Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?

There has been a lot written about ruin porn. Some defend it as realism, while others are indignant that it ignores what still functions in a city in favor of holding a magnifying glass to its troubles. These are, in their own ways, both fair enough arguments, but what often goes unmentioned is the kind of twisted entertainment we get from these images, regardless of whether we find them inevitable or grotesque. This is the result of layers and layers of irony blanketing the very concept of ruin porn. There is the irony of Detroit itself, America’s first great industrial city essentially rising to an apogee and then falling shortly after, a kind of frowning parabola that no American city has gone through so perfectly. There is the irony of how—in the face of the decline we desire to see catalogued in coffee-table books—out of spite or pity or sheer willpower, morning still comes to 700,000 Detroiters every day.

Consider Ms. Taubman’s aerial view of the Rouge River Ford plant, Albert Kahn’s great behemoth of industrial architecture that, at its peak in the 1930s, employed 100,000 workers; it fell along with the auto industry, but it still churns out a new car every few seconds. There is the irony that the Rouge River plant’s peak happened decades before the city’s own, a discrepancy that should have been a clue about the American dream of which the cars rolling out of the factory were a major component: that the dream was a lie. Céline summed this up best in Journey to the End of the Night, in a scene where his protagonist escapes a jungle in Africa, hops on a boat to America and arrives in Detroit, “where … it was easy to get hired and there were lots of little jobs that were well paid and didn’t take too much out of you.”

Then there is the sadder irony that much of the rhetoric in the national media focused on Detroit’s current comeback involves the migration of young white people into old neighborhoods downtown. (Consider these two headlines from The New York Times this year, spaced three months apart: “Detroit Population Down 25 Percent, Census Finds” and “The Young and Entrepreneurial Move to Downtown Detroit, Pushing Its Economic Recovery.” Which is your narrative of choice?)

The greatest irony, however, is that we are drawn to these images at all. It is not called “pornographic” for nothing. There is no pride in looking, no fulfillment, only an impersonal pleasure rooted in nothing but the image itself. We look at Michigan Central Station, which has been compared to the Roman Colosseum and has added an obligatory gravity to a number of reductive U.S. news articles about the trouble with Detroit (this is a separate irony: how the photographer of ruin porn, like any good pornographer, always seems so impressed with his subjects). Michigan Central has a six-page spread in Ms. Taubman’s book. Skilled as she is, Ms. Taubman cannot do anything but allow her camera to turn the building into a vague symbol. Even from a great distance, it is evident that most of the windows have been blown out. Its brick is a mottled, sad gray-brown. The expanse of city surrounding it is flat and wide. Ms. Taubman takes her camera inside, revealing cracked brick and a collage of graffiti tags. We look and all attempts at progress, and all the history leading up to why the building is in such a state, are sucked into the rubble. We are able to conclude: “This is America’s Rome! What happened?” We do not really care when we can’t come up with an answer.

The truth is, I could write and write and still not find one. All I can tell you is memories and statistics: that in 1988, an intruder tied my grandparents to the radiator in their home on Detroit’s east side, then beat and robbed them of the few valuables they had; that the same house, the house my mother grew up in, no longer exists as of two years ago, a victim of the fire that nearly engulfed the rest of the entire block; that a bad batch of heroin that a chemist in Lerma, Mexico, mixed with the synthetic painkiller fentanyl killed dozens of drug users over the span of a few months in 2006, including a friend from high school with whom I had once bonded in mutual appreciation of a band whose name I’d rather not mention; that my parents went into foreclosure on their house in the Detroit suburbs; that I am ashamed that none of this seemed to matter until I left the city for good; that I am angry but don’t know where to direct it. I can tell you all this, but what would be the point?

I’ll quote, instead, the city’s motto, which has remained the same since the early 1800s. It comes from Gabriel Richard, a French Roman Catholic priest who built a school in Detroit in 1804, a year before the city was nearly leveled by a fire, burning for the first time. The motto is Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. It means: “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.”

mmiller@observer.com

Panic in Detroit Lures Shutterbugs But How Much Ruin Porn Can We Take?