At the National Building Museum, a controversial set of two new photography exhibits asks us to consider whether a city can die, whether districts of ruined, abandoned buildings reverting back to nature can define a city that still has a population of 700,000 people. The answer is no: Detroit is still alive, but perhaps shamed by its decline. At a presentation by two photographers — Camilo Jose Vergara and Andrew Moore — Detroit was viewed as a warning of things to come, a modern-day Necropolis or city of the dead, but fortunately this storyline doesn’t tell the whole tale about that city.
Vergara, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, sociologist by training, and also an evocative photographer, covers the process of decay in many cities in the U.S. Each year, he travels to cities like Camden, Chicago, and Detroit, to document how “time, elements, scavengers, and people” do “whatever they do to fine buildings.” In Detroit, he has taken series of photographs showing the decay of the same few buildings over time. Year and year, Vergara comes back because he’s fascinated by “what is going to happen” to these buildings. “Some are engulfed in vegetation or become ruins.”
The Chilean photographer has spent a lot of time at the old Ford Packard Plant, which once churned out the cars and trucks that populated Detroit’s streets and all of America’s arteries. Once the factory closed, the mile-long building became home to over 200 businesses, beginning in the early 90s. However, those businesses seemed more focused on disassembling or scavenging. “This was now the place you took your car to be taken apart and turned into scraps.” Other businesses collected old shoes or cardboard boxes to be reused or recycled.
In a view of the old plant Vergara returns to year after year, he documents a time when there were “wild parties” organized within the walls, organized via pagers, to a period of partial demolition, to nature eventually taking over again.
Now, it’s a dangerous place filled with scavengers and homeless people. “Fires have further weakened the structures.” But a theme both Moore and Vergara returned to again is that this place and others in Detroit are also sites of creative rebirth. Within all the decay, it has become a “museum of graffiti,” where any graffiti artist of note wants to have a piece.
For Moore, a leading contemporary large-format photographer, the process of documenting Detroit’s glorious ruins are like “mental blueprinting.” His father is an architect and he grew up with the idea that “you can tell a story through a space.” He says that “buildings are an incorruptible witness of history.” Buildings inflect history; buildings can’t lie, whereas the faces of people can tell lots of different stories.
Like Vergara, Moore takes photographs of cities undergoing change, even if that change is destructive. His work has spanned New York City’s Time Square and Fulton Fish Market areas over the years. In early 2008, he began to really take photos of Detroit and was at once “amazed by the quality of the architecture.” He sees the ruins as particularly “emotionally charged” because that city’s fall is so recent.
In the Ford company’s Dry dock building, where Henry Ford first worked as an apprentice, “one guy is now living there, with a wind screen up to block the cold air.” (The historic building is now slated for condos).
A grand old theater that opened in 1928 with an appearance by Gloria Swanson is now “damaged by water, neglect.” The muted palette of the buildings create a sense of “loneliness, desolation, and abandonment.”
Both Vergara and Moore also see a “surreal” quality of the city. A theater with an amazingly beautiful ceiling was turned into a parking lot, because it was more cost-effective than tearing it down. Nature is also seen as playing a key role in creating the surreal effect. “Wherever there is a void, nature returns in full force.” For example, what Moore thinks is Henry Ford’s old corner office is now covered in moss. An old post office building’s roof has caved in. The space was once a depot for storing old books. Those books have decomposed and turned into mulch and now provide a foundation for birch trees that grow out of the hole in the roof.
Within this landscape, Moore said, there’s also good and bad. “There are black hats and white hats. The black hats are interested in destruction, blowing things up. The white hats looking at documenting, taking photos.”
Both photographers, who almost seem to view buildings as living things – with their own cycle of life and death, said the ruins are “always changing over time. Ruins aren’t static.” Vergara, though, also thinks that the ruins are indicative of what “we’ve done to the earth. The ruins are the future. I’ve internalized what I’ve seen. It has energized my life, but it isn’t positive. The experience of these desolate places has marked me.”
And while both do include photos of living people (occasionally), both said people in these places are few and far between. In their tours, there just weren’t people walking around. And perhaps because of this, both feel a greater responsibility towards the buildings — and to document the buildings, instead of the people who created them and let them decay. Vergara said: “I feel a responsibility to all those buildings. I have to know what’s going to happen to them.” By shining a “strong light on their ruin, we can bring attention to what’s happening here. That’s positive.”
For Carolyn Mitchell, a Detroit native and now Washington, D.C. resident who attended the lecture and was interviewed after, the photographers “only showed the death, but not the life of the city.” The exhibits were “misleading.” She said some great buildings were always well-maintained and others have been newly restored. “We have some of the greatest Art Deco buildings in the U.S.” Still, the exhibits brought back “memories of how the city once was.”
Many neighborhoods are still maintained like those in any other city and are real, thriving places. In neighborhoods like Woodbridge and Corktown, “homes have porch swings. There are lots of community gardens. Neighbors know each other.” This narrative isn’t really out there. The story of nature taking over, both positively in the form of urban farming and new forests, and, negatively, in the form of decay, may not be accurate. As Mitchell argued, “nature has always been in the city.”
In their presentations, Moore and Vergara admitted that they have received criticism from the local community, and there’s no way the exhibits will ever be shown there. As the moderator John Beardsley, head of the landscape studies program at Dumbarton Oaks and a professor at Harvard University, said, “well, these photos don’t paint the best portrait of the city.”
Mitchell also thinks that the photographers failed to place the ruins in a historical context. She said the exhibits could have been more powerful had they shown “the before and after, what the city once looked like, how fabulous it once all was.”
In the end, the photographs then don’t answer the real question: What happened? Why did Detroit fail while other large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles renewed themselves? Mitchell, who used to work for the Detroit city government, said it was a real “lack of vision, leadership” at the top. A series of corrupt mayors and their cronies stymied positive change and drove out business owners. City services declined with mismanagement and a falling tax base. And while there are a number of non-profits coming in to create bottom-up, community-led visions, “these can’t really replace the lack of vision from the mayor.” Detroit sounds like any other big city — with its mistakes, but not dead yet.
Image credits: (1-3) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara, (4-7) Copyright Andrew Stone, (8) Copyright Camilo Jose Vergara