"Detroit: The Troubled City". © Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos.
This month I am in SE Michigan, teaching at the ICPSR Summer Program; this is something I do every year. In order to get to Ann Arbor from Rochester you have to drive through Detroit. And pretty much every year I make the effort to get over to the city for one or another reason. In any case, checking out the Magnum blog today I came across this new blog entry discussing this new photo essay "Detroit ~ The Troubled City" by Bruce Gilden. It seems to me that a couple of things need saying.
Let's stipulate that Gilden is a terrific photographer in the technical sense. He makes powerful images. Let's stipulate too, that his intentions are admirable. He is trying to call attention to what he sees as a travesty in America. Then let's ask if he has a clue. Because that is what I look for in photography. What is the photographer depicting and what are those depictions used for. In this case, I think Gilden misses a lot of the story. We get doom and gloom but nothing else. And, without wanting to come off as naive (something I am typically not accused of being), I think he misses a lot by taking too superficial a focus.* This leads him to be simultaneously overly optimistic and overly pessimistic.
In the first place, contrary to the connection Gilden is making, the dire scenes and streetscapes he offers are not a new phenomena. They have been exacerbated by the current financial crisis. But the physical disintegration of the city has been happening for decades, largely as a result of economic disinvestment. Gilden rightly complains about the moribund city government that has presided over the disaster in Detroit. He might have added remarks about the State and Federal governments too.
But the underlying problem has been that economic agents - firms and employers - have abandoned Detroit (and many other cities like, for instance, Pittsfield Mass., where I grew up and Rochester, New York where I now work). They have taken their money and the jobs and moved away. The result has been an emaciated tax base and rampant unemployment. Those residents who could've moved out of the cities to follow the jobs often have done so. Those who could not have been left behind. In other words, the collapse of Detroit is not just a story about continuing corruption and buffoonery on the part of local politicos (look here for the most recent installment). That would make it a story of failure when, in fact, it is a story about processes integral to the operation of the American political-economy. We cannot fix what's wrong with Detroit simply with more FBI investigations.
On the other hand, by focusing on the surface - on the foreclosures and abandoned property, Gilden may be missing dynamic processes that are taking place out of his sight. Not long ago I noted here a series of essays by Rebecca Solnit about how residents of American cities are struggling against considerable odds (and also against the expectations of many more comfortably situated Americans) to bootstrap themselves out from decay and devastation. One of Solnit's essays is about Detroit (you can find it here). Solnit, of course, peddles hope and in the process seeks out actions, events and people who afford us grounds for it. I admire her for that. But I also admire her for not being naive. She isn't. Just as the voices in Gilden's photo-essay speak of resorting to criminal violence and fomenting insurrection, some of those Solnit describes are racists or despairing or both. But she also points to other creative, organized responses to urban decay and abandonment too. She has collected her essays into a book - A Paradise Built in Hell - which is due out later this summer. In a very short recent interview about the book Solnit remarks:
"Being in a situation where people die and systems are disrupted can have powerful emotional consequences, but to think that everyone who is in such a situation is damaged doesn't address the importance of people's strength and the support they find. This vision of human frailty ties into related pictures of human nature: that we fall apart in disasters, that we need institutions to regulate us because of our weakness and wickedness, and that we should be afraid of a great many things. These serve an authoritarian and divided society, and maybe what one of my sources calls “the trauma industry,” but don't serve most of us well at all."It seems to me that, despite his intentions, Gilden risks contributing to the overly dire and pessimistic view that Solnit describes and thereby risks abetting the social-political-economic agents and institutions and organizations that will spring up to exploit fear and anxiety. I may not want to follow Solnit everywhere she goes politically. But I think she points us in what (potentially at least) is a considerably more productive direction than does Gilden.
* In fairness there is a discrepancy between what Gilden writes in the blog post and the voices he presents in the photo essay. So I am not being entirely fair.
P.S.: (5 July 09) I just happened across yet another lament for Detroit here at openDemocracy; the author, Ross Perlin, is significantly less sanguine, I think, than is Solnit. He looks at the decay of the city and the local agricultural and artistic responses it has elicited and concludes: "The artists deliver a harangue to accompany the decay, a raging against the dying of the light, but no end to the decay itself."