“Discovering” Detroit’s Ruins

George Steinmetz argues that the city’s ruins, which are often perceived as “embarrassing and ugly,” have long been invisible to society at large because they are not memorialized in any way and because there is no consensus about what caused them. Unlike the cathedral at Coventry bombed by the Luftwaffe in World War II, Ground Zero in Hiroshima, or the World Trade Center in New York, Detroit’s ruins were not caused by an act of war or some other spectacular event but are instead the result of “more gradual and hidden processes of disinvestment, emigration, and racialized discrimination.”34 The ruins lack specific signification and are perceived more as rubble, a view that is compounded by the fact that they tend to be located in poor and minority neighborhoods. Detroit’s ruins were “discovered” by the national media during the buildup to the 2006 Super Bowl game held in Detroit, when reporters who came to the city to produce pregame stories saw for the first time the acres of abandoned factories, storefronts, office buildings, churches, schools, houses, and vacant lots with which Detroiters have been living, in states of continuous transformation, for decades.

Detroit again made national news in 2009 when a man was found encased in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft in the Roosevelt Warehouse (formerly known as the Detroit Schools Book Depository, designed by Albert Kahn), an abandoned building owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun. The frozen man, with only his legs sticking out, had been submerged in ice for at least a month before authorities were notified and his body was removed. Homeless men who frequented the building and knew the body was there did not tell police for fear they would be routed from the building in the middle of a brutal winter, which is exactly what happened. A medical examiner ruled out death by murder or drowning since there were no wounds on the body or water in the lungs, and ruled it a cocaine overdose. Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff, who broke the story, speculates that he was “tossed down the elevator shaft by a panicky friend,” something that happens “all the time” among drug addicts. One of nineteen thousand homeless people in Michigan, the frozen man was soon identified as Johnnie Lewis Redding, a fifty-six-year-old second cousin to famed American singer-songwriter Otis Redding. Nearly three hundred people attended his funeral^5

Steinmetz notes that the insider mentality often lends itself to forms of city boosterism and defensiveness that obscure or ignore the immensity of the city’s problems: “Politicians, local developers, city planners, and many community activists are virtually compelled to strike an optimistic, even Pollyannaish pose . . . in the hope of luring residents and investors back to the crumbling city.”36 Artists in particular, who have embraced the city, often feel vulnerable and betrayed by what they perceive as bad press. LeDuff notes that “the small, white ‘art community’ in Detroit” complained to him that he was too focused on the negative “in a city with so much good.” At local forums on urban problems and at showings of city films, a similar complaint is often heard: What about all the good things? There are indeed many good things in the city, including its do-it-yourself spirit; its neighborhood initiatives; its waterfront development, art institutions, colleges, and universities; its galleries, museums, opera, symphony, art, dance, theater, food, music, performance, and literary scenes; and its hardworking, dedicated citizens. In his own account of good people in Detroit, LeDuff refers to “community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses. But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm.”37

It may be argued nonetheless that Detroit has lost control of its own representation and that a “voyeuristic pathologization” of the city has overtaken it through the proliferating images of decay that have turned the urban dystopia into a city whose “ruination bleeds metonymically into a discourse about ‘human ruins’ who are blamed for the damaged condition of their environment,” as Steinmetz suggests.3® Many outsiders, in other words, including many whites in Detroit’s suburbs, blame the city’s own population for its ruination. As an overwhelmingly black city, this racist perspective constructs the city as the nation’s “dark other” in both literal and figurative terms, a city to be isolated, feared and cut off from the body of the nation, as if ruins were not to be found in hundreds of other declining cities across America. By examining the effects of ruin images from a position that neither boosts nor criticizes the city, we may consider how ruin imagery obscures or reveals the ongoing relations of capital, power, and the city that structure the processes of ruination and its profound effects on the lives of people.

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