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Carrying On: Down, but never out
It’s an all too common conversation opener at NSO: “Well, my dad’s from Singapore, my mom is French and Japanese, but I grew up in South Africa and then went to high school in New York City…”
In these situations, quite a few Georgetown students can rattle off impressive and exotic responses about their own backgrounds, very often in several languages. I’m not one of them. After the cosmopolitan Hoya has recited a laundry list of enviable places of origin, it’s my turn to declare that I hail from Michigan—more specifically, from the Detroit area. My interlocutor usually responds with something to the effect of, “Ouch,” or “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Harsh, maybe—but admit it, the images that just came to your mind were ones of crime, poverty, and generally unremarkable urban blight. This is a problem, though it’s not the fault of any one person. Unemployment, violence, and factory closings are the stories that get published about Detroit, all set to a dreary Michigan winter backdrop. True, the city has been plagued in recent years by economic troubles and political corruption, but these facts don’t justify the fetishization of the hardships the city faces.
Chief offenders include a dramatic French photo series entitled “The Ruins of Detroit” and the British documentary Requiem for Detroit, the first of which most clearly exemplifies what has come to be known as “ruin porn.” Usually the work of outsiders, this art form capitalizes on the public’s morbid fascination with decay—in this case, with the deterioration of a formerly booming industrial center.
They’re just pictures, and they’re interesting to look at. I’m perfectly willing to admit that the art deco style popular at the time that Detroit’s most iconic buildings were designed lends itself particularly well to the kind of poetic dilapidation that artists like Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have an eye for. But very real people with very real problems live in Detroit, and it’s downright tasteless to take advantage of a population suffering the consequences, wholly beyond their control, of a love affair with capitalism. A city down on its luck should not be turned into such an object of shame and pity. For one thing, this misrepresentation of Detroit affects potential investors, who in turn determine the money that flows into the city (or, more accurately, the money that doesn’t flow in).
But on another level, it’s about pride. Believe it or not, Detroit was once called “the Paris of the West,” celebrated as a beautiful and opulent city that was the heart of an industry of incomparable economic and cultural influence. Later, it was known around the world for the Motown sensations recorded at Hitsville, U.S.A. The 21st century has witnessed a jaw-dropping 25 percent population decrease, but back in the 1950s the Motor City was home to nearly two million people.
Detroit isn’t all history and no future. Though the recession has hit the area particularly hard, the auto industries seem to be on their way back up. Furthermore, Detroit is a thriving cultural center. Home to the Heidelberg Project—two blocks of houses transformed into works of art—as well as a vibrant urban farming movement and a world-famous electronic music festival, the city could very well become the next hipster haven.
The issues at play in Detroit and in cities like it (many other former industrial centers of the Rust Belt fall into this category) are complex, and shouldn’t be exploited in the name of entertainment. Detroit doesn’t need your pity, but it doesn’t need your scorn, either. As anyone who has watched the now-famous Chrysler commercials during the past two Super Bowls can attest, groups that strive to speak for Detroit as a whole aim to cultivate an aura of toughness. They choose “fighters” like Clint Eastwood and Eminem to convey their message, which to me proves to be the difference between “ruin porn” and the scrappier, Gran Torino-style portrayals. Whereas the former strips Detroit of its dignity, the latter acknowledges adversity without turning the city into a caricature of indigence and crime. A flag that bears the Latin inscriptions, “Speramus Meliora” (“We hope for better things”) and “Resurget Cineribus” (“It shall rise from the ashes”) seems apt for this city, which isn’t giving in just yet.