Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: THE RUINS OF DETROIT by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

I have never been to Detroit, but of course there are things I associate with it--mainly Motown and cars. After reading this book, however, it will be difficult for me not hear the word Detroit and think of the crumbling ruins of capitalism and industrialization.

I first heard about this book from Natasha at 1330v. It's a photographic essay of a wide variety of abandoned buildings in the Detroit area in various stages of decay. Meffre and Marchand began photographing urban ruins in Paris, but with Detroit they hit a gold mine. This is more than just the few rotted-out buildings here and there that exist in every city; these are entire neighborhoods, abandoned as if the occupants just suddenly got up and left, with only the detritus of human existence--clothes, papers, books, toys--to acknowledge that these spaces were once occupied. It's like something straight out of I Am Legend.

ruins of detroit book cover
The abandoned Michigan Station serves as the cover for the book.

The book is more than just pictures, though, it's the history of Detroit from its beginnings as a French fur trapper rendezvous, to its peak as the machining capital of the US, and the decline that began with white families moving to the suburbs, essentially strangling the city center. In the 1980s businesses began to leave Detroit and the ruins of today took shape; but the ruins themselves aren't confined to the city center or businesses--they include the older neighborhoods and suburbs of Detroit, as well. The place where the industry for which Detroit became known, cars, began in Highland Park, where Ford started his first assembly line and Woodward Avenue became the very first paved mile. Today Highland Park is more a ghost town than not, with some houses literally taken over by trees, and no city services. The photographs of the Highland Park police station, completely abandoned, show the floors littered with files of murder victims and evidence of the man who killed them--some of the creepiest photographs in a book full of eerie and creepy shots. As Meffre and Marchand put it, "Everything began and everything seems to be ending in [Highland Park]."

The photographs themselves are, on one level, very beautiful--the framing and color is so intriguing, capturing the texture and romance of something that many would probably consider an eyesore. But there's also a sadness to them, especially coming in the wake of recent financial troubles all over the world. One can't help but finish this book and wonder, Is the American dream dead?

As someone who lives in Colorado, I've seen my share of ghost towns. But those are little mining shacks out in the middle of nowhere, relatively small boom towns completely stripped of clues as to what its inhabitants were like. Detroit is an entire city, with paved roads and beautiful architecture, that hosted a lot of big dreams, most of which (judging by these photos) have literally gone to seed. Residents of US are so rarely confronted with signs that civilizations don't last forever, but one can't help but consider as one reads through this book that this this what all our cities are going to come to eventually.

This is not a happy book. You will not feel optimistic about the future of America after reading it. But it is an excellent book, one that will stick with you, and one I highly recommend.

Note: I made the book trailer, above, for my own amusement.


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