Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Ruins of Detroit

The beauty of architectural ruins has always been inspiring for artists and writers. We can look upon the remnants of an ancient culture in Athens, Rome, Tuscany or Egypt, seeing only the beauty of what was, and none of the ghosts. The why of the ruin isn't personal to us, we played no part, we weren't alive to save it.

My maternal family is from Detroit, and many limbs of the tree still remain there. It's where my Great-Great-Great Grandmother Annie Ryan from Tipperary (who smoked a pipe a swore like sailor) met and married my Great-Great-Great Grandfather John Broquet from Switzerland in the 1860's.

The rise of Detroit's manufacturing in the last part of the 19th Century created a thriving industrial city that attracted immigrants from all over the world. At the turn of the century, with the automobile industry booming, the demand for labor lead to mass immigration. Between 1900 and 1930, the city's population soared from 265,000 to over 1.5 million. This was Detroit's Gilded Age, and it was often referred to as The Paris of The West.

The whys of what lead to Detroit's subsequent decline are many, and complicated. In the last 70 years there have been multiple components working together negatively (possibly feeding off of each other), in a tangled web of racial, economic and geographic issues. Race riots, white-flight, the decline of the American automobile industry, corrupt politics, corrupt law enforcement, rising drug use, population decline...each problem spiraling into the next, until a city once compared to The City of Light becomes the example used when explaining the concepts of the Urban Prairie (the last few moments of a city before it is swallowed by nature).

So it is much more difficult to look at the ruins of Detroit and not see the ghosts, as we are all of us sitting here as the decay takes hold. Maybe it's just something cyclical that America hasn't yet experienced. Cities occasionally die. But for some reason the sadness of photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre's photo essay “Ruins of Detroit” outweighs the beauty.


Michigan Theater now used as a parking lotphotographed by Sean Hemmerle

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