Artist’s Statement

9176667-smallAn article in the New York Times Magazine on the “Ruins of Detroit” commented that because of its monumental decay, Detroit has become an attraction for foreign tourists and photographers.  I admit I’m one of them.  What takes me to Detroit to drive up and down its avenues and walk its streets?  The NYT article suggested an answer: about a quarter of a millennium ago, the Romantic culture of Europe was attracted to the sites of Roman ruins, partly to contemplate the loss of an ancient civilization, and to consider the passing of the present one.  A similar urge attracts me.

The decay of the Roman civilization took centuries.  The decay of the one represented by Detroit took merely decades, and is continuing as I write this.  But strangely, I’m not depressed about it.  Instead, a very complex, introspective mood comes over me as I witness life in Detroit as it is, in the present moment, a product of all the hope, fear, hustle and short-term thinking that has dominated American civilization since its founding.  Here in Detroit, those attributes are made visible in a concentrated area that is pretty much all of Wayne County.

When an architectural work is in construction, we get to see the structure that holds it together for its intended use.  When an architectural work is in decay, its structure is once again exposed, and this time, its history and the context in which the building had its life is open to contemplation.

Think about it: at the turn of the 20th century, both the electric motor and the gasoline engine were coming into wide use. Ford’s River Rouge Plant, which symbolized the prowess of American industrial capitalism, was the subject of a 1927 Fortune Magazine  feature article.  Charles Sheeler, the American precisionist artist, supplied the photographs for it.  Later, he used those photos to compose a number of imposing, austere paintings that expressed the powerful but lifeless majesty of American heavy industry.  Meanwhile, inside the buildings, the toil continued.  That too was glorified in another way by Diego Rivera’s dramatic mural which still occupies the central space in the Detroit Institute of Art.

Optimism and pride in America’s manufacturing dynamism reached a peak during WWII.  For many years it was most dramatically manifested in Detroit–once called “The Arsenal of Democracy”.  Already, however, the fault lines that caused Detroit to crumble were already in place–the unfair labor practices, the housing and on-the-job discrimination that led up to the 3-day race riot in June of 1943.  An event that occurred three weeks before the riot is illustrative.  At the Packard Motor Car Company, 3 blacks were promoted to work next to whites on the assembly lines, leading 25,000 white workers to walk out, shutting down wartime production.  In the course of the walkout, someone shouted into the PA system, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a nigger.”

The unions did come to Detroit, and the UAW under Walter Reuther in particular, did much to diminish discrimination in the industrial workplace and raise the standard of living of two generations of industrial workers.  But just as the successes of the steel and auto industries led to monopolistic dominance and arrogant loss of ability to adjust to competition, the unions too were trapped by their own power.

The final event that crystalized the demise of Detroit occurred near the end of the civil rights movement, in the 1974 Milliken v. Bradley decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court.  In it, the Court ruled that busing to achieve school integration did not have to extend beyond jurisdictional boundaries.  As a result, the flight of white Detroiters to surrounding counties accelerated, leaving those remaining in Wayne County to suffer in rage and bewilderment.  Fear, aided by corporate power and civic acquiescence, did the work through thousands of daily acts of mindless insult.  This we now know.  We cannot pleas ignorance any longer now that the cumulative effects of those countless individual decisions are exposed.

But the pervasiveness of these attitudes and the countless subtle ways they were acted upon I did not grasp until I was alone with my camera on the streets and in the abandoned buildings of Detroit.  Pride and foolishness created it, and it still is there.  The events are the effects; the causes were things the dominant culture conveniently believed were beyond control.  Pride, hope and perhaps a little less foolishness will in time re-create a more humane Detroit, one that is less prosperous, but more sustainable than any 20th century economic and social model has created.  In spite of all that, and also because of it, people still live there.

One of the photographs was taken inside the abandoned Packard plant.  Its structure is now visible to all who care to look at it.

–Jack Urban


Jack’s photographs will be on display at People’s Church from March 15 – April 12.

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