed a photo study – The Ruins of Detroit – about urban decay in Detroit. The photos were shot by two French photographers – Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. The photos are visually stunning and leave the viewer with the sense that the entire city must be a vast modern ruin. As a photography enthusiast, I was impressed by the artistry, saddened by the clear signs of decay, and angered by the one-sided portrayal of a city I love.
When someone asked me if I had seen the photos, I would point out that similar photos could be taken in any large city. I also pointed out that the photographers had a set goal in mind for this project and nothing is shown that does not advance their agenda. The reply I got was usually something like, “Yeah, but you have to admit the city is a mess.” Unfortunately, that statement is difficult to dispute.
Yesterday, while watching the latest episode of Detroit 1-8-7, I was reminded of that photo series. The television series, about a Detroit homicide squad, normally deals with two unrelated murders in each episode. One of the murders in this week’s show was about a death in an abandoned building. A suspect in that case was a French photographer who filmed urban decay. I thought the character was most likely inspired by Marchand and/or Meffre.
Normally, noticing something like that would amount to no more than a mental pat on the back for catching such a subtle and oblique reference. In this instance, it was still fresh in my mind when I found a link to the photo series on one of the blogs I visit every day – BalloonJuice.com. I suspected the reference, which didn’t mention exactly what it was about, was about the Marchand and Meffre photos. That was confirmed when I followed the link.
As long as I was on the site, I decided to view the photos again. One of the photos confirmed a suspicion I had held about the misleading nature of the series. A visually stunning photo of a wall clock with a melted plastic face was shot in the abandoned Cass Technical High School. Other photos in the series, which I had seen when I first viewed the portfolio, were also shot in the empty school building. There was no longer any question in my mind about the honesty of the photographers.
You are probably thinking, “What’s misleading about that? It’s an empty building in Detroit.”
While it is true that the photos were shot in an empty building in Detroit, it is not true that these photos are about the “Ruins of Detroit” or about urban decline. They are just the opposite. The reason the building is empty is because a brand new $115 million dollar school building was built right next door on the same parcel of land in 2004. The old school, built in 1917, is slated for demolition in the near future unless a developer purchases it. The failure to include any reference to the new school is a deliberate attempt to push the photographers’ agenda.
Old Cass Tech building
New Cass Tech school
There are other photos in the series that add to the sense of decline and to the total impact of the series, which in a sense are also misleading in that the same decaying buildings can be found in other urban areas that are not in decline. For instance, the photographers included several photos of old theaters in Detroit that are now sitting empty. These photos are part of the “Ruins of Detroit” and add to the overall macabre tenor of the series. What is misleading about the photos of those empty theaters is that the photographers have another photo series that is all about similar grand old theaters that are sitting empty in cities like, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Those theaters have outlived their better days and are no longer economically viable. In other cities, their closure is viewed as a sign of the times. In Detroit, they are presented as proof that the city is a ruin.
It is not my intent to claim that Detroit is a healthy, vibrant city. It would be foolish to make such a claim for the city has lost half of its population over the last six decades. When you take nearly a million people from a city there are going to be many abandoned homes and buildings. The tax base plummets and services decline accordingly. Anyone who can afford to moves to the more affluent suburbs and those left behind are too few and too poor to support an infrastructure built for twice their number.
However, the metanarrative that has arisen about Detroit is equally wrong. The city is not dying. It is not going to become a ghost town or a post-apocalyptic hell. There are still nearly a million people living in Detroit. The Detroit Metro area is home to nearly four million people and the greater metro area that is Southeast Michigan contains more than five million. All of those people live within an hour of downtown Detroit. The area will always need a major urban area. This need is what will eventually lead to the resurrection of the city.
The belief that Detroit is on the verge of becoming a virtual ruin is, in my view, an allegory for the state of politics in this country, in that it is all based on misleading narratives or outright lies. Republicans have claimed the mantle of protectors of Social Security and Medicare even though the destruction of those programs are two of their most cherished goals. They claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility even though the historical record proves this to be a total fabrication. They claim to be the party that can protect the country from terrorism even though the worst terrorist attack in this country’s history happened on their watch.
This is now our world. Up is down. Black is white. Fiction is reality. And lies have become the truth.
It is obvious to many of us that things are only going to get worse in this country unless a way is found to change the narrative. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a viable idea on how that can be done as long as the media continues to abdicate their responsibility. Sadly, the entire nation may be forced to endure a decline as bad as that seen by Detroit before anything changes. This does not portend well for our children and grandchildren.
Fortunately, for Detroit, they may have already started on the road to recovery. The city has a new mayor, Dave Bing, who is highly-regarded by all for his honesty and intelligence. A few of the grandchildren of some of those who left the city during the ‘white flight’ of the 60’s and 70’s are moving back into the city to take advantage of its opportunities. More will follow as the benefits of living in an urban area become more apparent. A rise in the price of gasoline will also lead to more people moving into the city to live closer to their places of work. It will be a slow process and the city may never be the dynamic “Paris of the Midwest” that it was in its heyday, but revival is no longer in doubt. It is now a certainty.
The news media in this country continues to push the same narrative about Detroit being a failed city. Negativity seems to sell ads for newspapers and networks. In fact, it’s not just in this country that the same narrative is pushed by the media. The Guardian in the UK recently ran an article about the photographs of Marchand and Meffre. The media always loves a story that fits the narrative.
While the media refuses to look for anything positive about the city, a French boot company decided to counter the accepted view of the city. The French company, Palladium, produced a documentary hosted by Johnny Knoxville that shows some of the progress being made in the city. The documentary is heartening for those of us who love Detroit. If I was younger, I would be tempted to move to the city to be a part of it al
This documentary is what actually inspired this diary. I hope some of you will take the time to watch the three videos.
Johnny Knoxville: Detroit Lives Part 1 of 3
Johnny Knoxville: Detroit Lives Part 2 of 3
Johnny Knoxville: Detroit Lives Part 3 of 3
The making of Detroit Lives