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

Nostalgia for the “Golden Age”

Lowell Boileau, a Detroit artist and unofficial city historian, chronicles the decline of the city in his “Fabulous Ruins of Detroit” website and picture tour, now part of a larger website called “DetroitYES!” His mission is to provide a “sympathetic telling” of the story of Detroit’s decline. Not unlike Vergara, Boileau positions Detroit’s ruins as akin to the grand ruins of the ancient world. In his website introduction, he writes, “Zimbabwe, Ephesus, El Tajin, Athens, Rome. Now, as for centuries, tourists behold those ruins with awe and wonder. Yet today, a vast and history laden ruin site passes unnoticed, even despised, into oblivion. Come, travel with me, as I guide you on a tour through the fabulous and vanishing ruins of my beloved Detroit.” Boileau’s mission statement is accompanied by a photograph of the flagship J. L. Hudson department store building in mid-implosion, a traumatic event for many Detroiters (figure 22). Located at the center of downtown, on Woodward Avenue, with twenty-eight stories and four levels of basements, it was second only to Macy’s in New York City in size and, at its busiest in the 1950s employed a staff of twelve thousand. It stood empty from the time of its closing in 1983 until its implosion in 1998, when thousands came downtown to watch.40 Boileau evokes the classical humanist aesthetic that relates architecture to the body when he likens the demolition of Hudson’s to an execution, repeatedly invoking an embodied vocabulary of pain (“wounded,” “gutted”) to describe “the proud tower” as it fell. The fragmentation and disintegration at the core of the modern deindustrial sublime must be understood as not only a mental but an embodied affect.

The sites documented on Boileau’s “fabulous tour” are divided into categories based on their type or location, including industrial ruins, downtown ruins, neighborhood ruins, and Gilded Age ruins. In a section called “The City Rises” Boileau describes successful preservation, restoration, and more recent construction projects such as the Renaissance Center, designed by John Port- man, although it was heavily critiqued as a corporate fortress when it was built during the administration of Coleman Young. Meant to revitalize Detroit as a thriving urban center and wipe out Detroit’s decay, as with the later building of gambling casinos, it instead reflected the desperate and misguided hope that Detroit would become a playground for the wealthy and boost the economy through low-wage service jobs.

While “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit” overlaps with the motives and interests of urban exploration, unlike urbex, Boileau’s website supports preservation and restoration and pursues ongoing historical inquiry and informationsharing on its interactive forums and discussions about the ruins. Sites with personal significance to Boileau are given more attention, such as Tiger Stadium before its demolition, with plans to build what is now Comerica Park

Lowell Boileau, The Proud Tower, from Requiem for Hudson’s Suite, 1998. © Lowell Boileau, DetroitYES.com

FIG. 22 Lowell Boileau, The Proud Tower, from Requiem for Hudson’s Suite, 1998. © Lowell Boileau, DetroitYES.com.

decisively condemned. As an artist, Boileau includes a section about art in the city in which he documents well-known projects such as the Heidelberg Project and various sites of anonymous street art as well as a section that allows viewers to buy Boileau’s own artworks. He also includes a section in which he recounts his travels to ancient sites such as Athens, Rome, and Zimbabwe, establishing his ruin explorer credentials as a worldwide traveler, while hinting at a nostalgic longing for Detroit’s glorious past.

Although engaging and extending Detroit’s history, such nostalgia may also obscure the fact that until the 1970s, including its imagined “golden age” in the 1920s, Detroit was subject to white rule and patterns of racial discrimination in housing and jobs that greatly contributed to the processes of black ghetto- ization and deindustrialization. In the late 1940s and 1950s, long before the

1967 riots that are typically blamed for the city’s decline, these processes were already well under way. The 1920s were, however, a time of massive wealth and growth, with more than half a million people arriving in Detroit, land annexations adding to the size of the city, and skyscrapers rising downtown. It was the era of factory growth, with Henry Ford’s River Rouge in Dearborn, southwest of Detroit, becoming the largest plant in the world; at its peak, the Rouge had ninety-three buildings and constituted the first vertical production process that began with raw materials and ended with a finished car.

Ford’s policy toward black employment was deeply discriminatory. Under pressure from black ministers, he moved black workers from the Highland Park Ford Plant to the Rouge. But he employed few blacks elsewhere and disproportionately assigned them the dirtiest, hottest, and least desirable jobs while keeping them out of the higher-paying skilled trades. After 1921 other companies had caught up to Ford’s wages, and the company instituted a regime of speedup and continual insecurity. Ford exercised a monopoly of power over the company’s black workers because other companies would not hire them.41 He established a paternalistic relationship as well, isolating black workers in the segregated town of Inkster, where he gave money to black churches and, in return, used those same loyal black ministers to screen job applicants for their antiunionism. While Ford’s paper, the Dearborn Independent, portrayed black people as beneficiaries of the “white man’s civilization,” they lived in poor bungalows with little access to basic services or decent schools. As Greg Grandin notes, “The Great Depression finally forced Ford to spend tens of thousands of dollars to rehabilitate Inkster. But it was too little, too late and served only to reinforce segregation in Dearborn, which the Ford Motor Company never contested and which lasted well into the i970s.”42 Following the victory of the 1941 Ford River Rouge strike, which brought ten thousand black workers into the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Ford cut off money to Inkster and instituted an anti-black-hiring policy at his plants. The UAW leadership, for its part, did not fight to upgrade black workers to better jobs or fight the racism that remained in its own ranks.

