Beyond the Ruins

Cities have become sites of massive redevelopment, where the synergies of culture and capital play an important role. The continued deindustrialization of cities, the rise of the service sector, the changes in labour and economic processes, and the gentrification of large urban regions are now receiving attention in cities all over the world. 

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The following photographs explore how a new Detroit is being “produced”, amid these narratives of urban regeneration. By focusing on the transformation process of the built environment, these photographs intend to show the social discourses and socioeconomic factors that shape urban space. 

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In recent years, the city of Detroit has become the site of two conflicting narratives, one that describes the city’s precipitous decline, neglect and abandonment, popularised in the media and the cultural world through the images of the city’s ruins, and another that praises its enormous possibilities as a model of post-industrial regeneration. 

The modern history of Detroit has become one of the most powerful illustrations of a capitalist system based on mass production and mass consumption, and its destructive forces. Once one of the most prosperous cities in the world, Detroit has been suffering a continuous decline since the 1950s. The causes that contributed to this decline - the offshoring of the industrial sector, unemployment, poverty and racial segregation - have also affected many other cities in the United States. However, especially since the turn of the century, Detroit has become a symbol, both of the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.

Since the 1950s, as a result of offshoring production to low-tax non-unionized cities in the US and abroad, Detroit began a precipitous decline due to unemployment and violence; factories, houses and entire buildings were abandoned by the thousands and the city lost 60% of its population, from close to 2 million in 1950 to less than 700,000. 

The description of these facts in the media, illustrated by images showing a post-apocalyptic landscape, nurtured the imagination of many artists, and especially photographers. The popularization of this practice known as ‘ruin porn’ has had its share amount of praise and criticism, many photography books have been published on the subject testifying to the popularity of ruin imagery in the cultural world.

But in recent years, another narrative has gained sway amid the numerous press articles written about Detroit, which announces the city’s rebirth as a blank canvas with enormous possibilities for artists, activists and entrepreneurs. 

In July 2015, The New York Times published an article calling Detroit the “Last Stop on the L Train” (a train connecting Manhattan with some of the hippest areas in Brooklyn). The article described a media campaign orchestrated by Prince Media (an advertising company with enterprises in Detroit) encouraging Brooklyn residents to move to Detroit through slogans like: “Detroit, Just West of Bushwick,” and “Detroit: Now Hiring.” The article continued to narrate the stories of artists and cultural agents that were leaving Brooklyn to move to Detroit. 

This renewed image of Detroit is already being capitalised by billionaires investing in real estate while prices are still cheap, like Detroit-born Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans, who has invested so far an estimated two billion dollars in Downtown Detroit and has commended himself the mission to rebuild the city as a hub of ‘muscles and brains’. His scheme “Opportunity made in Detroit” showcases the city’s exciting present and promising future as an urban environment to attract businesses, residents and visitors.

In recent years, the linkage between art and real estate has met with an enormous amount of criticism; as the growing evidences of gentrification, homogenization and the instrumentalization of the cultural sector (in favour of more lucrative regeneration ventures) do not cease to appear. Sharon Zukin’s seminal work Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change, published in 1982, focuses on the transformation of Soho in New York, beginning in the mid-1960s. Through a detailed and documented account of the changes in Soho, Zukin probes how policymakers used the art-world as a main instrument for the transformation of a former manufacturing district, that has since become one of the most expensive areas to live in Manhattan. 

Nowadays, the links between culture and capital described by Zukin have become a formula in urban regeneration, traceable in cities all over the world. One of the most popular advocators of this formula is economist and social scientist Richard Florida, who popularised the concept of the “creative class” – a very contested theory that links the presence of “creative types” (artists, bohemians, gays etc.) with economic growth in urban areas. A recent review by artist and activist Martha Rosler, “Culture Class” published in 2013 by Sternberg Press, focuses on dismounting Florida’s theory, presenting a thorough analysis of the historic links between art and urbanism, using Zukin as a main reference source. As Rosler puts it: “Zukin lays out a theory of urban change in which artists and the entire visual art sector—especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums—are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.” (2013:89). 

Another important criticism in Rosler’s work, that was also present in Zukin’s, is the loss of authenticity as a result of the cultural homogenization, developing from the implementation of regeneration formulas, such as the one of the “creative class” in urban areas that had built their own social and spatial relations over time. She quotes Zukin’s work in a very important paragraph of Loft Living that summarises the cycle of cultural regeneration in this way: 

“Seeking inspiration in loft living, the new strategy of urban revitalization aims for a less problematic sort of integration that cities have recently known. It aspires to a synthesis of art and industry, or culture and capital, in which diversity is acknowledged, controlled and even harnessed. [But] first, the apparent reconquest of the urban core for the middle class actually reconquers it for upper-class users. Second, the downtowns become simulacra, through gussied up preservation venues. [...] Third, the revitalization projects that claim distinctiveness–because of specific historic or aesthetic traits–become a parody of the unique. (Rosler, 2013:127 / Zukin, 1982:190). 

This quote encapsulates the critique of Zukin and Rosler and other commentators like Yúdice (2004) and Harvey (2013). It describes an appropriation of culture by capital whereby culture becomes a commodity like any other, shaped and domesticated by the interests of capital. It describes an urban policy that uses the arts and the middle-class to transition the “rent gap” (Smith, 1996), but ultimately focuses on the repurposing of post-industrial sites to build homes for the rich. The preservation of historic buildings is aimed at selling the space for its “historic” value, but first the space is domesticated, in order to accommodate the type of services required by the potential rich buyers. As a result, history is also commodified, becoming a simulacrum.  

The following photographs explore how a new Detroit is being “produced”, amid these narratives of urban regeneration. By focusing on the transformation process of the built environment, these photographs intend to show the social discourses and socioeconomic factors that shape urban space. They cover the main areas undergoing major redevelopment in Detroit: Downtown, Midtown, Corktown and the Riverfront area, focusing on the new residential and retail developments and on the repurposing of abandoned homes and factories. Ultimately they ask what kind of city is being created, with what purpose and for whom. 

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