Something, Something, Something, Detroit
After suffering through the nation's worst and most concentrated examples of racial violence, industrial collapse, serial arson, crack war, and municipal bankruptcy following years of municipal kleptocracy, Detroit is being descended on by a plague of...
Aug 1 2009, 12:00am
Hi, here I am in front of the landscape that photographers always use to illustrate the jarring contrast between poverty (as represented by a desolate alley) and wealth (as symbolized by the fancy GM skyscraper in the back). That white building on the left is one of Detroit’s most successful grinding plants. Photo by Joseph Patel
After suffering through the nation’s worst and most concentrated examples of racial violence, industrial collapse, serial arson, crack war, and municipal bankruptcy following years of municipal kleptocracy, Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters. If you live on a block near one of the city’s tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, you can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.
The interest in coverage is legitimate—if you search places like Digg or Reddit for Detroit stories, even totally boring news items like a hiring jump at the local wind-energy plant number in the thousands. And God help you if the piece has anything to do with urban decay. When Vice UK ran a little series of photos by James Griffioen of the demolished interior of an abandoned Detroit public school, it tripled our website’s traffic for nearly a week.
The problem is it’s reached the point where the potential for popularity or “stickiness” or whatever you’re supposed to call it now is driving the coverage more than any sort of newsworthiness of the subject. There’s a total gold-rush mentality about the D right now, and all the excitement has led to some real lapses in basic journalistic ethics and judgment. Like the French filmmaker who came to Detroit to shoot a documentary about all the deer and pheasants and other wildlife that have been returning to the city. After several days without seeing a wild one he had to be talked out of renting a trained fox to run through the streets for the camera. Or the Dutch crew who decided to go explore the old project tower where Smokey Robinson grew up and promptly got jacked for their thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.
The flip side is a simultaneous influx of reporters who don’t want anything to do with the city but feel compelled by the times to get a Detroit story under their belts, like it’s the journalistic version of cutting a grunge record.
“Time magazine sent a 24-year-old guy to Detroit,” James Griffioen told me. “They wouldn’t let him rent a car, so he was dropped off in a cab downtown. He’s there for six hours and he’s supposed to write a feature article on Detroit. For Time. He had a meeting with the mayor in the morning, the mayor stood him up, then he had a meeting with me, and that was it.”
For a while James was getting four to five calls a week from outside journalists looking for someone to sherpa them to the city’s best shitholes, but they’ve finally begun leaving him alone since he started telling them to fuck off.
“At first, you’re really flattered by it, like, ‘Whoa, these professional guys are interested in what I have to say and show them.’ But you get worn down trying to show them all the different sides of the city, then watching them go back and write the same story as everyone else. The photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn.”
The time-ravaged edifice of Michigan Central Station, conveniently located across the street from the city’s most popular BBQ spot. Photo by Joseph Patel
The Michigan Central Depot is a hulking, bombed-out turn-of-the-century train station that’s constantly used by papers and magazines as a symbol of the city’s rot. The only problem is, aside from looking the part, it doesn’t have too much to do with any of the issues it usually gets plastered above. It’s owned by a billionaire trucking tycoon, not the bankrupt city; it was shut down back in the 80s, not because of any of the recent crap. Nevertheless, back in December when the auto executives were in front of Congress, Time ran a photo essay to go with the story, opening and closing with shots of the terminal. Three months later they ran another spread about the city’s decay, although this time they limited the depot shots to one.
In addition to being a faulty visual metaphor, the train station has also been completely shot to death. For a derelict structure, it’s kind of a happening spot. Each time I passed by I saw another group of kids with camera bags scoping out the gate. When I finally ducked in to check it out for myself, I had to wait for a lady artist from Buffalo, New York, whose shtick is taking nude portraits of herself in abandoned buildings, to put her clothes back on. Afterward I was interrupted by a musician named Deity who was making a video on the roof.
The city’s second-most-overused blight shot is of the mile-long ruins of the Packard Auto Plant in East Detroit.
“This is the visiting reporters’ favorite thing to see,” James said. “The people all come here to shoot the story of the auto industry and they love this shot because they can be like, ‘See that? That’s where they made the cars,’ and then forget to add the footnote that the plant’s been closed since 1956.”
In the past month alone, the plant’s been used by the New York Times, the British Daily Mirror, and the Polish Auto Motor as a visual for stories it has no concrete connection to other than occupying the same city. The Packard also shows up twice in the same Time photo spread from December, although the second picture is just captioned with the street address to make it look like their photographer visited more than three sites.
Here’s the bummer: To get a nice, wide westerly view of the building complex you have to go into the adjacent cemetery. On the outer path at the edge of the plots there’s a large, jarringly ugly sign warning visitors to lock their cars and be alert for muggers. Next to this, on my visit, there was a haphazard stack of concrete grave liners sprinkled with dirt near an idling front-end loader whose front end was loaded with topsoil and plastic flowers.
