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Urban Ruins

Over at TNR, Noreen Malone makes the case that we ought to abandon our obsession with photos of urban ruins, perhaps best exemplified by shots of urban Detroit. I haven't been to Detroit since 2008, so I can't speak about the city with any level of expertise; but I do think it's a stretch to say that Detroit, despite the bad shape that it's in, is the absolute ghost town that photos often make it out to be.

(from Rosh - New media photographer on Flickr)

Consider that Detroit currently has a population around 900,000. The Metro area is 4.4 million strong, making it just a bit larger than metropolitan Phoenix. Detroit's problem is not that it's necessarily a ghost town - its problem is that it's rapidly shrinking, which causes a whole host of further issues.

Malone continues...
By presenting Detroit, and other hurting cities like it, as places beyond repair, they in fact quash any such instinct. Looked at as a piece of art, they're arresting, compelling, haunting ... but not galvanizing. Our brains mentally file these scenes next to Pompeii rather than a thriving metropolis like Chicago, say, or even Columbus.
That's an interesting comparison, because I'm confident that, with enough effort, I could find shots of Chicago and Columbus that look pretty awful. For that matter, I could find shots of New York or Washington or Dallas or Houston that make these cities look like they're in pretty terrible shape. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's any big city in America that doesn't have at least some urban neighborhoods that aren't in the best shape.

Economically speaking, Detroit is a lot worse-off than many other American cities. But perceptually, Detroit, Cleveland and other rust-belt cities probably come across as being in much worse shape than the economic weakness actually makes them. These photos create a notorious feedback loop, where people become so convinced that these cities are terrible places that they never go there to see for themselves.


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