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The ruins of Detroit

My comment on a post of Bug Girl’s got really long, so I thought I’d copy it here, with a few more thoughts. She posted a link to Sweet Juniper’s photos of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, apparently abandoned in the 1980s, still packed full of school supplies (including pallets of text books, still in their plastic wrapping). Looters, fire and decades of neglect have taken their toll. My comment from Bug Girl’s Blog:

When I saw 8 Mile I was struck by the image of barbarians living in the ruins of Rome. The parking lots with cathedral ceilings. The buildings that were works of art.

I also remember one shot of a neighbourhood that looked out of place in a Haitian slum. If I hadn’t seen that area for myself, I would have thought that they went out of their way to find the worst possible shot of poverty that they could find. While I can’t say with certainty that the shot I saw in 8 Mile was the same place I’d seen in real, the stuff I remember seeing wasn’t on a side street. Though I do remember looking down side streets and seeing half-collapsed houses.

Detroit is so heartbreaking. But what really shocked me was when my father-in-law mentioned that Flint was a well-to-do city 25 years ago. Having come to Michigan in the mid-90s, I had no sense of history. Detroit’s boom days seemed as distant to me as Bay City’s…my lack of perspective amazes me. But how does something like this happen – how is a building packed full of textbooks simply abandoned? It isn’t like the people fled an advancing army or were evacuated after a nuclear power plant melted down. It’s mind boggling.

Then I read Sweet Juniper’s blog post about his photography of the ruins of Detroit. In addition to the Book Depository, he also has pictures of Michigan Central Station. Unlike the relatively nondescript book depository, Michigan Central Station is on the National Register of Historic Places. According to its Wikipedia article, the last train left the station on January 6, 1988.

Pictures like these fill me with a mixture of sadness and wonder. There is something fascinating about these forgotten places. Sweet Juniper writes:

When I post pictures of Detroit, I am always struck by the way people respond in the comments with a sense of “sadness.” The reactions we have to ruins is something that fascinates me, and I’d love to hear more in the comments about how you feel looking at such buildings or even just seeing the photos I post on flickr. Of course, I sometimes share a sense of sadness, but still I wonder: why is it “sad” for a building to be left to decay if there is no one willing to use it? Can decay be something more than sentimental? Can it ever be beautiful? Can it just be respected for what it is, and not further corrupted by our emotions? And what is it that draws us to ruination? Why do some of us find it so compelling? I’d like to believe I am much more saddened by people whose lives fall apart than I am by crumbling stones or plaster. Sadly, social decay is just so much more easy to ignore, and not as prettily exposed with the lens of a camera.

It’s easy to see abandoned buildings divorced from context. But they represent broken and forgotten dreams. Some, like the train station, simply look abandoned. Again, reading the Wikipedia article, that probably was the case (although the fixtures and ornaments were probably removed by looters). The book depository is different – it looks like the building was just locked at the end of the day and no one ever came back. And while all the “valuables” have been looted, the books probably weren’t of interest to anyone. Books that could have changed lives were instead abandoned – forgotten by the city, of no interest to looters.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s baffling. And you said it much better than I did.

  2. It is almost hyper-real – like in painting when the depiction is so clear it looks like a photograph, and then the photographer depicts the subject with such clarity that it becomes surreal.

    To me, as a photographer it is a quiet reminder of the transitory nature of things. It can be a simple as that.

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