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11.23.2011
Editorial> The Pleasure and Power of Ruins
Photographers capturing Detroit's famous deterioration may be a key to its revitalization.
Facade, Michigan Central Station, 2009.
Andrew Moore

There is a new argument in the debate over so-called “ruin porn.” As countless photographers have descended on Detroit over the last decade to document its crumbling structures and spiraling urban decline, a backlash—fueled largely by native or longtime Detroit residents—has flared, accusing the photographers and the viewers who consume their stirring images of exploiting the city’s plight and fetishizing its destruction. I’ve never entirely bought that argument, but I’ve tried to take heed of the criticism in these pages either by contextualizing the images or by trying to show previously unseen places, like the floating ruin of the S.S. Columbia on our Comment page in this issue.

Michigan Central Depot, the city’s mammoth Beaux-Arts train station, has long been the must-see site for destruction, with documentarians making it recognizable around the world. At press time, the Detroit News reported that the billionaire Moroun family, which owns the station, has been cleaning it up and is working with the New York-based developer Scott Griffin on a feasibility study to reuse the structure in some way. Buried in the News piece was the fact that Griffin first learned of the depot through photography, and then approached the Morouns about a partnering on the redevelopment. While it’s far too soon to declare the building saved, it’s a positive example of the power of images to capture the imagination of the public and inspire action (Joel Sternfeld’s portraits of the High Line served a similar function in New York). Many Detroiters are skeptical of the Morouns, who have a checkered past with various infrastructure and planning projects, but to borrow a phrase from street protesters, “the whole world is watching.”

A rebirth of the station would be the most visible sign that the Motor City, while down, is not entirely out, at least not yet. I’ll be following the outcome of the feasibility study closely. Whatever course it takes, I hope the station’s complex history is treated sensitively. Its brutal patina is magnetic, and I would hate to see it overly sanitized.

There are countless signs of stirrings in Detroit (as indicated by a new, very active Curbed site edited by a longtime AN contributor). Recent national home sales figures placed the city in the top four strongest markets in the country, a sign that the city’s bargain basement prices are beginning to attract buyers.

The photographers, professional and amateur alike, deserve a lot of credit for moving the city’s plight from the margins to the center of the national imagination. Architects, planners, and designers have played a role as well. If projects like Michigan Central proceed, their role will be crucial in supplying solutions and visionary thinking. Here’s a free idea. Building on the world’s fascination with the city, a portion of the vast station could be given over to a small museum or kunsthalle dedicated to the future of urbanism. And some of the abandoned office tower could become a hostel targeted at urban explorers. Detroit could become a center of urban reinvention rather than a textbook example of failure.

Alan G. Brake