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Detriot's Beautiful, Horrible Decline
March 13, 2009 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Detroit's Beatiful, Horrible Decline: Photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre's work in Motor City. More photography capturing abandoned properties in Detroit. (Previously, and more previously)
posted by rollbiz (56 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is rapidly becoming cliched.
posted by GuyZero at 12:31 PM on March 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


As linked by turgid dahlia yesterday in the $1-house thread.
posted by box at 12:35 PM on March 13, 2009


sigh..... This type of media coverage doesn't really help much...

I'm starting to feel like I live in a third world country where all the media outlets send news teams and photographers to take pictures of the street kids begging, the buildings destroyed by the latest war/blight/earthquake, the carnage and collapse of the economy, infrastructure, and the people of what was once a beautiful place.... media gawkers going by a terrible accident.

And, I really believe it gives the rest of the country a reason to just give up on Detroit, and, on Michigan.....

Yes, the photographs are stunning and moving...but which direction do they move the viewer to?
posted by HuronBob at 12:35 PM on March 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


reminds me of a Crumb poster.
posted by Bernt Pancreas at 12:36 PM on March 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sorry HuronBob, I certainly didn't mean it to be like that. I thought the photos were stunning is all.
posted by rollbiz at 12:43 PM on March 13, 2009


It should be noted that many of these buildings have been vacant for decades. The Packard Plant made it's last car in 1956. Detroit has been dying for a long time, but it's more noticed amongst the other urban decay nation-wide.

These two reminded me of Magnetic Rose (one of the 3 episodes of the fantastic anime Memories).
posted by filthy light thief at 12:44 PM on March 13, 2009


You know what's rougher and more horrifying than Detroit? The small post-industrial cities with so little to offer the rest of the country that there's nothing left for them to do but wither and die.

It sounds perverse but this constant attention paid to Detroit as the poster child of America's industrial decline is probably the best thing that could happen to it. People are traveling there, movies are being filmed there, publicity is being extended to the industries there. Every wasteland-themed photo gallery, every Detroit-as-metaphor think piece, every foreign journalist using it as the base of operations for their reportage on America in Crisis is fueling global interest in the place. Flint, Youngstown, Toledo, and a hundred other cities don't even have this morbid tourism to count on, only their remaining heavy industrial firms and, in some cases, not even that.
posted by ardgedee at 12:44 PM on March 13, 2009 [10 favorites]


This is rapidly becoming cliched.

I don't mean to poo-poo the photos in this link--they're pretty much gorgeous--but they are fairly straightforward documents. I'd love to see a more focused artistic exploration of the turf; you know, get over the sublimity of what you're seeing and fashion something individual to the photographer's vision.

It's been something I've been talking about doing with another photographer friend (who has been shooting abandoned hospitals for some time). Since we're foreigners to Detroit, it's a bit intimidating as a project though.

Are there guides/sherpas for exploring Detroit's ruins?
posted by pokermonk at 12:45 PM on March 13, 2009


What was Detroit like before the explosion of the automotive industry?
posted by pyrex at 12:51 PM on March 13, 2009


Even Detroit's residents do this sort of dustsceawung... I don't think it's disrespectful for outsiders to come and do the same.
posted by shii at 12:57 PM on March 13, 2009


This is urban decay in Worcester, MA where I live.
posted by rollbiz at 12:58 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Flint, Youngstown, Toledo, and a hundred other cities don't even have this morbid tourism to count on, only their remaining heavy industrial firms and, in some cases, not even that.

Too true. Nobody gives a crap about St. Louis, a city that's lost more than half its population since 1950. I guess it's not as dramatic, since STL was never "The Arsenal of Democracy," and you don't have the same sort of "city built by cars undone by cars" narrative. But my old hometown has been neck and neck w/ Detroit on murder rate for quite some time. In fact, a few years back I think we won the title from them in an America's-Cup-style upset. Yaaaaay! We're Number 1!

I've written about the plight of STL here before, so no real reason to repeat.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:05 PM on March 13, 2009


I think the worst thing about these photos is the repeated line, "everything you see in these photos were left behind and demolished with the building."

