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Home arrow Geography arrow Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline

Space and Materiality

The British geographer Tim Edensor, who has explored industrial ruins for thirty years, is a leading voice in defense of urbex and ruins as valuable sites. In Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality Edensor’s central argument is that ordinary urban space, which is constrained and regulated, breeds the desire and need for the unregulated, the transgressive, and the disordered space represented by ruins. He rejects the view of ruins as places of absence and waste that are always potentially available for exploitation and utilization. For Edensor, ruins are a welcome and necessary challenge to the overrationalization of space and regimes of surveillance in city life. The disordered, unregulated spaces of ruins and the vitality of the unconventional activities they allow, which are marginalized or forbidden elsewhere, provide an important sense of freedom. This freedom resists commodification and the dominant aesthetic order, creating new ways of thinking about space and materiality that are spontaneous and unfixed.26 Edensor differentiates his perspective on ruins from both romantic nostalgia and a gothic aesthetics of gloom in order to posit a “celebratory” view of ruins. For Edensor, ruins play a positive and upbeat role in society as spaces that are beautiful, useful, and pleasurable primarily because of the numerous liberating activities they enable.

Edensor also argues that ruins provide useful unofficial ways of remembering the past. While important critiques have been made of official commemorative or heritage sites, the alternative of decomposing ruins presents its own practical dangers and conceptual problems, as demonstrated by the ahistorical approach most urban explorers assume toward these sites.27 This aspect of Edensor’s argument therefore seems to be more of an afterthought in his defense of ruins, whose potential as sites of pleasurable exploration and unconstrained activity is his primary focus. High and Lewis critique industrial heritage tourism as part of the larger phenomenon of “dark tourism” in which the postmodern tourist, traveler, or explorer visits trauma sites of death and disaster such as Nazi death camps, former battlegrounds, sites of national catastrophe, and deindustrial ruins. But their condemnatory perspective does not sufficiently account for the intense appeal of such sites and what they may teach us.

Like the authors of Beauty in Decay, Edensor emphasizes the happy resonance of ruin exploration with childhood memories. Ruins have become so pervasive that most people in the last two or three generations are all too likely to have experience exploring abandoned factories and mills or other empty buildings in their hometowns, or to have experienced war ruins, especially in post-World War II Europe or in many places in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere today. Seeing the inner workings of architectural structures that were never meant to be seen and going into spaces never meant to be public may indeed produce new perceptions that open imaginative pathways not as readily accessible to those who grow up in well-ordered and rationalized spaces. Seeing the hidden infrastructure of a city may provide insight into the social order, especially when it is a result of war. In this regard, Lebbeus Woods, architect and author of War and Architecture, observes, “[The form of ruins] must be respected as integrity, embodying a history that must not be denied. In their damaged states they suggest new forms of thought and comprehension, and suggest new conceptions of space that confirm the potential of the human to integrate itself, to be whole and free outside of any predetermined totalizing system. There is an ethical and moral commitment in such an existence and therefore a basis for community.’^8 For Woods, as for Edensor, the ability to escape a totalizing system of regulated space offers a form of freedom that is central to the fascination with and respect for modern ruins.

Yet the “history that must not be denied” that Woods finds in war ruins is hardly critical for Edensor or other contemporary urban explorers. On the contrary, Edensor refuses to even identify the locations of the ruins pictured in Industrial Ruins, offering this explanation: “The particular geographical locations of the ruins featured here are . . . not important to this endeavour, for assumptions about their embeddedness in imaginary geographies are likely to provide unwelcome interference with the more generic points I wish to make. That is why none of the photographs are labeled, for it is my wish that they evoke individual responses amongst readers without their being contextualized by surplus information.”29 Edensor plainly privileges the sensual immanence of the ruin and the subjective individual response and deliberately avoids “distracting” the reader with any social, political, or historical context. He also lists twenty-seven towns and cities where he has personally encountered industrial ruins but informs the reader that “this is the last time I shall refer to their location, for the argument of the book would be less pertinent if they were accompanied by this superfluous geographical information.”30 By generalizing and mythologizing ruins, Edensor avoids examining the ruin’s relationship to the present and evades any meaningful connections to history, let alone to any “history that must not be denied.” As High and Lewis observe, “In universalizing his gaze, Edensor strips these former industrial sites of their history and their geography just as surely as the departing companies, entrepreneurs, and trophy hunters stripped the sites of their assets.’^1 History itself becomes “surplus information.”

