- Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age by Camilo José Vergara
Camilo Vergara's greatest strength as an urbanist has always been devising systems to understand the city. Since the late 1970s, he has extensively photographed in Camden, New Jersey; Richmond, California; and in Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Los Angeles, and the boroughs [End Page 105] of his hometown, New York. In books beginning with The New American Ghetto (1995), Vergara has sought ways to understand the struggles of the late twentieth-century U.S. city by arranging his photographs into thematic groups and through repeat photography, for which he was awarded a Mac Arthur Fellowship in 2002. In these sequences, Vergara photographs urban streetscapes from the same vantage point over decades, revealing the intense contraction of, and divestment in, the urban core through changing storefronts and growing weeds, as well as the bottom-up responses to the changing city through DIY inventions.
Detroit Is No Dry Bones continues this project in a city changed in ways Vergara could not have imagined when he first started working there more than twenty-five years ago. In the early 1990s, Vergara was drawn to the ruins of Detroit. He addressed the theme at length in American Ruins (1999), in which he proposed a skyscraper ruins national park in the city's downtown. There, the seemingly outmoded high-rise district built during Detroit's early twentieth-century expansion would be preserved—not restored or reoccupied—as a monumental representation of a previous way of organizing urban place and as an essential symbol to understand the United States, a counter-narrative to sanitized American urban history.
Today, though, Detroit's downtown has seen a massive wave of new development where Vergara's park (could have) stood. While the park could never represent the totality of Detroit, this unexpected present requires Vergara to reinterpret the city. His new book is about this change: the concentrated redevelopment of central Detroit and, crucially, its detachment from the vast majority of the city, which remains impoverished.
Any new book about Detroit needs to confront the derelict image of the city in popular culture—a representation that Vergara helped to create. The end of the aughts was saturated with depictions of Detroit, mostly dwelling on the ruins. In many ways, this out-pouring is an affirmation of Vergara's interest in the symbolic power of decay. At the same time, while untold millions of dollars have been poured into "stabilizing" the city through demolition of "blight," Vergara argues that the ruins have been essential to redevelopment, for better or for worse. To Vergara, the ruins transcend the present and past and orient us toward the future. In the best examples of revitalization, he writes, "artists and people sensitive to the ongoing transformation are creating rich narratives that transcend the word blight" (79). In the few examples he describes, from YouTube urban exploration videos to the reinvention of a failed experimental house, Vergara notes how these projects use dereliction to engage issues as broad as the unpredictability of redevelopment and privacy of medical records. And as Geoff Dyer adds in a passage that Vergara quotes toward the end of the book (281):
Ruins do not encourage the viewer to dwell on what they were like in their heyday. The Coliseum in Rome or the amphitheater at Leptis Magna has never been anything but ruins. They are eternal ruins. … Rather than make you think of the past, ruins direct you towards the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like. This is what the future has always ended up looking like.
Despite a similar past-is-future orientation, much of the ruin-derived Detroit photography that Vergara helped spawn lacks the sensitivity of his work. Relative newcomers like Andrew Moore have produced series of photographs often described as "ruin porn" that emphasize decontextualized aesthetics rather than the social processes...