“Detroit Thrives.”


The Michigan Theatre. Photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Yesterday, having recently seen links about them in a couple different places, I tweeted: “Haunting, tragically beautiful photos of derelict Detroit by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre: http://bit.ly/fwDwPg [from the UK Guardian]”

They really are breathtaking images. A lone copy of Marchand and Meffre’s (rare?) book The Ruins of Detroit is currently on sale at Amazon, if anybody with a whopping $237.94 to spare is interested.


The ruined Spanish-Gothic interior of the United Artists Theater in Detroit, and Light Court, Farwell Building. Photos by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Here’s the thing, though: in American cities like New Orleans, the Salton Sea, and (most vocally) Detroit, frustrated residents who see scores of photojournalists touring their neighborhoods just to take pictures of the sexy devastation and leave again have started calling these sorts of de-contextualized photo series of their backyards “ruin porn”.

“Here in Detroit, we’re sick of how the ruin porn runs rampant around the world, and everybody loves to use it to show how things have degraded here. Know what? There is a big resurgence happening here, and things are getting better.” That’s a quote from Ryan Cooper, a Detroit resident reacting to Dangerous Minds’ coverage of the Ruins of Detroit photobook.

Only I hadn’t read that, yet. I’ll admit it: when I linked out to the Guardian feature, I’d never even heard the term “ruin porn” before. About an hour after I aired that tweet, someone in Australia called datacorrupt responded bluntly with: “Detroit Thrives.” And a link.


Photo by Jon DeBoer. Mural by Philip Lauri, founder of “DETROIT LIVES!

Clicking through to Palladium Boots dot com, I promptly had my ruin porn-disseminating ass handed to me by the following half-hour documentary featuring not just several of those same sprawling abandoned spaces that captivated Marchand and Meffre, but also a rich variety of local entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, urban farmers and prodigal shopkeepers of Motor City who have been steadily reclaiming and reviving substantial portions of the urban grid, creating robust communities in a crumbling realm that was:

“Once the fourth-largest metropolis in America–some have called it the Death of the American Dream. Today, the young people of the Motor City are making it their own DIY paradise where rules are second to passion and creativity. They are creating the new Detroit on their own terms, against real adversity. We put our boots on and went exploring.”


Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Williamsburg anymore…

Product-shilling and Johnny Knoxville-yukkstering aside, Detroit Lives is an inspiring point of entry into the tenacious world of modern DIY Detroit. After watching the doc, I spent several more hours online exploring other links and sites (several of which are listed below). These kids are making and growing and building and yes, thriving. They seem committed, fierce, and in fucking earnest. Check ‘em out.

Any Detroit badasses reading? Please forgive me; I… I still love my ruin porn. Can’t help it. But in all sincerity, I love what you are doing far, far more. I’m surely not alone in that. Long may you thrive. Please come say hello if you like. We would love to hear more from you, and about you.

Detroit revival links:

Other Coilhouse posts of possible interest:

22 Responses to ““Detroit Thrives.””

  1. DrAlabaster Says:

    ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT DETROIT. ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE.

  2. Bethany Shorb Says:

    Thanks Coilhouse lovlies for following up on what is really quite a (hot) topic here in Detroit right now – you really helped portray a fair, balanced and properly contextualized view of what is going on both with the ruins (albeit beautiful) and the many success stories from young artists and entrepreneurs emerging from them. There’s some great stuff going on here and we’d be honored to have it captured through your lens!

    — Full disclosure – I showed my mug in Detroit Lives, those folks were A+++ amazing and really did our city a service.

  3. Tertiary Says:

    Detroit is on my short list of places to live when I’m done with the schooling. For reals. It’s one of the few places in America that makes me feel sort of hopeful.

