What Ruin Porn Means to a City Rebuilding Itself

Julia Shiplett
Human Parts
Published in
3 min readDec 3, 2013

--

I had never been to Detroit before this fall. I heard things, read things. Things about bankruptcy, the thousands of stray dogs roaming the streets, prostitutes who had been found burned and beaten. My boyfriend and I were going to a comedy fest outside of town and decided to make a long weekend of it. On the drive up, I felt the way I usually feel before a new experience I can’t predict: a bit anxious.

But Detroit surprises you. There are grand museums, the bustling Saturday morning farmers market, a burgeoning art scene. Certain parts of town will make you think you’re in your own hip, culturally relevant neighborhood of sunny brunch spots, cute boutiques and dimly lit cocktail lounges. Many people will delight in the fact these things exist here.

And then there’s the decay. The dramatic, haunting, beautiful decay.

Some will want to explore this side of town too. The remains. The dilapidation. The grass lots with abandoned cars where weeds have grown far above the hubcaps. I did. We stopped in neighborhoods we had no reason to be in, ones that looked like nobody was in to begin with. We wandered through a half demolished building covered in spray paint with a ceiling that made that perfect dripping sound you only hear in caves. Broken wood and rust and rubble all posing and decomposing from their most photogenic angles. Naturally, I documented.

But then came a moment of vague shame. A friend had told us about a DIY skate park some kids had built and we decided to track it down. When we arrived in our air-conditioned car to where my iPhone had taken us, there was no skate park in sight. And in the middle of the projects where residents looked at us puzzled from their stoops, I quietly asked myself, What the hell am I doing?

I felt the same way when we drove down a road with only a few houses remaining and passed by an elderly man who gave us a scornful glare. Suddenly the pavement met grass, forcing us to do an abrupt U-turn. By the time we had returned to where the man was once standing, he was nowhere to be found and the front door of a two-story you couldn’t imagine anyone living in was wide open.

Like a child who's been scolded by his mother for gazing at a homeless person, it feels wrong once you’ve been caught looking. And it’s these moments you realize there is still life in places you thought was long gone with people you know nothing about whose stories you’ve never heard. I wouldn’t go to the west side of my own city of Chicago to play urban explorer. Why was I doing it here? Because I was an outsider who would soon go home, I suppose.

So do you look or not? And if you do, are you being tastelessly voyeuristic or perversely fascinated or obliviously cruel? Should you absorb a tragedy that seems almost novel while sipping a fair trade coffee you got on the other side of town? Are you even allowed to? I don’t know, honestly. But what I’m pretty sure of is that people who still live here are tired of a reputation that’s preceded them for forty years because frankly it’s out of date.

Detroit is the capital of “ruin porn” for a reason—it’s easy to fetishize the grit. And ironically, it may be the ruins that start bringing in hoards of sightseers, to catch a glimpse of a fallen American empire. But hopefully, between photos ops at the Packard Plant and Michigan Grand Station, visitors will begin to notice a city teeming with possibility. One where an entrepreneurial spring is already underway and an undeniable electricity dances in the air of people doing things, opening things, building things. Because whether it’s cars, soul music or a Coney dog, Detroit knows how to make what the rest of us want before we even realize it’s considered classic.

--

--

Julia Shiplett
Human Parts

writer. comedian. fun aunt without a niece or nephew.