I hadn’t been near Detroit in over a decade, and had never entered the city purely to photograph it, so it seemed like a photographic journey was long overdue. For a photographer, whose primary focus is the Rust Belt and what has happened to the American landscape, it seemed ridiculous that I hadn’t fully ventured into the proverbial belly of the beast.
We’ve all heard the stories and seen the pictures of what has happened to Detroit over the past quarter century or so, so photographing it for the first time, the visuals weren’t wholly unexpected. I’m accustomed to the remains found in a Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo, and in some ways, those cities and (or) their satellite areas are sadder, because I have felt as though I have been there to witness their slow, emptying death. Detroit was different; there seemed to be a true finality about the city and its condition. There were some areas in the southern areas of Detroit that reminded me of some of the elements in the John Carpenter film, Escape From New York, in that some of the most desperate human conditions and situations were easily visible.
There is always a sadness in witnessing the slow death of a once viable American city or town, but Detroit’s “sell by” date seemed to have hit the city in the harshest sense a long time ago. When speaking to people about what I do, I sometimes use the phrase “It’s like traipsing through the ruins of a lost empire.” That was never more true than it was during the Detroit visit: beautiful, ornate, classical structures, sitting off in the distance, rotting and surrounded by overgrowth; decaying atomic age commerce, long-vacated and graffiti covered, standing like the sad totems of a once thriving community; and thousands of torn and officially vacated homes that remain half-standing. I use the term “officially,” because I would guess that many of these homes are now occupied by squatters of no official record. Many of these homes that seemed occupied off the record, looked to have gaping holes, collapsing foundations and, I would guess, no utilities. Yes, the humanity of the situation is mind-boggling.
During my two day stay, I took a wealth of photos, but I left feeling as if I’d barely been there, skimming it like a rookie. It was obvious that repeated trips will need to be made. In many Rust Belt cities, traces of past glories are being stripped and bulldozed at an alarming rate, and while Detroit surely has its share of cleared housing tracts and lots, the resources don’t seem to exist to erase these fading artifacts.
© 2011, American Elegy. All rights reserved.