NOVEMBER 11, 2015
THE WRITER OF THIS REVIEW happens to live all the way across the pond in southern Germany, happens to be British, happens to have seen much of America but never Michigan, and happens to have several friends who are natives of Detroit. He is (I am) thus in the position of knowing two of the numerous possible “Detroits”: first, that which is disseminated around the world in the form of photographs and stories of ruin; second, that which is related by people who’ve lived there and to whom the city is a living entity.
This might, you’d think, put me in a precarious position when it comes to judging the merits of a sociohistorical book about Detroit. But it turns out that I feel like almost the ideal audience. For this is a book mounting an argument and challenge relevant far beyond the limits of the city itself.
In Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline, Dora Apel goes on the offensive against the myriad myths and delusions peddled about the Motor City; not only that, she rebuffs the blame and shame that have traditionally been directed at the Detroit citizenry, and redirects our attention to the corporations and bureaucrats who have abandoned it. The result is a work that seems to invigorate a depressed debate and ask timely questions about social values in America and the world it influences.
The central question of Apel’s book is not what the ruins look like or what to do with them, but what they say about society at large. Another way of phrasing the question: what do our responses to the ruins say about us? As the title of her work indicates, Apel’s thesis is that “the anxiety of decline feeds an enormous appetite for ruin imagery.” Not stopping there, though, she qualifies: “But it matters whether we understand ruination as historically inevitable, the fault of its own victims, or as the result of industrial disinvestment and capitalist globalization.” The industry of “ruin imagery” has to be better understood, the possibility of an underlying “anxiety of decline” has to be explored, and the role of “capitalist globalization” has to be disambiguated.
Apel begins by discussing the broad phenomenon of “ruin lust,” referring briefly to classicist and gothic trends but focusing quickly on manifestations in Detroit itself. Here, the term is updated to “ruin porn” — a borrowing from the Detroit photographer James D. Griffoen. Griffoen coined it as an insult to the alien photographers who “show up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills,” and who “go back and write the same story as everyone else.” This unveils an antagonism between those locals who feel that their own ruin-photography aspires to some local good while the ruin-photography of others is purely egotistical. Furthermore, there are the regular citizens who are — to quote a local — “angered by the ruin imagery because they may suddenly see their own city through a different lens — the eyes of outsiders — compelling them to recognise that they have become so accustomed to ruination that they stopped seeing it long ago.”
Apel is, however, careful to point out the problems in this critique. The main one is that such images carry a “whiff of exploitation” regardless of who takes them. She goes on to analyze the attitudes of a prominent group of photographers, the “urban explorers,” represented by Jeff Chapman (a.k.a. Ninjalicious), Tim Edensor, and Dylan Trigg. United by a passion for ruins and forbidden zones of the architectural landscape, these writer/activists nevertheless have differing ideas of the pursuit. Chapman’s is a pure exploratory approach (“We’re in it for the thrill of discovery and a few nice pictures”); Edensor urges use of ruins for antisocial purposes (“the desire and need for the unregulated”); and Trigg regards ruins as an aesthetic tool for contemplative purposes (fatalistic ones). But, Apel argues, these ideas all fall victim to the same delusion: they all hold the ruins at some physical or mental remove, and imagine a “deindustrial sublime” that risks “lull[ing] us into complacency.” At best this is aestheticization; at worse, fetishization. What it fails to do is address the question that her subsequent chapter asks: “Where are the people?”
Arguably the most fascinating element of Apel’s work is her study of the fortunes and fates of the citizens themselves. There are the better-known facts, such as the city’s former status as industrial capital of the world, home of the world’s first great motor company; the disputes between employers and unions; the gradual disinvestment of companies in favor of other, cheaper locations; and the crippling effects of subsequent unrest, corruption, and bankruptcy. But then there are the more shocking details — of which Apel has astonishing command. These include the historical racism that once meant that “new homes built in Detroit after the 1920s came with deed restrictions, assigned by real estate developers, which prevented black families from buying property”; the strikes in the 1940s that saw 25,000 white workers protest the promotion of three blacks; and the gradual exodus of better-off whites to the suburbs — the result of which, today, is the scenario where, “while Detroit is almost 83 percent black, the neighbouring white working-class suburbs are less than 2 percent black.” This, Apel argues, contributes to a contemporary attitude where the failings of the city are partly put down to the fact that its people are poor and black; which is to blame the victims and results, rather than the perpetrators and causes.
Apel also concentrates on the idea that “the city of ruination […] may be understood as the visual expression of the financial ruination of unionized workers.” This forms the basis of her attack on American socioeconomics at large. The historical fact of corporations forsaking the unionized city to profit elsewhere, in less worker-friendly environments, has mutated into the contemporary scenario where city bankruptcy is put squarely at the feet of the distressed city-dwellers, and austerity directed almost entirely their way. If the correlation isn’t entirely obvious, a helpful fact is that, during the 2008 financial crisis, the bankrupt auto companies received huge government bailouts; but, as Apel says, “The kinds of bailouts that were available to the banks and auto companies […] are clearly not available to the poor black city of Detroit.” She quotes an economist who argued, “Eighty percent of the pain in this restructuring is being borne by the workers and the retirees if this plan goes through. Detroit needs investment, and that’s where the federal government and the state, particularly, can and should help.” Here again, a remarkable grasp of detail comes in to assert the point, such as a court ruling that “the pension checks of retirees could be reduced even though they were protected by the state constitution”; that “between March and June 2014, [water] service was cut off to more than fifteen thousand households and small businesses”; that “in 2007 nearly one hundred homes were foreclosed upon every day”; and so on.
The attack on American socioeconomics is extrapolated from these facts (and others, such as the astonishing fact that, in 2011, with approximately 3.5 million people homeless nationwide, there were approximately 18.5 million vacant homes) to make such assertions as: “We must also look to the more fundamental reorganization of the global capitalist system that has gradually subverted and destabilized the very foundations of modern society.” Surprised as I was to find this line in a book ostensibly about ruins, the argument is thoroughly made and has an inspirational quality to it.
For Apel, who is a professor of visual culture, the media of photography and film are clearly an appealing route to the broader questions of socioeconomics. The ambition of merging the two themes clearly poses the risk that either or both are insufficiently covered. In one particular area, this is certainly the case: for, while arguing that ruin-photography too often excludes human subjects, she fails to offer serious analysis of those examples where the visual culture of Detroit does focus on the human, or individual. (A section on zombie films doesn’t seem to me to count in this regard.) Nor does she herself offer case studies of “life in Detroit,” preferring to stick to the more general — one might allege, academic — picture. In spite of its message, the reader gleans very little sense of the real “life” of people and only fleeting glimpses of black culture, historical (i.e., Motown) or contemporary. Is this the stifling effect of the author’s university background? Possibly, but it seems more likely to me that the project simply needs expansion.
That said, in the limit of the 160 pages of the book, Apel succeeds in expressing intriguing arguments, with a wide variety of references and an impressive arsenal of facts. Brevity might even be the strength of this book, giving it something of an “essential primer” status. Certainly it has encouraged me to think and read much more on the subject.