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Detroit Disassembled: America’s decaying yet determined industrial heart

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Jonathan Dodds looks at a new book of photography that gives us a glimpse into the destruction of an American city
Issue 2208
Detroit’s devastation, as vividly illustrated in the book. This used to be a nursing home (Pic: Andrew Moore)
Detroit’s devastation, as vividly illustrated in the book. This used to be a nursing home (Pic: Andrew Moore)

For generations, millions of Americans looked upon Detroit as the epitome of the capitalist American Dream.

They saw it as the unshakable, indestructible heart of industry, one which supported millions of people and strengthened the idea of the US as the world’s most powerful superpower.

But the dream vanished – leaving behind ruined communities, mass unemployment and poverty. It became a virtual ghost city on the fringes of forgotten America.

In Detroit Disassembled, Andrew Moore presents a series of evocative photographs of Detroit today – desolate and crumbling.

US capitalism, which caused the destruction of these communities, fights to portray an image of recovery.

But as the book makes clear, the poor and working class communities in Detroit, like the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, have been left to rot.

These two cities have something else in common – more abandoned properties and land than anywhere else in the US. Over a third of Detroit is now empty land.

The mainstream press has failed to portray the suffering of whole sections of society.

But there is now a new generation of artists, urban historians and photographers who document the decay of the areas in which they live.

The depiction of such ruins reminds us of the fragility of empires and societies, even those made out of concrete and steel.

As the graffiti scrawled along the wall of a former nursing home on the city’s 7 Mile Road informs us, “God has left Detroit”.

Huge areas of the city resemble a war zone. Many buildings are crumbling to ruins or are set alight by arsonists.

These areas are then either ignored or simply bulldozed to the ground, while expensive studio apartments spring up in the centre of the city.

Despite the lack of people as subjects, the photographs still provide glimpses into the lives of the people who used to inhabit the spaces. For instance a broom is propped up against the wall in the previously submerged Book-Cadillac Hotel, while another picture shows the melted clock in a former high school building.

It is through this process that the buildings and houses begin to take on personalities of their own.

Looking through the images, it’s also impossible not to stand in awe at the sheer power of nature, and its role in the transformation of the city.

Trees grow in the centre of former churches, moss reclaims the former corporate offices of a major car manufacturer, and plants invade through smashed windows into areas full of burned schoolbooks and furniture.

It’s this force that taking over the spaces left to decay by those who previously occupied it.

Moore does offer a slightly broader view of the city however, especially in the images that feature people.

The young teenage boys on a street corner and the older man standing on a porch with his dog, alongside the images of schoolchildren and homeless people, show us another side of the city – one still very much alive.

The teenagers (pictured, left) on a rooftop manage to convey a city once thriving and huge, now destroyed, which offers little to the city’s youth.

But as Moore points out in one interview, far from being a scary or dangerous city to visit, the people of Detroit have shown a resilience in their determination to survive and a pride in their communities that means life carries on.

Detroit Disassembled is out now and priced at £34.95. Published by Damiani Editore

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