Is Detroit a mausoleum to a failed American Dream, or is it the site of the next great economy? Is it suffering from plummeting real estate values, or experiencing a housing boom? As with many things, it depends on who you ask and who’s framing the city, as two new photography books show.
“My love of ruins first attracted me to Detroit,” writes Camilo José Vergara in Detroit Is No Dry Bones, a recent book from the University of Michigan Press which includes images of the city’s crumbling mansions, fading architectural grande dames, and vibrant murals taken between 1990 and 2015. It’s a provocative opening line since ruin porn is blasphemy to some purveyors of New Detroit–or the revitalized, thriving, and entrepreneurially nourished version of the city that’s depicted in another new book about the city, Detroit: The Dream is Now by Michel Arnaud.
Both titles, which were released within six months of one another, are treatises on the state of Detroit and the growing pains it’s experiencing as it undergoes post-industrial reincarnation. Taken individually, each book shows half the story, but together they paint a fuller picture of America’s favorite comeback city and the complexities it embodies.
Essentially a lifestyle book, Detroit: The Dream Is Now chronicles the new crop of galleries, creative studios, restaurants, bars, and expertly renovated homes sprouting up in the city. It’s a rosy portrait of hard-working individuals who are keen to put stereotypical images of decline in their rear-view mirrors and, understandably, maintain forward momentum.
Indeed, new streetlights are populating the streets, Detroit was named a “city of design” by UNESCO (a designation that recognizes cities with a backbone of creativity), and its economy and home values are growing. However, the city still has the highest concentrated poverty rate of metropolitan areas in the country. While the subjects Arnaud interviews acknowledge the challenges of gentrification and unequal growth, it’s only in a tangential way.
“Overall it’s a positive thing,” artist Tylonn Sawyer tells Arnaud in a Q&A about what it’s like to live and work in Detroit today, and what the climate is like surrounding the changes. “It’s much better than having squalor or buildings staying abandoned for years; in that respect it’s very positive. At the same time, I can see the effects of gentrification. Witnessing it firsthand, it’s a cause for concern because people are getting pushed out or priced out.”
Most of the city’s economic development investment, new infrastructure, and new businesses are centered in the 7.2-square-mile downtown core of Detroit, which is a fraction of the city’s sprawling 142-square-mile area. Arnaud’s depiction features virtually no signs of abandonment between the book’s featured boutiques and cafes. It’s wonderful to see so many people thriving in Detroit, but as Vergara points out in his tome, abandonment still persists, both in the case of physically empty buildings and from the standpoint of governmental and private investment. In these areas, residents still have had to fend for themselves.
Every year for 25 years, Vergara has traveled to Detroit. On his trips, he surveys the city and captures its streets, its buildings, and its people–but what he’s really documenting are time and change. He revisits the same locations again and again to witness their evolution. While he’s technically an outsider, he’s got years of perspective under his belt.
“Emphasizing achievements such as the new restaurants, entertainment venues, high-tech ventures, and incoming businesses has led the world media to report extensively on the revival of a safe, lively, and predominately white core of Detroit,” writes Vergara, who is also trained as a sociologist, in his book. “Contrastingly, the African American community believes that a revival is taking place elsewhere in the city, but it may not reach their communities in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, the progress of decline and the local residents’ efforts to mitigate the effects of extreme inequality are left unnoticed.”
For example, Vergara includes photographs of folk art and guerrilla murals painted on vacant buildings in the neighborhoods that the city considers blighted and is targeting for mass demolition. One chapter in his book focuses on an “adaptive reuse” of commercial billboards. No longer profitable for advertising, they’re now loaned to community groups and public agencies for PSAs and to solicit tips for unsolved murders. These signs appear throughout the city, in the neglected neighborhoods, and in the rapidly developing core as well.
Vergara’s personal views about the city are also controversial. He romanticizes the abandoned, overgrown structures and believes that “grand ruined buildings, and a green, largely vacant city can coexist with economic development,” as he writes in the book’s intro. In one of the chapters in Detroit is No Dry Bones, Robert Fishman, who is interim dean of architecture and urban planning at Taubman College, points out that Vergara’s image of Detroit elicits scorn from city officials and some neighborhood activists who want to demolish abandoned buildings. Additionally, he doesn’t show much of the redeveloped downtown in his book, offering only one side of Modern Detroit’s story.
“Detroit in 2017 is a city of creativity, design, and innovation,” writes Matthew Clayson, former director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, an economic development organization, in Arnaud’s book’s introduction. “It is also a city of chronic conflict, challenge, and change.”
This sentiment is vividly articulated in the way both Arnaud and Vergara (who are both based in New York) describe the city in their books, which will be consumed by plenty of non-Detroiters interested in a glimpse of what the city is like. In the end, each book’s blind spots illustrate the editorial complexity of trying to communicate what Detroit is like today–as the city reckons with its past and charts a new future.