There's a lot of really, really great stuff in there. Aside from the obvious historical and cultural losses (You don't bulldoze the fucking Motown building, fuckwad!), all that stuff could have sold for a hell of a lot of money even without the Motown associations. Demolitionists are dumb.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:11 PM on March 13, 2009


Beautiful photos, reminds me that I need to tackle the back garden this weekend.
posted by Elmore at 1:12 PM on March 13, 2009


Just how I always thought the end of Western civilisation would look.

But with less zombies.
posted by badrolemodel at 1:14 PM on March 13, 2009


The economy must really be bad when Time can't afford to incorporate a decent slide viewer into their website.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:15 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Urban Decay in Providence
posted by mkb at 1:22 PM on March 13, 2009


I am going to have Detroit circumcised I think.
posted by Mister_A at 1:25 PM on March 13, 2009


"This is rapidly becoming cliched."

Dude, hang out with Wayne State photo students sometime. While these were some great images, everyone who has any sort of clue as a photographer, and enough balls to go to places where they're not exactly wanted, gets great images. Living outside of Detroit, it's been a cliche for years.
posted by klangklangston at 1:37 PM on March 13, 2009


Good lord! It looks like an empty house I would have want to have explored as a kid, only it's a whole city!
posted by anniecat at 1:38 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


> What was Detroit like before the explosion of the automotive industry?

You'd have to go back to 1904. Detroit was a hub of the auto industry largely because it had already been serving as an industrial port. Metal ore came from the north en route to factories on the Great Lakes and eastern seaboard, so raw materials were cheap and the facilities and people needed for heavy industry were present and available.
posted by ardgedee at 1:39 PM on March 13, 2009


OCP have their work cut out for them.
posted by Artw at 1:40 PM on March 13, 2009 [6 favorites]


Okay, someone had to say it:

Detroitfilter?
posted by jester69 at 1:48 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not only industrial town, but old farm towns are shrinking to nothing, and well before this current economic downturn. I don't know if it's factory farms making the family farm obsolete or the next generations being drawn to bigger cities, but little pockets of history are falling into ruin all over the mid-west. I visited some towns of my grandparents past with my grandmother, and we drove through town after town with populations of less than 1,000 people. It was just sad to think of people clamoring for homes in California while houses were grown over by weeds in these areas, and see town centers vacant and forlorn.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:49 PM on March 13, 2009


There's a lot of really, really great stuff in there.

To me, that's the great puzzle of it. There are items inside the buildings that have tremendous value to a lot of people, and even the buildings themselves are glorious, beautiful things... But for whatever reason they're overwhelmingly abandoned or deemed worthless. Why can't these things of value be connected with someone who finds them valuable (and can do something about it)?

I'd say the unique thing about these swathes of Detroit is the concentrated frequency of the abandonment, not just that it happens. Every city deals with it on some level and skirts along the edge of that decline of civic mortality. We're never too far from slipping further in. That is: I don't think it's a freak show, as much as it is an oracle.

It's essentially the Ozymandias parable: no matter how colossal and immortally valuable something seems to be, there will come a point when its time is done. But the irony/tale of its dead glory is what makes it live forever.

...I just watched the first season of Breaking Bad last night and Walt's little pillow talk (it's a pun!) about how he wants to be remembered is coloring my reading of this I think: the idea of not wanting to be remembered as the shriveling process of extending your life by minutes, but wanting to be remembered for your life at strength and your ultimate demise. I dunno... I'm endlessly fascinated by this.

None of this is to say that Detroit as a region/civic body can't come back to life in a new form, or even stave off its "cancer". And I honestly think the one thing that is more enthralling than a corpse is a revival; probably for the same personal allegory it represents.
posted by pokermonk at 1:57 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


...
posted by joe lisboa at 1:58 PM on March 13, 2009


This stuff is really nothing new for Detroit. Sure it's still in decline but is was way before the current mess.
posted by PHINC at 2:06 PM on March 13, 2009


What I find fascinating is that on the web there are so many sites that show photos of ruins of stuff--playgrounds, drive-in theatres etc from some time ago, but the interest in ruins and decay seems still of interest so that we get a bit hooked on our very recent ruins. However, despite the fact that the car industry has gone or is going down the tubes, the population of Detroit has remained fairly stable. Why this is is beyond me...and I do know a couple who buy properties, fix them, resell them. Asked about that sort of thing--they do Detroit--the woman said: homes are cheap. We buy, fix a bit and rent. People may not own their homes any longer but they still have to live somewhere so we make our money on renting.

