Ruin Porn

Thousands of them a year, bro

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit, An American Autopsy, has provided one of the most painful descriptions of nihilistic self-destruction I have ever read. It is a brutally honest dissection of Detroit. While working as a reporter for the Detroit News, he became close to a company of the city’s beleaguered firefighters, who have battled literally thousands of fires intentionally set by criminal arsonists throughout the metro area. LeDuff shared this comment from one of the firefighters who is asked to do the near impossible–save a city the residents are intentionally burning down.

“In this town, arson is off the hook. Thousands of them a year, bro,” the firefighter told LeDuff. “In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that a fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty, and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit so fuck it. They burn the empty house next door and they sit on the fucking porch with a forty, and they’re barbecuing and laughing ‘cause it’s fucking entertainment. It’s unbelievable. And the old lady living next door, she don’t have no insurance, and her house goes up in flames and she’s homeless and another fucking block dies.”

In my entire life, during which I have visited dozens of countries, I have not witnessed anything as bizarre as this. I have seen worse than this, and things vastly more evil than this. But the utter pointlessness of this chaos, besides pure anger and loss of meaning, seem overwhelming. And people live with this, next to his, surrounded by this, engulfed by this. For those of you out there who may snicker and even enjoy this, take heed. LeDuff and many other chroniclers of the downfall of the American middle-class in cities like Detroit have a message for you. Detroit is not the past. Detroit is the future, coming to a place near you, and quicker than you think.

Most of these crime scenes are in what used to be called the Delray neighborhood, near Dearborn and Jefferson, by Zug Island. Hard to imagine that people still make the best of it here. It is home to someone. I often wonder what Canadians just across the Detroit River may have thought seeing flames, if they could see the smoke amid the heavy industry that surrounds this former Hungarian-American enclave. This is now called a “ghost town” within a city.

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God has left Detroit

In April, I spent a couple of eye-opening days in my home town, Detroit. I was born here. My grandparents lived here for decades. My biological family (I am adopted) grew up here on my birth mother’s side. I only lived here a year, before my adoptive parents left in 1966, a year before the deadly race riots of 1967, one of several that have spanned more than 120 years.

Photographers who parachute into Detroit, like me, are rightfully accused of being disaster voyeurs. Photographing Detroit is now its own photo genre many dub “ruin porn.” Taking pictures of a dying place, where real people are struggling just to survive, is by definition schadenfreude.

I guess I have a saving grace. I am a native son. I really was born in a hospital here. My family, on my birth mother’s side, has true Detroit roots, and for that reason I feel a strong attachment.

I wrote a short essay about my trip in April, and I find myself feeling deeply unsettled now about how the last eight years of our Great Recession have been handled and the wars that preceded it. Going to Detroit you cannot ignore the massive impact of trade policies like NAFTA and the globalization of manufacturing in the years before and after its signing, when the United States began to export its manufacturing jobs overseas.

Jeez, here we are the wealthiest country on earth, and yet we let our great industrial center literally collapse before us, all while venturing overseas to preserve our strategic interests. We all watched and let the patient wither in agony, at times laughing at the patient’s demise. Today the lethal court clown of a city titillates us with reality TV that delights in the destruction of Detroit and the goofy exploits of its charismatic preachers, reality star cops, and wacky urban survivalists.