There are families of white folk who fled Detroit for the suburbs in the 60s who have now become so terrified of visiting the city that they’re willing to disinter their dead loved ones and rebury them in their current neighborhoods. And it’s not just one or two oddballs doing this—more than 1,000 bodies have been exhumed and moved since 2002. It’s a full-blown trend.
This was discovered by Detroit News hotshot Charlie LeDuff, who you may remember from the story he wrote about the guy who was frozen in an abandoned elevator shaft and had kids playing hockey around him or, if you’re more media savvy, from his long stint at the New York Times. While the homeless-mansicle piece got picked up by the wire services and pretty much every major media outlet around the country, no one but a handful of blogs would touch the dead-flight story. This could have happened for any number of reasons, from the racial implications of the whole thing to run-of-the-mill shit luck. Still, it doesn’t say much for the outside media’s attention to detail when nobody’s managed to notice one of the city’s most heavy and emblematic news items staring its most clichéd icon in the face.
Climbing a hillock for a better view of the grassy wastes surrounding Jane Cooper Elementary School. If you move the camera just a few inches to the left you’ll get a bustling, well-maintained food-packaging plant in frame, so be careful to crop that shit out. Photo by James Griffioen
Surrounding the Packard in sporadic patches is Detroit’s famed urban prairie—entire blocks of reclaimed grassland where the houses have either burned or been knocked down. A rapid succession of city-council proposals this spring have suggested using the land for an urban farm, an urban Christmas-tree nursery, an urban-rehab center, or the borders of a newly divided series of mini-cities. These pockets of downtown wilderness have become the media’s latest fixation.
James took me out to the grassy mound where he photographed a long shot of the abandoned elementary school. For several blocks on either side there’s nothing visible except waist-high grass and crumbling strips of asphalt.
“If you angle the camera the correct way it looks like you’re in the middle of nowhere—but then you turn a little to the right and there’s a well-maintained, fully functioning factory, and to the left there’s this busy office park. Still, people love to take this shot, crop it so it’s just prairie, and be like, ‘Look, this is a mile from downtown, it’s turned into woods.’”
The other problem with everybody on the prairie’s jock is nobody ever bothers to differentiate between which patches went to seed on their own and which had a little outside help.
“These blocks didn’t just fall apart by themselves, the city did this intentionally. They spent $15 million clearing everyone off the land so it could be used as an industrial park that stalled out.”
All the stories about Detroit’s many, many faults have fostered a backlash of journalists who decide to come in and write the “happy” piece about Detroit. The problem is that while there’s a wide spectrum of problems for the misery tourists to explore (the 50 percent literacy rate, the $1,000 houses, that YouTube video of City Councilwoman Monica Conyers calling the council president “Shrek”), the posi reporters are stuck picking from a handful of urban gardens and art collectives. From what I could tell, these types of places seem like they’re about two more interview requests away from pulling their own Stranger With a Camera.
I’d already felt like a pretty massive prick driving around devastated neighborhoods all day with an enormous camera hanging out the window, but I didn’t know from shitty until I pulled up at one of East Detroit’s community farms and tried to talk to a couple kids who were either loading or unloading some boxes of stuff. After staring at the mic clipped to my shirt like it was a severed baby’s clit, one of the main guys (I think) explained their position:
“Look, we get like 30 emails a week from people. What happens is they go off and write their story and nothing ever happens here except we get more and more requests. Now, like, Delta’s inflight magazine is contacting us. I don’t know what to say to Delta’s inflight magazine.”
Later I found out that right after I’d shuffled off with an awkward smile, the dude stormed into his house and fired off a furious email to the person I’d been driving with, accusing him of wanting a bunch of “Billyburg hipsters” to move onto their block. I can’t believe I got redlined in East Detroit.
For all the lazy shit the outside media has been pulling with Detroit, reporters in the city have actually been getting shit done. The Detroit Free Press won a Pulitzer last year for digging up over 10,000 text messages that led to the former mayor’s resignation and arrest. LeDuff has been harassing Councilwoman Conyers in the News to great effect while keeping a close eye on the “eccentric vagrant” beat. Having your hometown overrun by a bunch of smug assholes with their reductive analogies and clever little pat phrases while the paper you work for can’t afford to keep the lights on would be enough to send most folks groveling back to New York. But LeDuff’s fine with it.
“For some reason we’re disdainful of ourselves,” said LeDuff. “It’s a problem with the culture. I don’t know why you’d want to be in China or in Russia, because it’s happening here. We’re in the center of the empire right now, and here’s where you can see the collapse of the empire starting.”
See more slanted journalism from Motown this month on VBS.tv.