What is going on in the Muslim community(ies)? Detroit area iws home to a very large percentage of Muslims in America. Are they in the same trouble?
posted by Postroad at 2:30 PM on March 13, 2009


It was just sad to think of people clamoring for homes in California while houses were grown over by weeds in these areas, and see town centers vacant and forlorn.

Sad to the residents and former residents; but towns and even cities have been crumbling to dust since they began being built. Population patterns change, and we can't preserve everything. Nor do we really need to preserve every town.

Deciding when to stop fighting is the hard part. It would be nice if we could at least preserve some of Detroit's former glory.
posted by emjaybee at 2:39 PM on March 13, 2009


Thanks, ardgedee. Does anyone know if there's comparable cities that have had essentially the same thing happen to them, but managed to recover/stabilize by, say, adopting new industries as economic pillars or even turning the negative into something positive?
posted by pyrex at 2:54 PM on March 13, 2009



This is rapidly becoming cliched.

Detroit as a hideous decayed city was a running gag in Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). So I'd say this became cliched a very long time ago. But I'm still fascinated. And the photos make me wonder what Detroit was like when it was a great city. And when did the decay start? I would have thought that the rise of Japanese automakers in combination with the oil crisis caused the demise.... but 1977 is only four years after the first oil crisis, and before Japanese automakers got a real market share in the US. What gives?

Oddly, all I can think of when I see those images is "why haven't people scavenged all that metal/wood in the building?" I mean, that stuff is just sitting there. It has some value.
posted by molecicco at 2:59 PM on March 13, 2009


mkb, I browsed that site and found that the partially abandoned building I inhabited for a couple of years is actually one of the few in Eagle Square that not only is still standing, but is being converted into luxery condos. I am oddly feeling a little sad seeing my old home lose some of its dilapidated charm, in the face of what is obviously good news, especially given the fact that I was hunkered down in my unheated space while the other beautiful building around me were being demolished. (RIP Fort Thunder etc.) I'm honestly uncomfortable about felling so conflicted when the reality is I should be rejoicing.
posted by stagewhisper at 3:13 PM on March 13, 2009


I lived in the suburbs of Detroit and it was wonderful for us in the 1960's and 1970's. As I got a little older (1979-1983), I remember downtown Detroit being a vibrant, cool place to go. We were always going to concerts downtown, weekend ethnic festivals at Hart Plaza with great food and beer, and pub crawling in Hamtramck. There were "bad" neighborhoods and we went to them sometimes to get things we couldn't get in the suburbs but we never got our asses kicked. If anyone needed an ass whippin' it was my friends and I around age 17 or 18.

I remember things being bad in the economy in the late 1970's. It seemed like all my friends Dads worked for the car companies or some industry that depended on the car companies. I really don't remember anyone getting laid off although it had to have been happening. By the time I left in 1983, there were lots of jokes about the last one to leave turning off the lights, etc.

That's my two cents. So I remember it when it was a cool place to a teenager / young adult but the city's real glory days were already behind it then.
posted by marxchivist at 3:16 PM on March 13, 2009


Some more Detroit pictures.

I lived in Detroit from 1997 to 2002. It'll always hold a soft spot for me.
posted by Windigo at 3:46 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, judging by the press, Detroit may have a better shot than New Orleans.
posted by captainsohler at 4:03 PM on March 13, 2009


Oddly, all I can think of when I see those images is "why haven't people scavenged all that metal/wood in the building?" I mean, that stuff is just sitting there. It has some value.

Don't worry, they'll get to it. It's an ongoing thing.

My dad, who lives in Detroit in a neighborhood that is more than half abandoned, was startled to hear some noise on the side of his house. He went outside to... uh... investigate (armed) and found someone ripping his aluminum siding off. The dude quickly saw the error of his ways ("I didn't think anyone lived here man!!!!") and took off.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 4:40 PM on March 13, 2009


I've lived on the outskirts of Detroit for my entire life, and my earliest memories of going into the city proper, probably around 1985 to see a Tiger's game are even marked by the thought of it being in trouble. When the stadium closed and nobody was going to buy it, i thought this... and again when i heard that our government was so resistant to giving aid to the auto industry [especially after banks whom were trusted but failed were being given loads of money without any proof or oversight on how they would be using the money to maintain their industry.] But i'm getting off track here.

