Ruins of Detroit

Throughout history, every great empire has come to an end. Pioneered by Henry Ford, William Durrant, the Dodge Brothers, Packard & Sons and Walter Chrysler, Detroit was established as the world’s automotive capital and the engine (yes . .I know . .nice pun) of the American automotive empire.

shown left: 15th floor ballroom - Lee Plaza HotelDetroit now stands as the symbol of urban decay. The city’s population has diminished from about 1.8 million at its peak in the 1950’s to less than half that number in 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population declined by 25%. Among current-day cities in America, the only city to see a greater decrease in its population is New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. As a result, over a third of the city’s land area is now abandoned; with an incredible 33,000 empty lots and vacant houses. The “Get-Up-and-Go” of Motown has “Got-Up-and-Gone”.

In their book “The Ruins of Detroit”, French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre capture the decaying beauty of the buildings' grand interiors with compassion and a respect for eras past. The series of photographs explores the dilapidated shells of early 20th century architectural gems - everything from hotels, theaters, churches, and homes. Each photograph holds its subject frozen in time. And I must say I was moved by the images. The sight of the Michigan Theatre being used as a parking lot (shown right) and the Vanity Ballroom with its still-hanging art deco chandeliers was enough to make me cringe a little. I mean, this is where Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey used to play. . .! (Ironically, the Michigan Theater is built on the site of the small garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile; the garage was transported brick by brick to The Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn).

From the photographers’ website: “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension.”
“The state of ruin is essentially a temporary situation that happens at some point, the volatile result of change of era and the fall of empires. This fragility, the time elapsed but even so running fast, lead us to watch them one very last time: being dismayed, or admire, making us wondering about the permanence of things.”

I think that the difference between North American cities and European cities when it comes to the passage of time and how cities develop and change is that in North America we are blessed with so much land and space. If we don’t like a building anymore, we just move on and build something else; leave everything we don’t want behind. Cities like London, Paris, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Prague, Venice . . . they don’t have this luxury. When a building is no longer being used, everything salvageable is removed and the building is repurposed. There is no moving on to another building site because, well, there are no more building sites. Land is not plentiful.

shown above: Atrium - Farwell Building
It is sad to see the gorgeous detail in massive Gothic churches crumbling, but even more upsetting is what this signifies for the people of the city of Detroit. A sense of failure, a painful feeling of loss and the downward spiral of decay and despair. Compounded with an unemployment rate of over 50%, I can understand why so many people would want to leave. And perhaps Detroit today signifies what is happening to America on a larger scale, and should be heeded as a warning of what can happen to an empire that over extends to the point where it can no longer support itself.

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