Sean O’Hagan, Guardian (London), January 2, 2011
In downtown Detroit, the streets are lined with abandoned hotels and swimming pools, ruined movie houses and schools, all evidence of the motor city’s painful decline. The photographs of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre capture what remains of a once-great city–and hint at the wider story of post-industrial America temporarily disbanded. The building it vacated was abandoned with everything in it: furniture, uniforms, typewriters, crime files and even the countless mug-shots of criminals who had passed through there. Among the debris that photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre found there in 2005 was a scattering of stiff, rotting cardboard files each bearing a woman’s name.
In total 11 women had been catalogued by the police, including Debbie Ann Friday, Vicki Truelove, Juanita Hardy, Bertha Jean Mason and Valerie Chalk. Down in the dank basement of the police station, where “human samples” were stored–and had been abandoned along with everything else–the two French photographers also uncovered the name of the man who was linked to all of the women’s deaths. Benjamin Atkins was a notorious serial killer. Between 1991 and 1992 he left the bodies of his victims in various empty buildings across the city.
A photograph simply entitled Criminal Investigation Report, Highland Park Police Station is one of the many startling images in an extraordinary book, The Ruins of Detroit, that Marchand and Meffre have made from their seven week-long visits to Detroit between 2005 and 2009. The book’s photographs suggest the countless strange and sad narratives from urban life in America in the mid-to-late 20th century. It is also a book of testimony, which not only illustrates the dramatic decline of a major American city, but of the American Dream itself. Many of the images seem post-apocalyptic, as if some sudden catastrophe has struck downtown Detroit, forcing everyone to abandon homes and workplaces and flee the city.
Cumulatively, the photographs are a powerful and disturbing testament to the glory and the destructive cost of American capitalism: the centre of a once-thriving metropolis in the most powerful nation on earth has become a ghost town of decaying buildings and streets. There is a formal beauty here too, though, reminiscent of Robert Polidori’s images of post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans. “It seems like Detroit has just been left to die,” says Marchand, “Many times we would enter huge art deco buildings with once-beautiful chandeliers, ornate columns and extraordinary frescoes, and everything was crumbling and covered in dust, and the sense that you had entered a lost world was almost overwhelming. In a very real way, Detroit is a lost world–or at least a lost city where the magnificence of its past is everywhere evident.”
This sense of loss is what Marchand and Meffre have captured in image after image, whether of vast downtown vistas where every tower block is boarded-up or ravaged interior landscapes where the baroque stonework, often made from marble imported from Europe, is slowly crumbling and collapsing. The pair have photographed once-grand hotels that were built in a carefree mix of gothic, art deco, Moorish and medieval styles, as well as countless baroque theatres, movie houses and ballrooms–the Vanity, where big band giants such as Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey played in the 1930s; the Eastown theatre, where pioneering hard rock groups like Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 held court in the 1960s.
They have also captured for posterity the desolate interiors that once made up the city’s civic infrastructure: courthouses, churches, schools, dentists, police stations, jails, public libraries and swimming pools, all of which have most of their original fixtures and fittings intact. “As Europeans, we were looking with an outsider’s eye, which made downtown Detroit seem even more strange and dramatic,” says Meffre. “We are not used to seeing empty buildings left intact. In Europe, salvage companies move in immediately and take what they can sell as antiques. Here, they only take the metal piping to sell for scrap. In the Vanity ballroom alone, we saw four giant art deco chandeliers, beautiful objects, each one unique. It was almost unbelievable that they could still be there. It is as if America has no sense of its own architectural history and culture.”
Marchand (29) and Meffre (23) have been taking photographs together since they first met in 2002. They are both children of Paris’s banlieue, hailing from the southern suburbs of the city. Without formal training, they describe themselves as “autodidacts who share an obsession with ruins”, which, says Meffre, “allow you to appear to enter a different world, a lost world, and to report back from there”.