Black oppression in the 1920s was also enforced by the Ku Klux Klan, which grew to more than three million members nationally, with its primary support in the Midwest. Michigan had eighty thousand Klan members in the mid-i92os, mostly Protestant whites uncomfortable with Catholic and multiracial populations in the cityP3 New homes built in Detroit after the 1920s came with deed restrictions, assigned by real estate developers, which prevented black families from buying property. An attempt by Ossian Sweet and his family to move into a Polish American neighborhood in 1925 was met with a mob of more than one thousand whites who pelted the Sweet home with rocks and bottles. Sweet defended his home and fired two shots, killing one white man. A trial ensued, in which Sweet was defended by a team headed by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow. Eventually Sweet was acquitted, but housing remained segregated nonetheless.

A secretive, antiunion, antisemitic, white supremacist organization known as the Black Legion also began forming in 1925 across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, with tens of thousands of members, including many who were active in Detroit. The Black Legion was responsible for a series of beatings, kidnappings, and murders.44 At the same time, Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest at the Shrine of the Little Flower church on Woodward Avenue (north of Detroit in Royal Oak), became one of the nation’s most popular radio broadcasters. Coughlin grew increasingly antisemitic and proto-fascist, echoing the racist and antigovernment sentiments of Henry Ford. If this was a “golden age,” it was for whites only.

Likewise the 1940s, often considered a period of prosperity because of wartime production, was rife with racial tensions. A series of reactionary “hate strikes” erupted in the early 1940s in the auto plants, including a walkout by twenty-five thousand white workers protesting the upgrade of three black workers to the assembly line at the Packard Plant, where the Klan had a presence. The UAW leadership, facing a threat to the union’s existence and backed by federal officials, announced that all workers who struck against black labor would be expelled from the union and fired. This led to the dismissal of thirty whites just weeks before the 1943 riots erupted^5

While the photographs on Boileau’s website offer the opportunity for greater inquiry and dialogue, and the photos in high-end photography books such as The Ruins of Detroit, Detroit Disassembled, and Detroit: 138 Square Miles are often powerful, compelling, and intriguing, in aggregate these photographers reinforce the perspective of urban explorers for whom the industrial past often seems like another country visited from the postindustrial present. Absorbed by the romanticized horror and beauty of grand and “fabulous” ruins, beautiful decay is usually held to be inviolate, even sacralized, by a contemporary decadent consciousness that aestheticizes its own decline. The idea of preserving history becomes subordinated to the personal and subjective experience of ruin exploration—the sense of suspended time; the thrill of trespass; the drama of color, light, and weather; the scale and magnitude of industrial dereliction—fetishizing the beauty of decay while containing and controlling the anxiety of decline. As a reviewer of Taubman’s book enthusiastically exclaimed, “The imagination is stirred by the contemplation of ruins as we cast ourselves inside the post-apocalyptic future of the present.’^6

While these bodies of photography may draw sympathy and support for the city, the ruin imaginary they help to construct also isolates the seeming end of history in the dying former manufacturing center at the heart of the nation, reinforcing the effect of an “alien nation” within, even as the images make the disturbing effects of deindustrialization visible. These dual roles of ruin images thus may be seen as circumscribing the terrifying otherness of a city that already seems beyond revival while at the same time enshrining it as America’s most “fabulous” site of ruin and decay. The pained contradiction of this position is evident in the anger at the ruin tourism that is its natural outcome, the resentment aimed at “drive-by” photographers who come to gawk at the fabulous ruins but do not have to live with their everyday effects.

Ours is an age in which we are all seduced by ruins. Although they have been integral to the modern era since its beginning, how we perceive them has changed significantly from the ruins of classical antiquity to the ruins of war to the ruins of shrinking deindustrialized cities. The contemporary ruin imaginary, even as it continues to be romanticized, is nonetheless deeply imbued with the apocalyptic imagination. Its grip on contemporary consciousness is growing, not abating, as confidence in the state and the capitalist system continues to erode. Conveying “the haunting knowledge of decline,” ruin imagery has become pervasive, meditating on the collapse of past dreams of the future and suggesting the future ruin of our own present.47 Ruin imagery makes visible the effects of capitalist deindustrialization in ways that might otherwise remain invisible, even if the causes of deindustrialization are too complex to easily convey. As Dylan Trigg suggests, ruins reveal something about the time in which we live, and their decay signifies a great deal more than the abandonment of industry, shops, and houses; they also embody the steady erosion of faith in progress.

Ruin images can lament, elegize, or celebrate; they can embrace the effects of ruination as beautiful or melancholic, or they can make connections to ongoing life in the city. But they cannot disguise the halt in progress that ruins represent. This halt in progress, which evokes an eroding faith in a better future, drives the desire for the aesthetic mediation of ruination through representation. Ruin images are meant to soothe and domesticate the sense of brokenness, fragmentation, and violence at the core of ruination, producing the pleasure of the deindustrial sublime. By taking pleasure in the safely circumscribed beauty of ruins, we establish the mental distance that allows us to contain the threat of being overwhelmed, even as the growing scope of ruination is made visible. And by consigning that threat to one major city in which the scale of decay is mitigated by the seeming absence of a population, the rest of the country may be relieved of concern over that invisible population’s fate. Detroit ruin imagery thus performs a doubly reassuring function, suggesting either that the city is to blame for its own conditions or that this state of affairs is historically inevitable and no one is to blame. Either way, the dominant forces of capital as the real agents of decline become naturalized and the threat of fiscal austerities for many other towns and cities hidden from view.

 
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