The interesting thing to see when i go to Detroit isn't how they're saving any of it, it's seeing where they're figuring to plan to build. It appears there's plenty of spots that will not get any help because of their geographical reputation... Corktown (the area around the original Tiger's Stadium) was well off and surrounded by businesses once upon a time, but since the stadium closed there has been more and more closed doors in the area. Just a mile east of this though, right where a good size skyscraper (the Compuware Center) has been put up, there are other signs of investment like the MGM Grand Casino, new repaved roads and smaller business huddling around it. These are starts, but the fact remains that Detroit is not in any condition currently to bring many new residents into it.

Basically it appears that Detroit has been the victim of overtly being contrasted when it comes to the development, so that veins of trust appear to investors, and anything on or close to Woodward is much more likely to be invested in. The investments need to bring more low-middle class housing more than any large-scale development at this point, as there's still a gigantic suction of people moving out of the city... even if they are more willing to drive down for entertainment or whatever.

I still love Detroit.
posted by phylum sinter at 5:15 PM on March 13, 2009


Every city deals with it on some level and skirts along the edge of that decline of civic mortality. We're never too far from slipping further in. That is: I don't think it's a freak show, as much as it is an oracle.

Exactly, and I wanted to mention this earlier but I couldn't find the words. I'm glad you did.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see lots of "2nd cities", the Buffalos and the Sacramentos and so on, winding up in this state if this economic situation carries on much longer. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised to see some "1st cities" like NYC looking something like this in some vulnerable sections. I could see my beloved city, Worcester, turning the corner from quaint dumpy to post-apocalyptic dumpy without stretching my imagination.

When I was saying to HuronBob that I didn't mean this as a "Look at how shitty Detroit is" post, I meant it, and what I meant instead was exactly what pokermonk said, with a bit of additional flavor added. I feel that these pictures, and most importantly these places, should serve as a memorial and a lesson, but what the lesson is I'm still not exactly sure.
posted by rollbiz at 7:39 PM on March 13, 2009


One of my favorite cities in the US... I'll see you in May, Detroit. Please don't die, I need you.

I need your musical genius.
I need your 24-hour halal food joints and hookah bars.
I need your rich cultural history.
I need your past/present/future hodgepodge of architecture and decay.
I need you to prove the people that scoff that you are greater than the sum of your scavenged parts.

I love you, Detroit. Rise from the ashes like a phoenix and I will be the first to toast your renaissance!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 8:13 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sad to the residents and former residents; but towns and even cities have been crumbling to dust since they began being built. Population patterns change, and we can't preserve everything. Nor do we really need to preserve every town.\

Perhaps, but this sort of change is not caused by an inscrutable force of nature, like glaciation. It's caused by people and their policies. Detroit's decline is a result of neglect.

I would be interested into some insight into why Detroit is imploding. I seem to recall reading that Detroit's decline is mainly focused on the suburbs, and that the downtown has become more vibrant.

Where are these pictures being taken? Next door to the GM World Headquarters in Detroit? I think not.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:16 PM on March 13, 2009


Americans don't like living in cities. There. I said it, and I'm living in a city.

Cities are expensive - you are taxed to hell and gone, you pay as much in rent for a cramped little fourth floor walk-up converted attic as the suburbanites are paying monthly for a house-with-backyard mortgage. The little grocer nearby charges six bucks for a small box of Cheerios.

Cities are inconvenient - Parking is impossible, city streets are notoriously neglected which means your car is in the shop more often, and you are taxed to hell and gone for owning one, and that's not even counting your parking tickets. Taking public transport means wasting time for a bus or train to arrive, and being stuck when the buses shut down for the night, unless you like paying for a cab. Hope you like getting wet and cold, because that's what happens when you walk the six blocks from the bus stop to your apartment.

Cities are uncomfortable - Noise, constantly, day and night. You know what your neighbors are up to, the music they like, the TV and movies they watch, the arguments they have, because you can hear all of it clearly through the walls, floor and ceiling. You can also hear the constant honk-and-diesel-roar of traffic, the shouting of drunks staggering home every night of the week, the rumble-squeal of aboveground rail transit. Your apartment is in a shabby three-plus-one floor tenement, in endless square miles of identical shabby three-plus-one floor tenements, or in a brick or concrete cube that houses a hundred identical two bedroom flats. (You have a nice loft, or a lovely brownstone? You're rich, and you don't understand what it's like for the middle class to live in the city.)

