Detroit and DETROPIA

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The words come at you harshly and powerfully. Decay. Ruin. Emptiness. America’s Pompeii.

These words accompany images of Detroit from photographers Andrew Moore and Camilo Jose Vergara. The photos have been part of two exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, Detroit Disassembled and Detroit Is No Dry Bones.

Using a large-format presentation, Moore presents images of some of the most iconic structures in Detroit. Viewers come face to face with the downtown United Artists Theatre, Michigan Central Station, The Guardian Building, Ford’s River Rouge Complex and the East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church. All are in various stages of disintegration. At the Cooper Elementary School on the city’s East Side, prairie grass is overtaking the isolated structure.

Vergara has been documenting the urban environment in Detroit for over twenty-five years. He chronicles storefronts on Mack Avenue from 1993 to 2012. Other photos highlight the former Packard auto plant and the graffiti that covers so many of the city’s structures. Critics have called his images Ruin Porn but Vergara expects that those viewing his images “will come to appreciate how the city continues to survive and reinvent itself.”

It’s hard to find hope or redeeming grace in Moore’s work but Vergara seems more interested in perseverance, reclamation and the audacity of the human spirit. His work seeks to offer some focus on those who never left the city and those new residents who see a certain authentic beauty in what is vanishing.

The documentary film DETROPIA by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady also tackles the paradox of demise and rejuvenation. This award-wining film (Sundance, Naples, SilverDocs), seeks to make the complex challenges of globalization, race relations, urban decay and the disconnections between citizens and government more approachable. Moreover, the film, through the stories of residents, adds the elements of humanity and commitment to place that the Moore and Vergara photographs do not provide.

The National League of Cities will give its members a sneak peak at DETROPIA before the film’s release on public television later this year. City and town leaders attending the Congressional City Conference in Washington will be given a special viewing and an opportunity to discuss the film on Monday, March 11.

The stories in this film have broad applicability beyond Detroit. For public officials, the film can be a catalyst for assessing and addressing the many challenges that face neighborhoods and communities in the post-recession period.