Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

by Michael Hobbes

Like probably everyone else, I came across Drew Philp’s essay, “Why I Bought A House In Detroit For $500,” when someone I know posted it on Facebook. “Ugh,” I thought, clicking, “Buzzfeed.”

But I shouldn’t have! Philp’s essay, once I got past my URL prejudice, was complex, mature and open-hearted, the kind of inside-looking-out journalism everyone says they want more of but doesn’t always have a place in traditional media.

I’ve lived in the house for more than three years now. The neighbors don’t think I’m so crazy. They’ve brought me lemonade while I was working on my house, or they’ve cut my lawn when my mower was broken. They’ve invited me to barbecues and into their homes. I guess they’re happy there’s one more set of eyes looking out. “We’re glad you’re here,” is a refrain I hear often. I’m still very aware I am a young white kid in a mostly black neighborhood, but for the most part people have made me feel welcome. I’m grateful and feel an even deeper sense of responsibility to stay.

All I know about Detroit is what I’ve read in national newspapers and seen on the occasional episode of Frontline, just scraps of information pasted together with my own stereotypes. I called Philp to ask him what people like me, outsiders with no knowledge of the city and getting this constant barrage of ruin-porn and gentrification panics, should know about what it’s like to live there.

How long have you been in Detroit now? And how have your feelings on the city changed since you moved there?

It’s been about seven years. There’s a lot of good things about Detroit that are not getting attention, and a lot of the “bad” things that can be assets. For example, the space is great. There were two abandoned houses next to me that were knocked down, and I was able to purchase the lot and now I have space for a garden, I have space for a pond and a shed, place for my dog to run around.

I moved here thinking it was a place that I wanted to change, but it turns out that a lot of the people that stayed, they really love it. It’s a place to protect. We want things to flourish, but we want them to have roots.

The culture in the city is wonderful. Art, music, history, it’s incredible. On the other hand, you have some very difficult issues, such as race, that we haven’t dealt with. For example, The Detroit Future City Plan, which was funded by a lot of the foundations in the city, and that our current mayor has called his “bible,” doesn’t have a sufficient discussion of race.

Detroit is the most segregated metro area in the country. People talk about Detroit losing population, about white flight. But in terms of the metropolitan area, it’s been stable at around 3 million people, while the population of Michigan has declined. A lot of that has to do with race.

Do you mean that the economic changes that Detroit’s been going through in the last 30 years have been worse for black people than white people?

There’s certainly a racial component. Most of that economic decline has been concentrated within the city limits, which is 80 percent black.

Detroit is like this Greek stage where all of our problems play out. A lot of these national conversations, like about gentrification, women and minorities in the media, a lot of these things you see on Twitter, are playing out in spectacular fashion in Detroit.

Why do you think Detroit has become this totem of all these larger issues?

Because of its place in history. We were the fourth largest city in the United States. They used to call Detroit the Paris of the Midwest. It was an extremely important city. We put the world on wheels, man, that’s huge. You think of the most important inventions of the 20th century, you’ve got the light bulb and you’ve got automobiles. Detroit helped win World War II. All of our automobile plants were retooled to make planes and tanks.

It’s also been an extremely important center of African-American power and culture. Detroit used to have the highest rate of African-American homeownership in the U.S. That was coupled with some of the best schools in the U.S.

So there’s been this rapid and dramatic decline in Detroit’s fortunes. It’s kind of upsetting to see John Kerry offering a billion dollars to the Ukraine, but the Obama administration has said there will be no bailout for Detroit.

What decisions did the city make that exacerbated this downward trend? Or was the decline simply inevitable, given the changes in the wider economy?

It’s difficult to blame the auto industry completely because they’re subject to global capitalistic forces. They didn’t just choose to move all the plants to Mexico. It was a choice they had to make based on global markets and United States trade policy.

On the other hand, I’m not letting us off the hook. We mismanaged things here. One huge problem is corruption. It’s something we can’t get away from. It’s certainly been an enormous deal in the last decade or two. We all know Kwame Kilpatrick, the former mayor, is in prison. The president pro tem of the city council, Monica Conyers, was also incarcerated. Kwame didn’t admit guilt, but Conyers did, and she’s married to a former U.S. Senator.