  4. Nadya Says:

    WOW, this was an awesome documentary! It made me want to move to Detroit and join OmniCorp. Bethany, you were great in the documentary. The minute I saw you, I squeeee’d! I’m very curious how Detroit will change and grow in the decades to come. With the world population projected to reach 7 billion by the end of 2011, I think that Detroit will certainly be on its way to becoming a megacity in the next 50 years. It’s great, and it’s also incredibly hard work, to be there first and set the foundation for that, to build up a new economy and renovate the city. You guys are amazing.

  5. Bethany Shorb Says:

    Thanks Nadya! Here’s more info about OmniCorp: http://omnicorpdetroit.com

    They’re (OCD) doing some super amazing things, I had to take some time off personally over the last few month as the Cyberoptix ties consume every second of my life during the holiday season, but I’m really hoping to resume being more involved asap.

    Troy Paff of Dirty Jobs w/ Mike Rowe, is doing a fantastic photo essay of the tradesmen of 21st century America. Here’s some that he shot in Detroit:

    Jeff Sturges/OmniCorp
    http://blog.journeymanproject.net/?p=135

    Shameless peek into my studio:
    http://blog.journeymanproject.net/?p=91

    There are so many people working hard and organically making their lives better and the place as a whole better as a result. It’s really inspiring!

  6. philip lauri Says:

    cool, nice article. i kind of echo bethany’s sentiment that you did a fine job of potraying the delicate balance between the ruins and the re-invention. pat on the back.

  7. Detroit Love Says:

    You forgot to mention the kids over at I Am Young Detroit. They are doing some great work too!

  8. Jennifer @ Auxiliary Magazine Says:

    I was born, raised, and currently live in Buffalo, NY another great lakes city that is not what it once was. There are tons of abandoned buildings and factories here and local photographers, many of whom are my friends, are always taking photos of them. Also have had friends come here from other cities to take photos in the abandoments and never heard anyone critize them for it. I had never heard the term “ruin porn” until reading this, have never come across it in Buffalo. I feel why not take the chance to capture the buildings in the state they are in if it’s beautiful. Bringing attention to the abandoments by photographing them only brings attention to the city, which I think can only be a good thing for Buffalo (or any city).

  9. the way this country is dividing to fall « dubthach Says:

    […] us some wood and we’ll build you a cabinet”… detroit thrives in the midst of “ruin […]

  10. Perfect Laughter Says:

    “These kids are making and growing and building and yes, thriving. They seem committed, fierce, and in fucking earnest.”

    That was the best compliment any media vehicle has ever given us. Thanks for writing that.

  11. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Eeee! It’s so excited to hear from all of you.

    I Am Young Detroit has just been added to the list of links. (What an awesome site!)

    Nadya, we GOTTA get some DIY Detroit coverage into the mag, don’t you agree?

  12. Mike Costa Says:

    I grew up in Detroit. I lived there until I went away to college, and though I’ve been living in Los Angeles for the past seven years, I still spend a few months of the year here (I’m here right now, in fact.) My brother lived in Cass Corridor for years. My cousins own their own business in the city and operate a coffee-cart in Eastern Market. My mother works for local government. I love this city very much, but this Knoxville documentary irked me deeply.

    I’m not sure how “balanced” a view any of this material is. In fact, it mostly seems like a lot of myopic boosterism for naive young white kids who act as though all a city needs to “thrive” are a bunch of 24-year-olds to move from their parents’ house in the suburbs, paint a mural on an abandoned factory’s wall and turn a dilapidated building into a workshop.

    That’s not to say that Detroit doesn’t have a cool arts community. Or that Woodward isn’t seeing some improvement with new restaurants and shops over the past decade. But the idea that “ruin porn” is giving a false sense of the city is, prima facia, ridiculous. For every building re-claimed by an artist or entrepreneur, there are hundreds – literally hundreds – still abandoned. Frankly, these ubiquitous photo-essays actually fall considerably short of revealing the inconceivable scale of the city’s true blight, as they tend to focus on the more photogenic ruins of a few gorgeous older institutional buildings. Entire neighborhoods are gone. Not abandoned – literally gone. Homes burned down or collapsed. My parents live four blocks from streets that look like fallow farmland, so few structures survive on them.

