Saturday, September 05, 2009

The feral homes of Detroit

You wouldn't think if from reading the Wikepedia entry on Detroit, but things aren't going well. Wikipedia does tell us that the unemployment rate is 28.9% and parts of the city have vacant lots and buildings. But it doesn't give much of a clue of the extent of the problem.

I've become interested in Detroit lately, partly after watching episodes of the drama series Hung which is set there. Hung stars Thomas Jane (the hero from the recent film The Mist) as Ray Drecker, a washed-out high school coach who becomes a prostitute after a series of personal disasters. Ray is symoblic of Detroit itself - he was once the high school football hero, and now he's stuck in a lowly-paid job, his wife has left him for a richer guy, his house is burnt down and he lives in a tent. Images of once grand, now derelict buildings appeared in the first episode. They were shocking and I couldn't work out whether they had been digitally altered to look derelict - how could anybody allow them to get into that state?

Turns out, they were real enough. The blog Sweet Juniper has been documenting the decay in Detroit for years. He's taken pictures of feral dogs, feral houses (which have been abandoned for so long that they have become like castles of thorns in Sleeping Beauty), abandoned schools that have trees growing out of piles of books, empty zoos, tower blocks containing haunting personal mementos from residents who had to leave. There are stiched-together friezes of streets where almost every home has been abandoned or burnt out. It's one of the most chilling and beautiful websites I've seen.


The pictures remind me of a computer game I was a bit obsessed with earlier this year, Fallout 3 - which is also set in a post-apocalyptic America.

Detroit's population has halved since the 1950s. It's been hard-hit by the economic recession and the decline of the auto industry, and the fact that it is home to a lot of poor, working-class and/or black people has made its fall all the more dramatic. Having grown up in East Durham, which lost its mining industry in the 1980s, I can sympathise - what is happening to Detroit happened to the northeast of England thirty years ago, albeit on a smaller scale. I got out of town in 1990 - just as the drug dealers were arriving. There were so many boarded up shops in our town centre, that the council used to paint pictures of fake shops over the boards - book shops and travel agents, perhaps in at attempt to con casual vistors that things weren't as bad.

But what really affects me most of all, is - how whole communities can go wrong in rich countries. Ultimately it's the social fallout of humans who don't care enough. And while an overgrown building has a certain melancholy splendour, there is nothing beautiful about the decisions that led it to get that way.

No comments: