Tagged: Detroit

This Week

A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the newsClick on the title of each story to jump through to the original article/blog post.


The Devil’s Advocate Guide to National Register Listing – HistPres

A new and hilarious resource for persuading stubborn ant-National Register types that listing is no big deal!  “Basically, National Register listing is supposed to be a no-strings-attached honor, and the simple act of accepting this honor doesn’t compel you to do anything. In rare cases, there may be problems stemming from overlapping jurisdictions with state or local historical societies, or over-enthusiastic preservation groupies. Just do your homework, and except [sic] your honor, and everything will be fine.”

Modern Ruins of Abandoned Detroit – TWC


Abandoned Packard Motors Plant in Detroit. (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre). Image via TWC

With Detroit’s bankruptcy in the news this week, TWC put together a beautiful (if you are into the whole ruin porn thing) slide show of Detroit’s abandoned and deteriorating historic buildings.

Gateway Cities Don’t Need a Silver Bullet – Boston Globe

Almost every year some silver bullet — a sports arena, a casino, a conference center — promises salvation and rebirth for legacy cities ( medium-sized metropolitan areas struggling with manufacturing decline and population loss are a never-ending project in many parts of the country).  The truth is the silver-bullet syndrome can inhibit revitalization. A megaproject can become an important asset, but it is not a strategy for change in itself, unless it is integrated into larger schemes to make a meaningful contribution to the city’s future. A more incremental approach built on collaboration and partnerships — combined with a fresh appreciation of existing assets (like having faith in dense, walkable downtowns ), beginning with the physical urban form of these cities — holds more promise for rebuilding. The author goes on to suggest a number of other ways to reinvent struggling cities including, “don’t be afraid to demolish.” Thoughts, anyone?

Unbelievable Nail Houses -io9


On a construction site of a shopping mall, Chongqing, China, 2007. Image via io9

Unlike in the US, China does not have eminent domain laws that allow it to take the property of private citizens for public works. As a result, builders sometimes have to elaborately construct around the property of owners who refused to sell, creating unbelievable islands of history in a sea of progress called “nail houses.” Click through for a gallery of this phenomena. You have to see it to believe it!

Promise of Streetcar Driving Occupancy Rates in Cincinnati – UrbanCincy

Just as street car stops spurred commercial and residential development in 19th century, the promise of a new streetcar line in Cincinnati is driving occupancy rates in formerly (nearly) empty commercial buildings.


This Week

A weekly round-up of my favorite preservation related stories from around the web and in the newsClick on the title of each story to jump through to the original article/blog post.

Top Ten Cities of Historic Preservation – Livability

“Many cities face increasing pressure to tear down old schools, factories and homes to make way for more modern structures. But there are communities that have challenged the notion new is better and strive to keep the look and feel that drew residents to their towns in the first place. On this list you’ll find some of the best examples of preservation, from cities that have set the standard to towns that have recently begun efforts to protect and restore historic areas.”  The list includes cities from all over the US!

Jack White Lends Hand to Detroit’s Masonic Temple – Preservation Nation


Post card of the Masonic Temple from around 1945. Image via Preservation Nation

What a feel good story!  Rock musician Jack White (of The White Stripes) grew up in Detroit. His mother worked at the Masonic Lodge, a neogothic building with over a thousand rooms including a state-of-the-art theater, ballrooms, and banquet halls. The largest of its kind in the world!  His first gigs were just a half block for the temple. And after he made it big, he played it. In recent years, the temple fell on hard times. News outlets reported that the building had been foreclosed on and that it owed the city of Detroit over $150,000 in back taxes. When he heard of the buildings plight, White stepped in. Click through to learn how he saved this iconic 1926 structure!

Olive Oil Saving Old Buildings – Mental Floss


Image via Mental Floss

Mental Floss take another look at how olive oil may save historic stone structures from environmental pollutants (like acid rain), beginning with York Minster Abbey.”Its chemical construction is what makes olive oil so useful for those trying to save buildings from disrepair. The liquid we use to cook with contains between 55 and 83 percent oleic acid, a key ingredient that has the unique quality of being able to let water out from the limestone it covers, while preventing water coming in with a coating a single molecule thick.”

Ancient Underwater Forest Uncovered by Hurricane Katrina – The Huffington Post


Image via ZME Science

“The Bald Cypress forest was buried under ocean sediments, protected in an oxygen-free environment for more than 50,000 years, but was likely uncovered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said Ben Raines, one of the first divers to explore the underwater forest and the executive director of the nonprofit Weeks Bay Foundation, which researches estuaries. The forest contains trees so well-preserved that when they are cut, they still smell like fresh Cypress sap, Raines said. The stumps of the Cypress trees span an area of at least 0.5 square miles (0.8 kilometers), several miles from the coast of Mobile, Ala., and sit about 60 feet (18 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Despite its discovery only recently, the underwater landscape has just a few years to be explored, before wood-burrowing marine animals destroy the ancient forest.”