Cities are dangerous - Your car will be broken into and ransacked. So will your apartment, if you're on the first floor. You will be menaced by aggressive pan-handlers (I'm 6'2" and 330lbs, and as soon as I trade my grubby jeans and leathers for dockers and loafers, they start following me around, loud and angry. It's much worse for my SO.) You will be in an accident - you just will. City drivers are the worst, and after you live there a while, you fall into bad habits, and become a city driver. The air is terrible, and you will develop, or have worsen, allergies and asthma. Public schools are crowded, underfunded and understaffed. Your kids are on their own in a lord-of-the-flies sort of way.

If you are young and romantic, the cultural rewards - art, music, food - that a city offers are magnificent enough to ignore you're living in what someone in the suburbs would consider poverty. If you're rich or upper-upper-middle class, it's also a fine place to be.

If you're middle class, trying to save money for your retirement and your kid's college tuition and want to eke out a little comfort, valuing elbow room and quiet and safety, you get the hell out of the city. You realize you can't bring three kids to the trendy new bistro, or to the "New Voices" open mic at the bar. You do the math, and own a house in a good school district, and then sell it in fifty years to fund the retirement home. The kids like Pizza Hut once a month and on Report Card Day better than Armenian-Peruvian fusion cuisine, and they like a back yard to tear around in better than being cooped up until the prescribed hour-at-the-playground.

Americans have the space, and when they're not being dickheads about buying megatitanic penis compensatory devices*, the automotive lifestyle is economical and comfortable for the vast majority of the middle class.

Until cities are made livable - comfortable, practical and thrifty - more and more once-proud cities will slowly die. Rochester, Manchester, New Bedford, Baltimore, Jacksonville, and I'm sure you know of one near you.

(*Mazda 5! Kia Rio! Honda Fitt! Subaru Forester! Toyota RAV 4! Ford Escape Hybrid! These are the vehicles of men with gigantic members who can please three ladies at once. The Dodge Ram or Hummer H2, not so much. "Dude, you had to =buy= a hummer? How sad.")
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:22 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh boy. Detroit as a symbol of American decay AND a goldmine for photographers of decay.

Personally, as an amateur photographer, I stopped taking photographs of urban decay thirty years ago. Beautiful stuff there, but it's hard to get past the cliches.

And, in reference to previous posts: Saint Louis, where I grew up. Sigh. I grew up in the suburbs, and even then, in the Sixties, the city was doomed. Unlike Denver, where i live, and where a fellow Midwesterner marveled, ""It's like a party every night downtown," St. Louis always closed down at night. And they voted down every school bond increase for fitfty years.

Denver has voted for every tax increase for schools.

Detroit has been a fixation on Metafilter. But...what about Akron, Ohio, just to pick a name out of the blue? Or, Richmond, Indiana, where I spent six years?

And, on an even more downbeat note, what about the thousands of small towns with mostly shuttered storefronts...?

Those small towns are a little too depressing for photo-essays. (OK, I've seen quite a few.) Many in my state, in E. Colo.
posted by kozad at 9:35 PM on March 13, 2009


Until cities are made livable - comfortable, practical and thrifty - more and more once-proud cities will slowly die.

That should really say "American cities". Your list of woes is more about America's unique urban donut problem than cities in general.
posted by dydecker at 9:47 PM on March 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


a little too depressing for photo-essays.

You know, there really is no such thing, and I say that lovingly.
posted by longsleeves at 11:54 PM on March 13, 2009


I also did a post on Marchand and Meffre two years ago, mainly worth reading now for the fine links others added to it.
posted by melissa may at 3:21 AM on March 14, 2009


Perhaps, but this sort of change is not caused by an inscrutable force of nature, like glaciation. It's caused by people and their policies. Detroit's decline is a result of neglect.

yeah, but every city exists for a reason. and it's usually something pretty practical, like because it is close to resources (minerals, timber, good farmland) and at a good location for transport (a port, a river, etc). if the reason for a city disappears, then the city will go too.... unless you are extremely creative and smart about it, and even then you've only got a half a shot at it. so i would say the slow decline of the US auto industry is, more or less, a natural event that's killing off detroit. it's like an exaggerated mining town running out of ore.