Having photographed old buildings–“mainly disused theatres”–in Paris, they happened upon an image of Michigan Central train station in Detroit while surfing the internet for pictures of abandoned buildings. “It was so stately and so dramatic that we decided right then we had to go,” says Meffre, “but we were naive; we had no idea of the scale of the project, of the vastness of downtown Detroit and its ruins. There is nothing comparable in Europe.”
The essayist Edmund Wilson wrote of Detroit in the 1930s: “You can see here, as it is impossible to do in a more varied and complex city, the whole structure of industrial society.” Back then, Detroit was the world capital of car production, the place where, in 1913, Henry Ford had built the first plant devoted to mass production, employing 90,000 workers in order to make enough Model T Fords to meet the demands of a burgeoning domestic market. The city’s architecture reflected its wealth and ambition: the waiting room of Michigan Central station was designed to look like a giant Roman bathhouse, ballrooms were built in extravagantly baroque styles that equalled anything in New York.
By the 1950s, the city was home to almost 2 million people, and its mainly single-storey suburbs had spread over 120 square miles. Detroit’s dramatic decline began soon afterwards, though, and those same suburbs would play their part in the long saga of abandonment and decay. The collapse of the automobile industry started in the 1950s and reached crisis point in the 1960s and 1970s, due mainly to the demand for cheaper imported cars, made mainly in Japan, and the attendant rise in global oil prices. By then, Detroit was, in the words of Thomas J Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, who provides the book’s illuminating introductory essay, “one of America’s most racially polarised cities, the result of deep-rooted hostilities between the city’s white and African-American populations”.
The so called “white flight” from the city centre began in the 1950s and, soon, as Sugrue puts it, “an increasingly black city was surrounded by a ring of communities that were all white”. This “white noose”, as one contemporary observer referred to it, helped strangle the inner city, both economically and socially, turning it into a series of large ghettos intercut by freeway. Unrest reached a head in 1967, when 43 people were killed in a week of rioting that started after police officers raided an after-hours drinking club and which left the downtown streets looking like a war zone. Since then, the city has been left increasingly to its own devices–abandoned by politicians, planners, developers and businesses, by all, in fact, but the black urban poor. “Even grocery stores and supermarkets disappeared from the city,” writes Sugrue. “By the first decade of the 21st century, observers described Detroit as ‘a food desert’–a place without even a single, well-stocked supermarket within its boundaries.”
The tension of the 60s coincided with the moment when Detroit was the capital of American popular music, with the Stooges and the MC5 creating a proto-punk music that remains influential to this day and the Tamla Motown hit factory, founded by producer-cum-entrepreneur Berry Gordy, creating hit after hit for the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes and the Temptations. Gordy, too, though, deserted the city in 1972, moving the Motown operation to Los Angeles. Still, throughout the hard times, Detroit has remained a place of pioneering pop music and is regarded as the city where techno was created in the 1980s. Today’s Detroit, particularly the blighted 8 Mile Road stretch that separates the city from its northern suburbs, is synonymous with the hard-edged rap music of Eminem, the city’s most notorious son, whose songs reflect the edginess and gang culture of the place.
Of late, there are plans afoot to restore some of Detroit’s historic buildings and an even more ambitious plan to “green” many of the open spaces where weeds, trees and prairie grasses have grown among tower blocks and disused car plants. Detroit may thrive again but it will take considerable political will and enormous reinvestment.
The Ruins of Detroit tells the city’s story so far in one starkly beautiful photograph after another, all of which add up to nothing less than an end-of-empire narrative. Or as Sugrue puts it: “The abandoned factories, the eerily vacant schools, the rotting houses, and gutted skyscrapers that Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre chronicle are the artefacts of Detroit’s astonishing rise as a global capital of capitalism and its even more extraordinary descent into ruin, a place where the boundaries between the American dream and the American nightmare, between prosperity and poverty, between the permanent and the ephemeral are powerfully and painfully visible. No place epitomises the creative and destructive forces of modernity more than Detroit, past and present.”
[There are many other striking photos of the wreckage of Detroit here.]