    I understand how a lot of the more passionate locals bristle when they hear things like this, but living in a fantasy that a bunch of privileged white kids (and it’s very telling that nearly every face in that doc was white, considering they’re speaking for a city that’s over 80% black) are going to revitalize a major American city with their local farms and art-installations is not a useful contribution to the conversation about this city and its staggering problems.

    Problems like the fact that over a third of the population live below the poverty line, and that, plus the rapidly shrinking population, make for a preposterously small tax-base for a city of such size. Couple that with a police force, city council, and Mayoral office that are among the most (or THE most, if such things can be quantified) corrupt in the country, means that not only has basic citywide infrastructure totally collapsed, but there is little hope of repairing it. The concept of a “first responder” as it is understood in the rest of the country basically doesn’t exist here. People who are victims of violent crimes call the fire department, because they can be counted on to show up with slightly more dependability than the police. There are parts of the city now where actual land-line telephone service is intermittent, because scavengers are literally pulling down telephone poles and stripping the copper wiring. Why not? There is no one to stop them. That is zombie-apocalypse type stuff. It’s charming that some local artist is creating garish installations on abandoned homes in an effort to deter crack dealing and crime… but no adult would seriously argue that could ever be as effective as a legitimate police force. This, and other kinds of “DIY living” that the movie celebrates is not only ineffective, but also impossible for the vast majority of the 300,000 families that live in Detroit. The fact that the doc focuses on a bunch of young art-world hipsters and not a single local family is, I think, another notable omission. Detroit isn’t just some undiscovered enclave for art-students and trust-fund babies, it’s a real city where real people live and face real problems. You would not know that watching this. I find ignoring the struggle (and color) of the majority of the city in lieu of skinny white kids “making stuff” like the cataclysmic human tragedy surrounding them is just the mise en scene of their own personal artistic statements to be a little distasteful.

  13. Mike Says:

    Mike Costa-
    You cynicism is astounding.
    A few points: If you notice, about half the interviewees in the film are minorities. Most of the “privileged white kids” you speak of are just barely scraping by to eat, make their work and contribute something. I don’t know anyone in Detroit on a trust fund. That’s a reactionary stereotype. Every person featured in this film is doing what they do out of passion. They’re leading by example, not waiting for the government to save them. The institutions are failed and they’re creating something better and more sustainable outside of the system. That’s the whole point.

  14. Bethany Shorb Says:

    Mike,

    Your argument is trite and pathetic. The backlash over younger people actually DOING SOMETHING FOR ONCE disgusts me. How dare you allude to some misguided opinion that we are both living in a “fantasy” not contributing anything? I’m sorry I’m white. Nothing I can do about that. Take your race blinders off.

    Want to get personal? I will. I am:

    1. NOT in my 20’s, (not even close). I do however take care of myself, so thanks for the compliment!
    2. Started my business with negative $50 in my bank account and was living below the poverty line at the time, yet not relying on any city or social services.
    3. Do NOT have nor have ever had a trust fund or any familial support.
    4. Did NOT even grow up here, but chose to pursue my education here and give back to the community where I thought I could help do some good.
    5. Through the growth of my company, I have created jobs for and have taught meaningful skills to those in the local community.

    So please, shut your small mouth and open your mind for one moment and accept that YES some people in the creative community can make a difference, and we’re not just using this as our artistic “playground”. Your anti-artist argument is really short-sighted.

    YES, there are still a lot of problems here. They didn’t happen overnight nor are they going to go away overnight either. This berating the few who are trying their damndest to change things is obnoxious.

    Maybe come back from Sunny LA for a bit longer and see what we’re actually doing?

    Love,
    Bethany
    That “Detroit Doesn’t Need a Savior” Bitch.

  15. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Passionately stated, Mike. Very, very interested to see how others respond to you.