perhaps the "lesson" referred to by rollbiz is that cities don't always grow, sometimes they shrink, and that's just how it is. and we should learn how to recognize when this process has started, and gracefully accomodate the decrease in population/businesses instead of desperately trying to get it to grow again and giving up.
posted by molecicco at 3:48 AM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm a St. Louisan myself, and have lived here my entire life, except for my adventurous days in the military. The North County blight was there 28 years ago when I was looking for my first apartment (and trying NOT to join the military). I saw an ad for a 3-bedroom apartment in the bad area of North County and was amazed at how cheap it was. I went there and it was a pretty rough neighborhood, crack dealers up and down the street. The apartment itself was actually not too bad, but holy crap, no way could I, a white dude, live there. I'm not some racist asshole, but when you're the ONLY white dude within a mile, living on a street full of crack dealers, well, that just didn't look very survivable. Yet that apartment was the best I could afford, so that fact decided my fate for me: the Army got my services in return for food, shelter, clothes, a little pay, and some training. And some disciprine, as Stan Marsh would say.

Now I live in the city, but fifty feet away is the county. My neighborhood, where I've now been for nigh 20 years, is really quite nice, one of those upper middle-class quiet areas one block away from vibrant city life. Within one block of me: Forest Park (one of the nicest public parks in the country), a movie theater, a gas station, a bank, a Chinese restaurant, a taco joint, a bar, and a Subway store. Within one mile: a grocery store, a big movie theater, two drugstores, several more gas stations, many restaurants, two hospitals, and much more. I mean, really, if I was willing to walk a mile or two, I'd not need a car at all most weeks. As it is, between us, my significant other and I put a mere 3500 miles on the car in the entirety of last year. We could have walked those miles (but we're lazy).

North County still has the same old blighted areas. The city is a little nicer than it once was though, especially downtown with the new stadium and other construction. St. Louis is not going to end up like going down as hard as Detroit has. It feels like St. Louis City has more or less hit bottom and has been on a very slow and very mild upswing for the last five years or so. There's really nowhere to go but up anymore. The only thing that'd cause St. Louis to end up like Detroit would be if the Mississippi River dried up. As long as the river's there, there will always be a reason for St. Louis to exist, in one form or another.
posted by jamstigator at 4:32 AM on March 14, 2009


jamstigator - that sounds pretty cool! Where do you live? Demun?

Yeah, I don't want to make STL sound completely apocalyptic. In fact, when people in NYC bitch about gentrification, I always tell them to move to a place like STL, which is plenty cheap and quite frankly would be grateful for some gentrification.

I actually had a pretty good time of it back when I lived there. I left my parents' place in the suburbs at a young age (15) to live and hang out in the city. Had some good wild times, mostly in and around U City and South Grand. (was a little young to appreciate the Central West End) I never got mugged or anything, even though I did spend some time living in one of the dreaded North County crack neighborhoods. But then again, I drove a beat-up car and never looked like I had any money. (I didn't)

It was weird, though. STL certainly had its share of urban ruins. You look at them and you look at the arch and you think about how at one point in time, STL was a growing city, with a thriving corporate/industrial base. Kinda weird and sad.

I have heard STL did catch a bit of the gentrification bug that was going around in the early part of the decade. I do hope things pick up there - STL is a unique city with an interesting history. But after 6 years of living in NYC, I could never go back to having people ask where I went to highschool. (especially seeing as that I'm a dropout!)

Also, to respond to something unrelated that someone said upthread :

Detroit as a hideous decayed city was a running gag in Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) [...] when did the decay start?

My (non-Detroiter) impression is that the city never really recovered from the race riots of the late 60s. And then at some point they elected this despot named Coleman Young who apparently scared the crap out of a lot of people, who then left the city in droves. So I would put the decay as starting in the late 60s, although the segregation/racism problems were no doubt working up to a steady boil throughout the early- and mid- 20th century.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:17 AM on March 14, 2009


Where are these pictures being taken? Next door to the GM World Headquarters in Detroit? I think not.

Not next door, but several of them are surprising close to the RenCen.

That Brush Park house is a little over a mile away. The Broderick Tower is 7/10 of a mile away. The UA Theater, 8/10 of a mile.