In making his case for the liberating and noncommercial uses of ruined spaces, Edensor includes activities such as “plundering” (the stripping of machinery, furniture, copper wire, architectural details, and other assets by “strippers” for profit) and “home-making” (ruins as shelter for the homeless) as well as adventurous play and the use of space by drug users, rave-goers, sex workers, and those who enjoy smashing things. He notes the pleasure of exploring architecture for its “adventuresome physicality” and “the thrill of the risk entailed”; the taking of photographs and writing of blogs; the mundane leisure practices, such as walking a dog, “tethering grazing ponies,” growing vegetables and fruit, cultivating marijuana plants, dumping rubbish, and using the space as a free car park; and the use of the space by graffiti artists, artists using found materials, and filmmakers. In Edensor’s elaboration of all the liberating, creative, playful, and social things one can do in ruins, it is more than a little disquieting when he includes on his list “lawless pursuits” such as sorting out stolen goods. Since one of the prime virtues of ruins is that they exist away from the prying eyes of conventional society, Edensor recognizes this as a common activity and writes approvingly:

Ruins are ideal places to empty the contents of stolen handbags and safes. More evidently, they are sites to which stolen cars and motorbikes can be taken. At once, the goods yards and factory floors provide an environment where cars can be driven and the layout of obstacles can serve as improvised circuits for adventurous forms ofjoyriding. Wooden doors can be driven through in emulation of spectacular actions from television and cinema, adjacent objects can be collided with and sent flying, and vehicles can be skidded, turned over, set alight

and detonated.32

Moving seamlessly from dumping the contents of stolen handbags to joyriding in stolen cars around factory floors, Edensor describes these activities as forms of high-spirited fun without critical pause. He seems exuberant over ruins as “ideal places” for assessing stolen booty or acting out “spectacular actions from television and cinema” and apparently has no concern for those whose handbags, safes—presumably acquired as a result of home invasion— cars, and motorcycles have been so blithely stolen, or for the ethics of such theft. These issues appear to be too insignificant for Edensor to even mention in comparison to the giddy excitement that release from bourgeois constraints provides; instead, theft is valorized and included as part of the “possible alternative eco-centric, artistic and social futures in the city” that ruins can provide.33 Yet such a lawless future resonates not with happy childhood memories and aspirations of creative freedom but with postapocalyptic survival scenarios in which constant menace and threat are the rule. Indeed, ruins and abandoned structures are not only “ideal places” for enjoying stolen goods but also for people to be dragged into and raped, beaten, robbed, and murdered, events which occur all too often. Such an irresponsible attitude and unethical perspective deeply undermines Edensor’s more serious arguments. Dangers such as these are represented in Curtis Hanson’s 2002 film 8 Mile, which is set in Detroit. The lead character, played by Eminem, and his friends identify a vacant home as the source of neighborhood problems, including a rape, and burn it down to prevent future occurrences. A similar event takes place in the 2012 documentary Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit, directed by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez, about Detroit firefighters and the challenges they face.

While Edensor’s ethics are at best fuzzy, his understanding that ruins provide unregulated and unpoliced space free from bourgeois convention is key to what thousands of urbexers find so appealing. But it must be understood that this view of ruins, although patently ahistorical, is not apolitical. While Edensor is cognizant of the destabilizing effects of economic decline, he nonetheless regards decline itself as historically inevitable and cyclical: “Industrial ruins deride the pretensions of governments and local authorities to maintain economic prosperity and hence social stability, and give the lie to those myths of endless progress. . . . Instead, ruins demonstrate that these processes are inexorably cyclical, whereby the new is rapidly and inevitably transformed into the archaic; what was vibrant is suddenly inertT4

Edensor attributes the myth of “endless progress” and the boom-and-bust cycle not to capitalism itself but to the pretensions of government and local authorities who obscure the true nature of unchangeable economic processes.

This political perspective explains the “celebratory” nature of Edensor’s view of ruins because he regards them as part of a natural process, which cannot be helped or hindered. Ruins are fun and even capable of gesturing toward a utopian future that is distinguished from the present only by greater individual freedom within the ruins of the present system. This is utopian indeed, as all evidence points to greater surveillance and control under the present system, with the growth of ruins suggesting greater impoverishment, not greater freedom. The dichotomy Edensor sets up is not between freedom and capitalism, which cannot support the populations it rules, but between individual rights and government authorities, a middle-class form of personal rebellion. Defending ruins as havens and countersites to the normative bourgeois order thus assumes and reifies this order even as it justifies lawless practices as a rejection of authority. The logic of Edensor’s argument suggests not only a mythologizing and romanticizing of ruins but the active preservation of ruins in the sense that they should be left to decay on their own. Edensor hesitates to make this case only briefly, on the grounds that “it seems cranky to argue that decay should be succoured,” before concluding, “There is a case for a politics which allows them [ruins] to remain, to crumble at their own pace.”35

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