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

Nature versus Culture

There is a third way to think about the presence of nature in the city, which is neither critical nor celebratory. Nate Millington, an urban geographer, asserts that plants and animals are always part of urban space, despite their wrongly assumed absence, so that nature does not “return to the city,” as the rhetoric of ruination suggests, but is always present and important to the production of urban environments. The more visible incursions of nature into the city of Detroit should be understood, argues Millington, as helping to create new urban ecologies. Because biophysical processes and human intent and knowledge are co-constitutive, “understanding nature and the city as distinct conceptual categories renders them both opaque.”1 Consequently, the intertwining of nature with urban space may be seen not as representing lack or regression but as constructing new urban spaces. Rather than view nature as a dystopian signifier, it may be seen as a way for ecology and community to intersect in new hybrid forms.

Conceiving of nature as helping to create new urban ecologies, however, does not adequately address the still evolving urban crisis in Detroit. More significant than the actual functions of nature in the city are the political repercussions of representations of nature as part of the architecturally decaying landscape. Millington argues that the metaphor of nature reclaiming the city, whether used in negative or redemptive terms, neutralizes the actual processes that have a destructive impact on a city, such as the virulent racism, antiunionism, and industrial disinvestment that are the critical factors in Detroit.2 This is important for understanding why Detroit ruin imagery contains a notable absence of people and why many observers often do not realize there are still almost seven hundred thousand residents in the city. The racist and moralizing narrative that Detroit is a poor black city that has only itself to blame for its problems is paradoxically reinforced by the general invisibility of the city’s residents. By largely “disappearing” the victims of the city’s decline, the discourse of ruination remains focused on architecture and the “reclamation” of the city by nature. This suggests either a return to a preindustrial state or a new ecological idyll—but it does not suggest a need to focus on the city’s impoverished population. Presenting a landscape that is empty and open, regressing to the past or waiting for new creative uses, displaces the discourse about people and the effects of abandonment and decay on their lives. To claim that the deindustrialization of Detroit is part of a natural cycle of history, a timeless struggle between nature and culture, ignores the real and specific political and economic factors leading to the city’s decline, which, as Millington observes, are far from “natural.”

The context of ruin photos is also critical. Reinforcing the discourse of the unpeopled city, the front page of a print edition of the New York Times, for

Detroit Ruin Images • 77

New York Times front page, “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions," with three photos of abandoned sites by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, December 4, 2013

FIG. 12 New York Times front page, “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions," with three photos of abandoned sites by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, December 4, 2013.

example, used three Detroit ruin photos to accompany the article “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions,” announcing a federal j udge’s ruling that Detroit was formally qualified to enter bankruptcy without protections for city pensions.3 Illustrating the story with a trio of photos above the fold, the top photo, taken by the French team of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, represents the iconic Michigan Central Station, an abandoned grand civic structure that has come to serve as a symbol of city failure. Below that are two more color images by Marchand and Meffre: the ballroom of the Lee Plaza Hotel with its overturned and crippled grand piano below a beautifully painted ceiling, and a water-damaged classroom at the former Saint Margaret Mary School, with peeling paint and a few desks randomly scattered about. From these photos one might imagine that Detroit was already a ghost town (figure 12).

New York Times, continuation on page 20 of “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions,” with photos of Packard Plant by Dave Jordano and courthouse demonstration by Rebecca Cook/Reuters

FIG. 13 New York Times, continuation on page 20 of “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions,” with photos of Packard Plant by Dave Jordano and courthouse demonstration by Rebecca Cook/Reuters, December 4, 2013.

Inside on page 20 is a huge black-and-white photo of the Packard Plant, in all its crumbling decrepitude. Beneath it is a much smaller photo of a demonstration outside the federal courthouse where black protesters carry signs saying “People not Banks!” and “Support Good Jobs in Detroit; Support Detroit Families; Support Detroit Pensions” (figure 13). Minimizing the active human presence and combative local response to the judge’s ruling, the frontpage trio of ruin photos—representing the failed civic monument, the opulent architecture of a once prosperous heyday, and the dashed hopes for the next generation—suggest an already dead and mummified city. This morbid view is reinforced by the boldface caption, “Visions of a Lost City.” The immediate effect is to provide ideological support for the cutting of city pensions even as those cuts are contested by the pictured protesters on the inside page. If the city is already lost, the struggle of a few workers to preserve their meager incomes is rendered insignificant and futile, if also poignant.

The larger effect is to isolate Detroit as the nation’s repository for urban nightmares. The small picture of protesters makes it clear that the “lost city” is a black city. Yet pushing through pension cuts and slashing the health benefits of city employees in Detroit will establish a precedent for public workers everywhere, so that the images also serve a disciplinary purpose. While implicitly contrasting the unpeopled city on the front page with the living cities inhabited by readers of the New York Times, these photos nonetheless reiterate key icons of the American landscape—the dilapidated civic institutions, former hotels, abandoned schools, and derelict factories found in declining towns and cities across the nation. These cities and towns are also in the process of imposing further austerities on their own impoverished populations, and seeking to cut pensions for public employees (a New York Times front-page headline the very next day announced, “Chicago Pursues Deal to Change Pension Funding”). Thus we may see the dual role of the Detroit ruin imaginary, in which the images serve as warnings of the extreme conditions to which many cities are vulnerable, thereby preparing them for their own fiscal austerities, while also presenting Detroit as an isolated example of a racialized city that is responsible for its own disastrous decline. These are flip sides of the same coin; by extension, every declining city will be blamed for its own decline, thereby justifying placing the burden of debt not on the banks and corporations but on the city’s workers.

 
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