I walked past many of these places in their early stages of decay as a teen. I worked in the RenCen (now called GM Headquarters) and walked from my house about 2.5 miles away. This was in the late 70s, and the decay and abandonment even then was astounding.

Do a Google map streetview tour of the area to see for yourself.

I am not slamming Detroit. I was born and raised in Detroit's Cass Corridor. But reality is reality. And that doesn't mean there is nothing good there.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:39 AM on March 14, 2009


Responding to the above comment about this phenomenon being only American cities, well, perhaps, insofar as the "doughtnut phenomenon" goes. But read Planet of Slums by Mike Davis. It is about massive horrific megaslums surrounding huge cities like Nairobi and Rio.
At least North St. Louis has toilets, electricity and running water.
posted by kozad at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2009


My (non-Detroiter) impression is that the city never really recovered from the race riots of the late 60s. And then at some point they elected this despot named Coleman Young who apparently scared the crap out of a lot of people, who then left the city in droves.
As Ed McMahon would say, You Are Correct, Sir. Coleman Young admitted in print when he took office that "law and order is a code word for 'Keep the niggers in their place.'" He instituted a policy (after simplifying the qualifying exams for sergeant and lieutenant twice, but still not getting enough black candidates that passed) in the Detroit Police Department that said for every white officer promoted, a black officer also had to be promoted. Already staffed with underqualified personnel, flash forward to the summer of 1976, when Coleman laid off 1,000 police officers. Crime ran rampant - folks traveling down I-75 or I-94 were scared to death of breaking down, because a common crime at the time was for thugs to rob you as you changed a flat tire. The Black Killers and the Errol Flynns were brazen in their crimes, because they knew they'd never be prosecuted. For example, take the Kool and the Gang concert at Cobo Hall in August, 1976. Midway through the show thugs started attacked concert-goers, announcing "Bk! BK! Give us what you got!" and proceeded to rob and assault folks for one hour (a woman was gang-raped in the parking lot) before the concert halted and the audience fled. The gang members continued to cause havoc nearby, breaking car windows and looting, before police finally arrived. When the cops did get there, they arrested a handful of suspects, but could not find anyone to testify against them, so no one was charged. (This is just one incident of many from that era.)

Thus, from the early 1970s on, Detroit became known as a place where criminals ruled the city without fear of reprisal. Even after Young began recalling laid-off cops back to their jobs, the damage had been done. Too many businesses previously headquartered in Detroit had grown weary of the constant thievery and vandalism with no response from the City. They headed to the suburbs, and the tax base of Detroit started to shrink.
posted by Oriole Adams at 4:46 PM on March 14, 2009


"As Ed McMahon would say, You Are Correct, Sir. Coleman Young admitted in print when he took office that "law and order is a code word for 'Keep the niggers in their place.'""

And, as Oriole fails to mention, Young was largely right. The Detroit police department was one of the most racist and segregated in the nation, and Coleman Young got first elected in large part because one (white) anti-gang unit managed to kill eight black people in the span of four months, with more than one of them under dubious circumstances. In the long term, his reforms have been a mixed bag. The clearance rate went up, the neighborhoods got local policing, the brutality stayed about constant. The last year that I remember covering it, 2005, Detroit still had the highest per capita shootings by police. But it's not like Young took over Maybury and shitcanned Andy. He took over a city where "law and order" was code for "keep the niggers in their place."

"Thus, from the early 1970s on, Detroit became known as a place where criminals ruled the city without fear of reprisal. Even after Young began recalling laid-off cops back to their jobs, the damage had been done. Too many businesses previously headquartered in Detroit had grown weary of the constant thievery and vandalism with no response from the City. They headed to the suburbs, and the tax base of Detroit started to shrink."

The tax base had already shrunk. White flight began well before Young's police layoff, though it massively spiked after the '69 riots. But it started with the freeways in the '50s. In addition, unlike most states, Michigan doesn't allow cities to annex incorporated areas adjacent, which meant that there were all sorts of crazy bureaucratic tensions between the new suburbs and the newly black city. Which led to all sorts of crazy infrastructure decisions, leaving the city massively over-leveraged. In a way, Detroit's an example of what happens if the current economic crisis isn't abated—many of Detroit's problems come from a decline in demand, meaning that things like one of the nation's best and biggest water departments is running at something like 15% capacity. Not because the population has fallen so much (though it has), but because manufacturing used to take up the excess capacity.