Remembering Birmingham’s ‘Dynamite Hill’ Neighborhood – NPR


“Three civil rights workers stand guard in front NAACP attorney Arthur Shores’ house in Sept. 1963. The house was blasted by dynamite the night before.” Image via NPR

“In many ways, the story of modern Birmingham starts on Center Street, a leafy hill lined with neat brick ranch-style houses. In the 1940s, Center Street was the city’s color line. To some, the west side was the white side and the east side was in transition.” When the first black families tried to cross the racial divide, the street became volatile. The Klu Klux Klan burned African American property and shot out the windows of African American homes. Forty plus unsolved bombings earned it the nickname “Dynamite Hill.” But those first few families pioneered on despite the danger to themselves and their property.


Ruin Porn

Ruin porn is an artistic movement characterized by photographs of the blight, decay, and abandonment of structures in post-industrial cities, most notably Detroit.  It is a trend that seems ubiquitous and is only growing.  It was named Trend of the Year in 2011 by Architzer, the web’s fastest growing database of architecture.  Type “ruin porn” into any search engine (even Pinterest!) and millions of results pop up within seconds.  It can be found in museums and galleries, in newspapers, and on TV news.   So what is with the provocative name? Why are so many people into this trend? Is it good or is it bad?

Why “pornography”?

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, image from “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005- ) (image from thestapleton.com)

por·nog·ra·phy 3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction < the pornography of violence>

Ruin porn elicits an emotional reaction from the viewer – as does the word pornography. Both the term and the movement are tinged with sensationalism. They are both considered a guilty pleasure.   There is also a sense that these photographs are being taken by outsiders and that the photographs are exploitative.   People who don’t have to deal with the effects of the urban decay they photograph swoop into an economically depressed area, get their images, leave, and then show everyone what they saw for their own personal gain.

The word pornography is attention grabbing.  It gets press. The Germans have a word for a love of ruins and abandoned places. They call it ruinenlust.  Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite the same, does it?  I really can’t see ruinenlust grabbing headlines the way Ruin Porn has.

What is the appeal of ruins and decay?


The ruined Spanish-Gothic interior of the United Artists Theater in Detroit. The cinema was built in 1928 by C Howard Crane, and finally closed in 1974. Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Germans love it. Americans love. The Romantics of the early 19th century were fascinated by decay and ruins. Painters of the Renaissance obsessed over Grecian ruins… But why?

Done right, the images are beautiful, provocative, and nostalgic. They stir the emotions.  They draw you in and peak your curiosity.  They beg the questions, “where, why, how?”  (Don’t believe me? Check out abandonedamerica.us).

Psychologically, ruin porn images are appealing because they are startling.  According to Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, they “offer an escape from excessive order.”  It takes your brain more effort to sort out what its seeing, and it enjoys the challenge.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the term “ruin porn” because of its sensationalism and its silent accusation of wrong-doing, I am a fan of the genre.  I find the images arresting. They elicit an emotional response from me – one of nostalgia and wistfulness.  As a preservationist, it troubles me to see an historical structure crumbling due to neglect.  At the same time these images offer a unique look at historical spaces.  The deconstructive narrative of the images is as informative as it is beautiful. Flaking paint layers, crumbling plaster, exposed structural elements – all reveal something about the space and how it has been used.  The debris remaining in a space also offers clues about how it was used and who used it.  Ruin porn offers an uncurated link to the past.

Harmful or Helpful?

Old Courthouse Rotunda Lexington, KY

Ruin porn is more than an artistic movement. It is a comment on society.  Post-industrial cities are falling to ruin because of a changed economic climate that has given birth to the “rust belt.”  Ruin porn highlights how this economic change has effected the built environment.  Its critics claim ruin porn is condescending to the residents of the rust belt.  Ruin porn ignores them altogether – there is rarely a human element in a ruin porn image.  Therefore, ruin porn is not an accurate portrayal of the cities in which they live.  Citizens  have pushed back with ant-ruin porn rhetoric and and projects that actively  combat these misconceptions, like Can’t Forget the Motor City, a collaborative photo-project showcasing the vibrant culture of Detroit.  These cities have more to offer than urban decay.

Proponents of ruin porn believe in its possibility.  According to Richey Piiparinen of Rust Wire, ruin porn “outed” ruin. It pulled back the sheets and exposed the blight caused by a failed  system.  “… By outing and framing it—not to mention capturing the inherent beauty in broken things—Ruin Porn exposed the  failure and decay, thus clearing the secrecy, the shame, and leaving perceptual room to see less emptiness and more space.”  By raising awareness, ruin porn has the potential to change the way America responds to the economic failure of its cities.

Ruin porn has attracted tourists to cities – both foreign and American. It  has brought artists and professionals in search of urban decay.  Edwin Gardner calls this “intellectual disaster tourism.”  In a poll last month, the Huffington Post asked, “does photographing urban decay actually aid the communities at stake?” I think the simple answer is yes. Tourists spend money in the communities they visit – on food, accommodations,  transportation and maybe even souvenirs.

I agree that ruin porn has exposed decay and blight. I believe the awareness it has raised can save important historical structures.  I also believe that ruin porn documents structures that might otherwise have escaped notice; ruin porn photographs have the possibility of being useful to future research. For those reasons and more, I am a fan of ruin porn.

What do you think? Is ruin porn friend or foe?