    I appreciate that it’s unhealthy to ignore the complex race and poverty and class issues surrounding Detroit while discussing the current DIY movement happening there. I didn’t think the Palladium coverage was as whitewashed as you did– to me, it seemed like a pretty good cross section for a half-hour commercial doc focused on more pop elements like music, art, fashion. But I will say that, hypothetically, any coverage Coilhouse was to put together on DIY Detroit for print would aim for a wider scope, and less MTV-ready presentation. I completely agree that more wide-ranging representation of people of color, of families, and of thirty/forty/fiftysomethings (and beyond) that are actively taking part in Detroit’s revival could only improve any further coverage on the subject.

    I’ll also be the first to admit that I’m on the outside looking in, and had a couple of intense privilege-checking moment while I read your response. That being said… respectfully, I just can’t find it in me to negate people who are trying to revitalize, as you say, a zombie-apocalypse environment by putting together urban farm food banks and community arts projects and independent shops. Inferring these people are all parasitic trust fund babies for breathing life into long-abandoned, fallow spaces that everyone else has given up on, and dismissing their attempts to build something nurturing and sustaining in a city where there’s the room and freedom to try… I just don’t want to go there, personally.

    I see your points. I really do. But I’m still wholeheartedly rooting for DIY Detroit.

  16. Meredith Yayanos Says:

    Woops, I see others already posted while I was writing my own response. Hang on, regrouping…

  17. Cass Says:

    I have been fascinated about the Detroit decay & rejuvenation for at least a year or two: I feel very similarly about a little town in the South Island of NZ, which has amazing history of boom periods, then lost most of their income when major industrial plant shut down, and the place became a ghost town. Now re-imagining itself with artists communities & I can see some parallels to Detroit but on a much smaller scale: I can also see the inherent problems faced, but there’s a great sense of hope and creativity.

    While I haven’t been there yet, I get a vague sense that Newcastle in Australia may have a similar feel, too.

  18. Mike Costa Says:

    I may have been a little rash in some of my language. Obviously, this is a subject that everyone here is passionate about, including me. I would never begrudge an artist making art – and I have even less criticism for people who attempt to better their communities. I myself make my living as a full-time comic book writer, which places me only dubiously in the “artist” camp and certainly puts me in the running for “non-contributing zero” status. I have nothing but respect for most of the people featured this documentary. It’s the documentary itself I was reacting to, and the false context (or, rather, lack of context) it harbors. Of course, I know that the people appearing on camera probably had very little say in how the film was assembled, so I don’t want anyone assuming I am making personal claims about them (The ‘trust-fund baby’ implication was a general one, if probably more than a little unkind. Though, I assure you, I do know more than a few in the city.)

    Arts coverage is fine. It’s necessary. I read about it and watch docs on it all the time. And if this had been presented as a little glimpse into the lives of Detroit artists who are attempting to do what they can to make their city better, I would have had no reason to post. But, instead, this doc appeared under the headline of “Detroit Thrives” and the overall thrust wasn’t to investigate an art movement, but instead to position the thesis that the negative coverage Detroit has been receiving is distorted, and in fact it’s not only not as bad as it’s portrayed, but it’s making a comeback, and those who believe it needs saving are wrong and uninformed. That is the message of this film, and yet its focus is on just a few artists and entrepreneurs (overwhelmingly young and white if not in number of interviewees, then at least in amount of screen-time) without providing any context or glimpse into how the other 99.99% of the city (most of them African-American and older) live, or what they might think about what’s going on, or how it effects them. I’m sorry, but showing how an extremely small demographic lives and then acting as though that’s somehow indicative of the rest of the city – that the city is a “paradise” of any kind; that a “big resurgence is happening,” and that anyone who points to massive blight, large-scale collapse and utter municipal corruption and stagnation is a cynic or malingerer… that is an inestimably more distorted portrayal than the 1,000th picture of Michigan Central Station or the UA theater.

