Art historian Dora Apel, in her insightful new book, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline, examines the iconography of deindustrialization as it plays out in the city where Henry Ford was once king. The visual images that permeate publications, the web, film and television almost revel in the presentation of the ruins of the city of Detroit, the poster child for disinvestment and decline. In a way, it is like watching a train wreck: we are horrified by the sight of a great American city in decay, but cannot turn away. Many of the images have a kind of beauty, especially when shot by talented photographers and videographers. In her introduction, the author compares the images that accompanied recent disasters in American history: 9/11, hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and other devastating events to those of “abandonment and decay” created by deindustrialization. Apel believes that these images speak “to the overarching fears and anxiety of our era: increasing poverty, declining wages and social services, inadequate health care, unemployment, homelessness, ecological disaster and degradation and fear of the other” (3).
Apel points out that in the majority of the forums that present this so-called “ruin porn,” Detroit (and by inference any former industrial community ravaged by job loss and disinvestment) either bears the brunt of the blame, depicted as being rife with mismanagement and corruption or, conversely, is a product of the cyclical nature of economics and the inevitability of industrial decline. As she demonstrates, the story is far too complex to boil down to this black and white interpretation of deindustrialization and decline. More importantly, Apel lays the blame for deindustrialization where it rightfully belongs—on capitalism and its callous search for profit over the welfare of people and communities. The simplification of the past—and the romanticism associated with “ruin porn”—only obscures the deeper root causes of the problems facing Detroit and other similar cities.
The author begins her story with a discussion of how the ruins of ancient cultures like Greece and Rome became objects of “ruin lust” for Europeans by the late 18th century, engendering feelings that their contemporary culture was infinitely superior to these “barbaric” older civilizations. The problem with modern ruins is that distancing one’s self is much more problematic—if it happened in Detroit, how soon will every other city follow suit? In other words, they hit too close to home and can hardly engender [End Page 153] feelings of superiority. While the vogue for classicism has waxed and waned since the eighteenth century, how soon will architects and others find inspiration in the ruins of modern society and reinterpret them for a new generation?
Apel gives an excellent overview of Detroit’s history, demonstrating how the once mighty automobile capital became the symbol for everything that went wrong in urban, industrial America. People have come from all over to tour the ruins, photograph them, make films about them. In some cases, the work is nostalgic for a time when Detroit was in its heyday such as Lowell Boileau’s “Fabulous Ruins of Detroit” website, now a part of the greater “DetroitYes!” site. Yet, as Apel points out, it’s the structures, not people that are usually the subjects of said images. If that was the only visual record we had of Detroit, people might mistake it for an episode of television’s Life Without People (which has in fact, featured Detroit’s crumbling built environment). Detroit’s population, which is predominately African American, is, with a few exceptions, invisible in these portraits. As Apel points out, this speaks to the general failure to acknowledge that many of the city’s problems stem from capitalism’s failures, leaving behind low paying jobs, lack of city services such as mass transit, a deteriorating infrastructure and other ills associated with poverty and a declining tax base. Racism and classism are alive and well, not just in Detroit and how it is viewed, but throughout the nation. Failure to understand this means a failure to...