I get a lot of people calling me, saying “I want to move to Detroit and buy a house, where should I live?” My suggestion is, if you want to do something like that, do it to stay and do your homework. I have no idea where you want to live because I don’t know you. It can be trying at times. People here are nice and they’re willing to help, but we can’t run around trying to help everyone who comes in.

What do people outside need to understand about Detroit?

The best thing people can do is study the history of structural racism in the United States. It’s playing out in fantastic fashion here. The history of that in Detroit is very important in interactions with people.

You can still see the legacy of blockbusting and red lining, keeping African Americans from being able to buy homes where they wanted. There are two walls in Detroit built to keep black people out. There’s one along 8 Mile Road, which is obviously famous from the Eminem movie, and divides the white area from the black area. And there’s another between Detroit and Grosse Point. We call it our very own little Berlin Wall.

I struggle with this too. Like, if my social conditions are in part due to the benefits of structural racism, what does that mean for my moral obligation, and my ability, to solve it?

I used to teach a class at the university called white racial Identity. Oftentimes people think about race as a deviation from whiteness. But that’s not the truth. Whiteness is its own trait. There’s no baseline for race. This is what Moby Dick is about, believe it or not. As well as understanding how race plays out in structural context, white folks need to understand “whiteness” as a concept.

Detroit’s biggest problem is that more than half the people have left, most of them white. One of the reasons I bought this house was that I wanted something to keep me here. We have to deal with these problems. We can run away from them, but then we’re never going to find the solution.

It sounds difficult to deal with on a personal level, but you can’t stay angry at your neighbors who you see every day. When you’re part of the same community, eventually you work out your problems just because you rub elbows with one another and you’re forced to. But if we can run away and spend a few years here and then split, I don’t think we get much done.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

There’s a big difference in objectifying those ruins when you live here and deal with it every day and when another person comes here and wants to take pictures of your poverty. It gets tiring when it happens over and over. Who likes to have a magnifying glass held over them? And I don’t come to your neighborhood taking photos without asking. There’s an issue of privilege here too.

Is it possible that it comes from a place of empathy, though? I know people who have gone on “township tours” in South Africa because they were genuinely interested in the poverty there, and didn’t know how else to see it for themselves.

I’d like to think so. One of the things I’ve learned living here is that people want to tell their own story, and what they’re reacting to is that tourists are trying to tell it for them. Lots of people come here without the desire to listen, and that’s what bothers people.

William Easterly’s book, The White Mans Burden, talks about two kinds of people who come to poor countries and try to develop them: Searchers and planners. Planners come in with an idea of what they want to do regardless of whether local folks want it. They say, “Here’s the plan, and I’m going to recruit you to help me with it.” Searchers, on the other hand, go in and say, “What do you need? How can I help? How can I use my privilege for leverage?”

I think that’s the issue with ruin-porn. It seems like most folks come in in the planner style, with these preconceived notions of what Detroit is and want to take photos to enrich themselves, and then go back to Seattle or wherever.

That’s what I liked about your piece, that it wasn’t making an argument, like ‘Detroit is shitty’ or ‘Detroit is great.” It was acknowledging the complexity of what got Detroit to where it is and what’s going on there now.

I think the pendulum is swinging back from snark and irony, and people want stories where people are putting themselves out there and offering hope, but tempered with reality.

I can see it here. It’s hard not to be earnest. There are still 700,000 people here, there’s a real culture here. We don’t want people coming here and thinking, “Detroit is a blank slate.” We want people to come and listen because there are people here who have been working on these things for a lot longer than the people who are just arriving.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Philp’s suggestions for further reading

● Tom Sugrue; The Origins of Urban Crisis — If you read one book on Detroit make it this one.

● Mark Binelli; Detroit City is the Place to Be — an excellent and well reported look at where Detroit is now.

● Surkin and Georgakas; Detroit: I Do Mind Dying — Fascinating and compelling history of the intersection of race and labor movements.

Drew Philp is on Twitter.

So is Michael Hobbes.

Photo: Michigan Municipal League

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