    For instance: Martha Reeves appears in this documentary as a brief talking head, helping celebrate the city’s rich artistic history. This raises strong questions as to how much about Detroit the producers of the film cared to learn outside of proving their own narrow thesis, considering that Reeves is an unrepentant thief who has used her position on the city council to defraud the city of hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was in attendance at the council debate where Nolan Finley of the Free Press asked her about her outstanding tax liens and she scolded him and claimed that she shouldn’t have to pay any taxes at all, ever. If this documentary were truly interested, as it claims to be, in the re-vitalization of the city, then it should view her, at the very least, a little askance. That’s a little like interviewing George W. Bush about America’s commitment to peaceful negotiation and not thinking to ask him any questions about that whole WMD situation.

    More power to these artists, and may their work be startling and essential… but please understand if I question the perspective of material that positions them as the saviors of this city while obliviously linking them to agents of its destruction.

  19. cho Says:

    the initial attitude people usually have is, “look at all the problems detroit has, it’s dying, it’s ruined, blah blah blah”. which is frankly a sentiment also launched at indigenous people worldwide, everyone but them is seemingly resigned to their extinction, ignorant of indigenous efforts to save themselves, and strictly “no comment” on how our privilege is their punishment. like, detroit’s blood is on all of our hands, and if we don’t want to detroit to suffer we can participate in counteracting all the systemic evil that has been smacking it around – and to a tinier extent is also batting at the rest of the america – for decades. i’m not so concerned about whether our view of detroit is unfairly pessimistic or unfairly optimistic, but whether we intend to do anything about it. if pessimistic: are we just going to let detroit perish, taking pretty pictures all the way? are we just going to say “bigger, more time-consuming, more wide-scale systemic change is needed” without agitating for it? if optimistic: are detroiters gonna carve out a new way to exist in a national system that’s actively screwing them over without any support, all alone, just so that we can jump in, smile for the cameras, and pat them on the back for a job well done? and even as I say that this ball is in our court just as much as it is in their’s, I cringe because some people will take that as free license to swoop in with their savior hats and preconceived notions and assumption and false sense of authority and knowledge, instead of recognizing that everyday citizens of detroit are basically trained experts in what america is doing to itself, and what is needed to subvert the ourobouros. Gah.

  20. Required Reading — Luke Copping - Photographer Says:

    […] • Frustrated Detroit residents are sick of the photojournalists using their city to create “Ruin Porn” […]

  21. Cooper Says:

    Interesting discussion. I actually just wrote an essay on this very topic:

    http://www.rethinkdetroit.org/2011/01/06/detroit-do-it-yourself-city/

    If you look at the media coverage of Detroit in the past year, you’ll find an almost schizophrenic portrayal of the city. On the one hand, you have the exposes of corruption and photo essays of “ruin porn”–which, as Mike Costa points out, tend to glamourize a select number of ruined buildings, rather than emphasis how widespread and commonplace the abandonment of Detroit really is.

    On the other hand, I counted at least 20 positive stories on Detroit’s revitalization in national and international media, including ten from the NY Times alone. Most of these focus on the arts community, entrepreneurs, and urban gardening. Just as the negative stories tend to go too far in describing Detroit as utterly hopeless and barren, the positive stories tend to conflate the revitalization of the greater downtown by a relatively small cast of actors with a resurgence of the whole city, which right now just isn’t happening, however much I wish it were.

    I think we all need to grapple with both realities. I’m inspired by the energy and hard work that the DIY crowd is putting into Detroit’s revitalization, and I think they deserve acclaim for it. But I’m also a firm believer that Detroit not have an image problem so much as it has a reality problem, and I’m glad when anyone, white or black, young or old, works to improve that reality.

  22. Can We Rebuild The Backwater? « goingagatewards Says:

    […] was planning to write an article discussing Detroit and Ruin Porn as described on Coilhouse, the delicate and facinating balance between the photojournalistic responsibility to show the […]