June 13, 1998


The Grand Decay of Detroit

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"Het Grootse Verval Van Detroit"
by Jeroen van Bergeijk
translation by Bart Van Leeuwen

VPRO late

Detroit, Comeback City, this Wednesday's late episode is called. Although the inner city of the former Motor town may still give an astonishing image with all those derelict, caved in buildings, there are signs that indicate a change. Artist Lowell Boileau, maker of the web site The fabulous ruins of Detroit, is optimistic too: I think that Detroit means just the triumph of the American Dream.

The web site "The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit" does very much remind of a war zone. Detroit's downtown area seems to exist out of unoccupied, ramshackle, collapsed or half broken down buildings. The once so prosperous Motor City got a lot to bear from the early seventies on: the oil crises and Japanese competition brought the obsolete ways of production of the American car industry to light. In the following years plants closed down and moved production to the suburbs and cheap-labor countries. With the car industry the white middle class also left. The inner city population dropped from 2 to 1 million.

On the web site artist Lowell Boileau show the consequences. The Henry Ford model-T plant, the plant that changed the world, as Boileau puts it, stands abandoned and dilapidated. Here for the first time a car was made in mass production. The fate of the plant where every car-driving American from the fifties dream car - the Cadillac -was made isn't much better: the Fisher Body Plant 21 is listed for demolition.

But Boileau does not only show the decay of industrial buildings, housing to was to go. The magnificent 19th century upper class houses in Brush Park are about to collapse: birds have nested in the roofs, walls are overgrown with ivy. And where there are no jobs or people, schools, banks and hotels degenerate also. Boileau paints a detailed picture of the process of emptiness and degeneration. The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit is an impressive experience, although depressing at first sight. I wouldn't call it depressing myself, but sooner saddening, reacts Boileau. At the end of my tour I also show that there is rising hope: some buildings are being renovated and reused.

This site comes right from the heart, tells Boileau, who himself lives in the downtown area. He is no activist who struggles for preservation, but an artist who lets the decay inspire him. I have always been interested in the transition from the industrial- into the information era. The buildings that you see on this site perfectly symbolise this transition. To me most buildings are glaring symbols of institutional greed. What attracts me as an artist is their visual inescapability, their enormity. Their decay commands awe and respect and there is nothing I can do but to look at it in gaping. In the art it is my ideal to create an atmosphere, that frightening feeling you get in the presence of great art. The irony of the careless, total destruction (the consequence of neglect) of such rich historical buildings supplied the dynamics for the idea for this web site. Detroit, the embodiment if the humiliated industrial city, provided both paint and canvas.

The ruins of Detroit are not only interesting as symbols of the late-industrial age, but also carry an intrinsic value according to Boileau. The Model T plant was designed by Albert Kahn, who also built numerous other plants and sky-scrapers in Detroit and the rest of the country. His firm has even designed many industrial buildings in Russia for Stalin in the thirties. The Bauhaus architects are strongly influenced by his ability to imaginate the industrial era. Bauhaus later tried to translate his ideas into housing, which in my opinion miserably went wrong. It is a scandal that the work of those architects is being neglected in this way. The Fabulous ruins of Detroit is aside from an account on industrial decay, at the same time a cheerful comment on the concept of the travel guide. With plans and accompanying text Boileau tries to interest the visitor as a tourist for his decayed city. This effect is enhanced by comparing the ruins of Detroit with, for example, the ruins of Athens and Rome. Boileau: the comparison between the ruins of Detroit and the classic ruins is more in the contrast than in similarities. These ruins will be gone soon, although some could withstand with ease the centuries to come. Where the ruins of the classic world became legends and are worshipped, our ruins are despised and taunted. The classic ruins define the values of the cultures which produced them, our ruins are looked at as the definition of failure and lack of culture.

Although Boileau would rather see that these ruins would be preserved, or still better restored, he must admit that this is not a serious option. Some people suggested a ruins theme park, and although I think it is a great idea, the people who live here now won't hear of it, let alone those who are in control. I don't know either what to do with those buildings. They are an economic burden to the city. Look, the point is that these buildings do no longer meet todays standards. The industrial age was vertical and concentrated. The information age is horizontal and decentralised. Putting people together in huge amounts, the proverbial small wheels in the big companies, as these buildings presume, has become an anachronism. These buildings can only survive when new destinations are being found. Every now and then this happens: sky scrapers are being converted into apartments, and act as sites for telecommunications antennas, old plants are used for rave parties or are converted into workshops or studios. There even is a training facility for mountaineers at an old production site.

But Boileau has no high hopes. Meanwhile downtown Detroit has deteriorated into a state where large scale redevelopment is hardly economically viable. And contrary to what you would expect, the downtown area is not attractive to shops or companies. Moreover, Detroit as good as lacks public transport. The only subway line - the people mover - makes a small tour around the centre, but is mostly used by only a handful of people. There is no decent connection between the neglected areas in the centre and the suburbs where the employment is. The political will to restore the buildings does not exist. It is not economically viable, so the only thing to do is to do nothing until they are completely rotten. Public opinion is to tear the the whole downtown area down and start all over again. This has already started: many ruins have been cleared to make place for malls and sports complexes.

Clicking through the web site the visitor may get the idea that Detroit embodies the failure of the American dream. Boileau most certainly disagrees. It may seem that way when looking at my pictures on my site, but don't forget that ruins just do interest me. Not all of Detroit is in ruins. What's more, the greater Detroit area, this is Detroit and its suburbs is very prosperous. I even think Detroit means the victory of the American Dream. After so many set backs we still come out on top: unemployment and crime have spectacularly gone down over the last couple of years. Economic activity is huge and contrary to what you might expect, the car industry is doing well too.

For Boileau the reactions of the visitors are one of the most rewarding aspects of his web site. The fabulous ruins of Detroit provoke intense emotions from visitors. I have e-mails from people who wrote that they bursted into tears. On the web site a visitor writes: I returned to my native town a couple of years ago, after having lived somewhere else for fifteen years. Refinding my Detroit roots proofed Thomas Wolfes' axiom that you can't go back home. In this case because home does not exist any more.