Detroit's 250th anniversary, July 28, 1951
Detroit's meteoric rise and fall with the fortunes of the U.S. auto industry has made its metropolitan area the poster child for the recession. With two of three automakers in bankruptcy and the city awash in abandonment, the birthplace of Fordist industrialism is a poetic site for a dissection of the new economic moment. But in searching for a simple metaphor, the recent discourse has reduced Detroit to the manifestation of the recession.
Primarily drawing from experiences while living in Detroit in the summer of 2009, this series seeks to address this discourse by acknowledging the city's problems but then complicating them through close examination of the urban landscape. I approached the project as a sociologist and photographer who principally works on Chicago's South and West Sides in order to use previous experience as a foil to the dominant discourse. My expectation was that an understanding of the discursive processes by which much of Chicago is oversimplified would help illuminate the even more misrepresented "Motor City." Two principal themes quickly emerged.
The first appeared in the relationship between dereliction and occupation. While feelings of abandonment are pervasive in Detroit, the human experience of the city is misrepresented when decrepit houses and shuttered factories are acknowledged without integrating signs of the people who connect them. After all, actors instigate the social and economic forces, signaling that we must reframe what first appears to be merely dereliction. While vacancy may be the result of abandonment, it may also be the beginning of a planned redevelopment. Similarly, piles of garbage signal illegal dumping but also its collection, and while burnt buildings may suggest arson, they also reference its abatement. All the while, others' lives are shaped by their proximity to these actions. Dereliction, its correction and the steady current of life are fundamentally intertwined.
The second theme was clear at dusk. The city's streetlight system is crippled, and the meager illumination provided by working streetlights merely highlights the discrepancy between lightness and darkness. One consequence of this neglect is that residents often provide their own light. Porch lights and commercial floodlights punctuate darkness nearly as frequently as do public utilities. Streets take on a patchwork appearance from the hues of private light sources: the bluish whites of fluorescent signs, reds of neon gas and pale yellows of porch lights. This private provision of a public utility is begrudgingly maintained like so many other services in Detroit: perhaps as equally from altruism as protection. Consequently, the relationship between individuality and community that is obscured elsewhere by the passivity of the disinterested taxpayer is exposed by the immediate need for action.
These themes and the visual cues that represent them stand with others as reminders of the complications of the dominant discourse about Detroit and the situations of its residents. To ignore its peculiar dynamics of living with abandonment and the balancing act between personal and public life is to play into an oversimplification of the city and its suburbs. Detroit is not merely "the failure of Fordism" or "the proving ground for future society" but a unique lived presence, and, for many, home.
Two images from the series (along with three from the Isolated Building Studies) are included in Migration: Lost and Found in America (MWP Books, 2010).
View additional photographs and a longer note about the spaces between Detroit's failing streetlights on the blog.
Prints from Detroit are available directly from David.