There are also myriad other state issues that hamstring Detroit's recovery, like how property taxes relate to school funding.

Oh, and while I do want to try to balance the perception of Coleman Young and the causes of the decline of Detroit that Oriole puts forth, I want to make sure that I don't come across as a Young booster. I think that the reason he got elected was pretty clear—Detroit was a wildly racist city, and Young won the first election in which blacks had a majority of the population. And in the beginning, while he was a firebrand, he at least had (publicly) good intentions for the city of Detroit. But I think he realized that if he couldn't fix the city, at least he and his could get paid. He turned Detroit into his own little fiefdom, and set up horrible governance problems still seen today. That Kwame got reelected would be unthinkable in any other major city.
posted by klangklangston at 12:44 AM on March 15, 2009


The Black Killers and the Errol Flynns were brazen in their crimes, because they knew they'd never be prosecuted. For example, take the Kool and the Gang concert at Cobo Hall in August, 1976. Midway through the show thugs started attacked concert-goers, announcing "Bk! BK! Give us what you got!" and proceeded to rob and assault folks for one hour (a woman was gang-raped in the parking lot) before the concert halted and the audience fled. The gang members continued to cause havoc nearby, breaking car windows and looting, before police finally arrived.

I remember this vividly. I lived a couple miles from Cobo Hall. Although nothing happened to me or my family, it was quite a shocking experience, and there was a palpable feeling that the city could at any moment fall into chaos. I knew some members of the Errol Flynns at school, and remember a couple times when I was advised to stay away from certain events or areas for my own safety, due to the plans of the gang. (As a white dude I would have been particularly... let's say... conspicuous.)

One nit-pick to the referenced comment: The riot was in '67. I watched it from my front porch on 4th street as it spread from 12th street to downtown. I was 6 years old.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:02 PM on March 15, 2009


> I would be interested into some insight into why Detroit is imploding. I seem to recall reading that Detroit's decline is mainly focused on the suburbs, and that the downtown has become more vibrant. Where are these pictures being taken? Next door to the GM World Headquarters in Detroit? I think not.

Detroit's suburbs are doing about as well as most city's suburbs, qualified by how successful local industries are. The suburbs to the north of Detroit are dependent on the auto industry, so they're getting by -- places like Novi saw immense building booms and now there are a lot of condo complexes abandoned before completion or putting up ever-larger, more desperate-looking advertising on the edges of their property. Towns that aren't exclusively dependent on the auto industry, like Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is centered, is doing okay, and even Ypsilanti's getting by, since it's where all the artists and musicians are going now that all the street-level space in Ann Arbor is too expensive for art galleries, music clubs and cafes.

I don't know that downtown Detroit has become more vibrant. But here's where I rant about casinos.

Casinos were legalized about a decade ago, so a couple megacorporations have set up licensed money-fleecing operations at various points downtown, but mostly in already-vital entertainment districts. There hasn't been the predicted improvement in the local economy, partly because gamblers go downtown to gamble, party and leave, not buy shoes, groceries, and home improvement supplies, and partly because casinos are full-service businesses: They'll house you, serve you food, entertain you, and keep you busy until you're spent, so there's not much need to do anything else in town. And since most of the casinos are owned by out-of-towners, most of the money spent in casinos goes elsewhere as well; locals work there but not at high salaries or in jobs that lead to professional development or entrepreneurship. In my opinion, they've been of no use at all to the local economy aside from a momentary construction boom.

> Where are these pictures being taken? Next door to the GM World Headquarters in Detroit? I think not.

There are plenty of businesses open immediately around the Renaissance Center. It's walking distance to the Cobo Center and Joe Louis Arena so whether GM's there or not there will be a continuing demand for restaurants, bars and convenience stores. But with the Ren Cen as a starting point, driving a quarter-mile up any major street or a shorter distance up any minor street would take you past at least one boarded-up building.
posted by ardgedee at 8:48 AM on March 16, 2009


I wonder if sometime in the near future the US might try to convince a neighbour to babysit Michigan for a while.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:41 PM on March 16, 2009


Yeah, the casinos were a terrible idea, one that was all about making Archer look good redeveloping Detroit in the short term so that he could get a sweet gig with the Gore administration. Which, obviously, didn't work out so well.
posted by klangklangston at 1:06 PM on March 16, 2009


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