In the past 40 years, the number of people living in the city of Detroit has halved. This has led many to write it off — in many ways, wrongly — as a decrepit ghost town. Unbroken Down is a photo project that counters the images of abandoned buildings with personal, vibrant shots of everyday life in Detroit.
Photographer Dave Jordano – fresh out of college after being born and raised in the Motor City – was part of the exodus when he headed for Chicago to start a commercial photography studio in the late ’70s. Jordano’s father worked for General Motors and joked that motor oil ran in the family’s veins. Three years ago, Jordano returned to Detroit and began photographing the neighborhoods, people, vistas and communities of his hometown. His resulting body of work is an endearing and sprawling document of a city close to his heart.
“This is the most emotional work I’ve made,” he says. “I don’t get tired and I just keep wanting to go back. I find more and more material every time I go.”
Unbroken Down is also an attempt to set the photographic record straight. Jordano believes that Detroit is more than a tale of decline and images of the associated urban decay. Yet, a lot of celebrated photography projects made in Detroit recently have focused on ruination as if the apocalypse passed through and kept going.
“Detroit is still a living city. Why hasn’t this been part of the equation?” asks Jordano of most photographic output. (There are exceptions.)
Jordano understands why “Ruin Porn” – the term given to the recent trend in photography that fetishizes decay – exists. He himself made photographs of dilapidated buildings initially. It took a week before he realized he wasn’t adding anything new to photography’s vocabulary.
“You can’t help but be drawn to ruins. Everyone has gone to Detroit for that reason,” says Jordano. “But images of ruins are so pictorial and picturesque, you can almost overlook the tragedy of it all.”
Of every three Detroit residents, one lives at or below the federally defined poverty line. The median household income in the city is $25,787, compared to over $40,000 in Michigan as a whole.
“The unemployment rate can be as high as 20 to 40 percent depending on what age group you’re looking at,” says Jordano, who is not blind to the serious problems brought about by Detroit’s decimated auto industry. “It really depresses me, to be honest. In 1977, when I left, Detroit was still pretty thriving. There was very little competition from a few Japanese imports.”
Detroit’s population has dropped from a peak of 1,849,568 in 1950 to 713,777 in 2010. The total population has shrunk by 25 percent since 2000. Much of the migration has been to the city’s suburbs, beginning with “white flight” in the ’70s and continuing today with black families’ relocation to areas with better schools and services. The population of the Detroit metropolitan area has hovered just above 5 million consistently since the 1970s.
For some, Detroit, as the crucible of “Fordism,” is as American as a city can be. The attraction of Detroit’s cheap rents and DIY-attitude to an influx of artists has been widely-reported. People in Detroit say that if you can survive there, then you can survive anywhere, and if there is a common thread among Jordano’s subjects, it is their perseverance.
“My work is not about what’s been destroyed, but more importantly about what’s been left behind and those who are coping with it,” writes Jordano in his artist statement.
Through Jordano’s lens we meet family-business owners, lake-swimmers, urban-farmers, artists, children playing in the street, dog-walkers, squatters, collapsed revelers, resting firemen and lonesome drinkers. He deliberately roamed throughout all the neighborhoods of Detroit.
“The overall picture is that there is hardship,” says Jordano. “The hardships reveals itself in the way people live.”
With approximately 31,000 empty house and 90,000 vacant lots, many of the subjects seem to occupy spaces partly abandoned, partly reclaimed.
“If you want to build something, you just build it. It’s very ad hoc and there’s little city permitting. It’s quite pioneering in that way,” says Jordano.
It’s far cry from the boom times of downtown Detroit. The drastic changes can even be traced in Jordano’s Re-photograph Survey, for which he revisited Detroit streets he had photographed as an art student in the mid-seventies.
“Most rephotographing projects recreate images that are a century old, but these are my own images,” he says. “That the decline of Detroit has been in my lifetime is remarkable.”
To assert control over the city’s post-industrial shifts and to ensure stability, Detroit City Hall is looking to resize the city so that it might cluster people and services into “hubs” separated by re-greened spaces. Supporters of the resizing proposal say it would enable more efficient public transport and deliver improved essential services.
Jordano has heard estimates that up to 100,000 more people might exit Detroit before its population stabilizes. This would only compound problems as he believes a stable and predictable tax base is the prerequisite for any future growth.
If people are to leave, then Jordano hopes they are the ones to make the choice. Some city-planned regeneration initiatives may threaten some residences and he believes no one should be forced to relocate.
“There’s talk about bringing in animals and starting urban farms, but they take up a lot of space,” says Jordano. “There might be only one lot occupied on a block but it is still a home.”
Dave Jordano’s work is currently in the Motor City Muse: Then And Now exhibition, at the Detroit Institute of Arts Museum, through June 16th, 2013. (Via)
See also the previous posts of Detroit: