Detroit and the Glorification of the Past

Inside Michigan Central Station under construction, a decaying archway is featured behind construction tape, a sign that reads "Men Working Above," and a construction worker walking in front of the archway toward a construction machine.
Construction in Detroit's Central Station. Source: https://www.crainsdetroit.com/real-estate/ford-begins-first-phase-350-million-makeover-michigan-central-station
Ed.note: This article is part of our bi-annual, peer-reviewed Student Voices section. Click here to read the introduction and the other articles in the section.

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear the word, Detroit? Many people will think of classic American auto manufacturing giants like Ford and General Motors, first established in Detroit. Others might think of the music popularly enjoyed across the United States in the 1960s produced by Detroit’s own, Motown Records. The auto manufacturing industry and Motown are gleaming fixtures of Detroit’s past. Once positive notions of a great American city have been replaced by negative depictions of decline. In the present day, positive news does not emanate from the city of Detroit. In fact, we hear of high crime reports, with the 2017 statement by the FBI naming Detroit the most dangerous city in America. How could a city that was once esteemed as a powerhouse of American capitalism and industrial power fall to its metaphorical knees?

An unfortunate indication of Detroit’s transformation is the grand structures built in the early and mid 20th century that are presently left abandoned and neglected by industry and city government. Once immaculate buildings highly frequented by Detroiters are presently vacant, easily accessible to vandalism and often torn down. You can’t help but compare old photographs of a prosperous, vibrant Detroit to the poor, and derelict landscape it currently embodies. The former Michigan Theater is a poignant symbol of rapid change. The theater was built in 1926 with ornate features in the French Renaissance style. Audiences once watched performances by Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bette Davis, and the Marx Brothers in the 4,000-seat theater filled to capacity by Detroiters until 1940. The ornate style of the building still remains, although cars, not people, now fill its interior. In 1977, the historic, and beautiful Michigan Theater was turned into a parking garage. This dramatic transformation symbolizes the rapid decline Detroit has faced since the middle of the 20th century. Although the theater is considered saved from destruction, what’s left has rapidly deteriorated, taking with it memories of a fond past. Dramatic transformations, as well as vast abandonment, like that of the Michigan Theater, are apparent across Detroit’s downtown landscape. Indications of Detroit’s neglect and abandonment have been prominently featured across various media.

When typing “Detroit” into a search engine, themes of abandonment and neglect are readily visible. Questions in the suggested feedback bar ask, “How bad is Detroit? And, why is Detroit abandoned?” When images of dramatic transformations to cultural sites like the Michigan Theater show up, it’s apparent why people ask these kinds of questions. To add onto this, idealized historic images of the ornate and luxurious Michigan Theater and similar types of buildings are frequently used in film and other media in ways that construct nostalgic visuals of Detroit’s past. There are several documentaries on Detroit’s decline that compare the decline of ornate buildings similar to the Michigan Theater. Furthermore, fiction films based in Detroit often use the city’s captivating and gritty landscape to add context to their story. This method of comparison in both film genres between Detroit’s formerly ornate architecture and its current state of deterioration is an example of “ruin porn.” Ruin porn evokes “romantic, nostalgic, wistful and provocative” feelings; “It’s about time, disinvestment, nature, and mortality.” These powerful feelings often influence imaginations of a past that is far better than the present.

Scenes in the documentary, Detroit: Comeback City, and major Hollywood film, Gran Torino are prominent examples of films that represent the city of Detroit through evoking ruin porn. These films use imagery that depicts historic wealth in comparison to present abandonment and poverty. Significantly, the comparison between past and present highlights what the city of Detroit aims to do: restore the city and imagine a better future through investment and redevelopment plans by evoking nostalgia for Detroit’s past. However, the introduction of new investment and people in Detroit will invite gentrification and displace those that already live downtown, labeling minorities as a problem to be solved. In this essay, I argue that both films support the city’s current redevelopment plans through their use of use ruin porn to evoke a nostalgic yearning of the past in ways that continue the historic and present-day erasure of downtown minority residents deemed disposable by the city of Detroit.

Representations of Detroit: Ruin Porn & Nostalgia

Three main factors led to Detroit’s decline in the middle of the 20th century: deindustrialization, white flight, and race riots. Deindustrialization occurred in Detroit due to the attraction of low wage regions for American auto companies outside of the city and the country. New auto plant facilities and the abundance of low-wage workers meant better profits for companies who had employed Detroit auto workers for years. The loss of major industry sparked a racial restructuring of Detroit’s population. White auto workers fled the city and moved to newly built suburbs where a portion of the auto industry had relocated. Detroit’s largest tax base fled, draining Detroit of its most affluent residents. In addition, long-standing racial conflict occurred between black and white Detroiters. Race riots broke out during the 1940s and 1960s due to police violence and the vigilance of whites trying to maintain the “racial purity of their neighborhoods.”1Reynolds Farley, “Detroit Fifty Years After the Kerner Report: What Has Changed, What Has Not, and Why?” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 4, no. 6 (2018): 209. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/704134. These forces incurred widescale abandonment and crime, both of which are pervasive representations in both documentary and fictional films about Detroit.

Media representations of Detroit frequently depict the city’s urban decay, allowing “the American viewer to confront the extent of ruination in their midst.”2George Steinmetz, “Drive-by Shooting: Making a Documentary about Detroit,” Michigan Quarterly Review45, No. 3 (Summer 2006), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0045.310. However, in recent years, Detroit’s ruins have been glamorized as ruin porn for urban explorers. Photographers and filmmakers alike frequently depict “beauty” in Detroit’s urban ruins. Although these images of ruin garner attention to Detroit’s economic state, some artists forget to consider local residents. Steinmetz notes, “as for the inhabitants of these devastated cities and neighborhoods, even if they agree on the sources of the urban crisis they tend to be divorced from the means of aesthetic and political representation.”3Steinmetz, “Drive-by Shooting”. The separation between aesthetic and political representation in regard to residents of blighted neighborhoods is emphasized by “ruin porn.” This type of art form is centered around aesthetics and does not include people. Doucet and Philp state, “ruin porn ignores and overwrites the voices of those who still call Detroit home. When its ruins are fetishized as art, these injustices are ignored, and, at worst, mimicked. Ruin porn ignores the humanity of residents’ current struggles, while replicating the history that created them.” Ruin porn often overlooks the human aspect of Detroit’s living conditions for minority residents, while glamorizing the negative outcomes of decline. Figure 1 emphasizes the glamorization of aesthetics in “ruin porn” with an image of a once beautiful and currently decaying hotel.

In addition, the majority of minorities who live in these abandoned neighborhoods are often poor. Their needs are not communicated because they are often cast aside by the city government. To make the situation worse, the city of Detroit has implemented plans to attract business and investors. Their goal is to allure young professionals to drive investment to new areas across Detroit. This plan will surely fuel gentrification and displacement of local residents as property values rise. As a result, increased tension between local inhabitants of underdeveloped neighborhoods and city officials will inevitably skyrocket. A cycle of tension in Detroit seems like an unending saga of doom for residents and city officials. The glamorization of ruin porn in Detroit is often a dangerous mechanism in imagining a future Detroit. It envisions a less complicated past where conservative ideologies on race, class, and gender prevail. Nostalgia garnered from ruin porn elicits a past where minorities weren’t treated equally. Therefore, the sentiment of returning Detroit to its former self is a complicated and dangerous venture. It means a future that perpetuates historic conservative ideologies that suppresses the rights of minority residents while fueling displacement and gentrification.

The documentary and Hollywood film analyzed in this paper—Detroit: Comeback City and Gran Torinovisualize Detroit’s vibrant, wealthy past differently, but both utilize ruin porn in ways that evoke nostalgia for the city’s past. Detroit: Comeback City compares Detroit’s past and present through historic footage of the city and local resident interviews, while Gran Torino depicts a downtown neighborhood that symbolizes Detroit’s rapid decline. Both films draw on a representation of the city through visualizing Detroit as a site of ruin porn that idealizes the city’s past. Each film similarly creates a sense of yearning and nostalgia when faced with Detroit’s current condition as a city in decline. However, this use of ruin porn and the feeling it evokes sets a dangerous precedent for minority residents who are labeled as easily removable and a problem to be solved.

Documenting Detroit’s Past & Present in Detroit: Comeback City

Documentaries and fiction films are different in the way they tell a story. Documentary “filmmaking is often described as being closer to social scientific research than fiction filmmaking. It is oriented toward ‘the world’—a ‘historical world we all share’—and not toward an imaginary world.”4Steinmetz, “Drive-by Shooting”. In addition, Schuth explains documentaries as films where the “emphasis is often on realistic images where few stereotypes can be expected.”5Wayne H. Schuth, “The Image of New Orleans on Film,” Southern Quarterly, 19, No. 3 (1981): 242. I watched the documentary, Detroit: Comeback City, and the fiction film, Gran Torino, to emphasize the difference in storytelling between the two genres. I chose this documentary because it is indicative of other documentaries depicting the rise and fall of Detroit. Depictions of Detroit in documentary films focus on factors that caused the city’s decline, and these films often showcase the negative outcomes of decline in comparison to Detroit’s wealthy past.

The 2018 documentary highlights the rise and fall of Detroit and acts as a fascinating account of the city’s history. The first half of the documentary declares Detroit as a former Silicon Valley of the Midwest and at one point in time, the wealthiest city in America. The documentary focuses on the Michigan Central Station, a former train station in the heart of Detroit, as a symbol of the city’s rise and fall. Michigan Central Station is pictured in Figure 2. A beacon of light, innovation, and creativity, the infamous Central Station is where newcomers would pass through as they stepped into a new world. The station was built by the designers of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Detroit’s Central Station was meant to awe passengers and emulate the city’s wealth and vast resources rapidly increasing in the early 1900s. Built with high vaulted ceilings and constructed in the Beaux Arts style, visitors would be greeted with a sense of new life, and a new home. Residents of Detroit were interviewed to discuss what the Central Station meant to them. To most residents, it was a staple of Detroit that resembled the city’s vitality and power. As the documentary progressed, the filmmakers drew comparisons to the station’s decline with the decline of Detroit.

The documentary depicted Detroit as a powerful empire in its prime. Beautiful art deco style buildings, plentiful jobs, and happy families were all featured. Residents of grandparents who lived in Detroit during the 1920s compared the city to Paris. However, these positive facets of a thriving economy and city were all heavily reliant on the auto manufacturing industry. The middle of the film documents the decline years of a city glamorized as a beacon of American exceptionalism. The economic downturn in the United States, deindustrialization, racial tension, and depopulation are all factors that contributed to Detroit’s decline. Footage of a thriving city filled to the brim with ingenuity progressed to footage of broken homes, rioting, and job loss. Michigan Central Station was once again pictured, but not like before. In the 1980s, Amtrak canceled service to the station due to decreased train travel. In 1988, the station was permanently closed. Once again, filmmakers used the station as a symbol for Detroit’s economic state.

The conclusion of the documentary depicts a hopeful image of the city. As the title of the film states, Detroit is a “comeback city.” The film emphasized small businesses, primarily portrayed as young business owners, looking for local designers, engineers and artists, hopeful for an upturn in the city’s economy. The documentary also suggested that big investments, like Quicken Loans and the relocation of its headquarters to Detroit, would bring thousands of jobs and capital back into the city’s downtown. Moreover, prospective excitement about reinvestment in Detroit came with the news that Ford had bought Michigan Central Station. The grandson of Henry Ford has plans to refurbish the historic building that will create new technology for Ford cars and progressively invest in the area surrounding the station.

Detroit: A Comeback City documentary is a hopeful look at the perceived outcome of small business and major investment back into the city. Although the explanation on the rise and fall of Detroit was necessary to portray the city’s history, the way the film portrayed this history ultimately glorified the past. Comparisons of then and now images portray a stark difference in Detroit’s health as a lively city. Several images of auto plants are used in the film that portray historic footage of workers walking into the Packard Automotive Plant, juxtaposed with images of the defunct, abandoned, and rapidly decaying Packard Plant that is visible today. The decline of Detroit is inescapably present throughout the film when images of blight and abandonment are compared to statements declaring Detroit as the Silicon Valley of the Midwest that was once the wealthiest city in America. Images and film of well-dressed Detroiters strolling past downtown shops and driving Detroit made cars reinforce these statements of a formerly great city. Similar statements and images that depict Detroit as a vibrant city create a nostalgic view of the past that generates longing for a time when Detroit was heralded for its promise and ingenuity.

However, comparisons between Detroit’s former glory to its present state of decay actually harm the image of a city on a comeback. The glorification of then and now images is problematic because Detroit’s future is often compared to its past. Interviews with current Detroit residents about the present state of Michigan Central Station strengthen this argument. The residents interviewed stated the Michigan Central Station was a fond memory of their childhood. Interviewees recount vivid memories that took place at the station, some of which include picking up an uncle returning from WWII or greeting family members who moved to Detroit because of employment opportunities. The nostalgic perception of the Michigan Central Station forces the audience to question how the station might return to its former glory. The film suggests that reinvestment from large companies like Quicken Loans and the establishment of creative small businesses will aid in restoring the city’s downtown. However, it also calls into question–who would benefit from big investment back into the city’s downtown? This is a question that the film does not really consider. In a city historically marked by extreme racism and discriminatory practices, the large minority population will likely not benefit from investment in Detroit’s downtown. Attracting investment will increase employment in highly skilled jobs that does not match the low educational levels of those currently living in Detroit’s downtown neighborhoods. In addition, displacement and gentrification are sure to occur as new homes and apartments are constructed to serve those in highly skilled jobs. Because Detroit’s future is often looked upon with great uncertainty, it is easy to compare the state of a wealthy and lively Detroit. Nevertheless, glorification of the past causes a nostalgic view of a successful American city, one that can be recreated through big investment and small businesses. Yet, the large minority population living in Detroit’s downtown will face the brunt of urban renewal, often benefitting new residents rather than existing ones. It’s evident through this film that the glorification and nostalgic view of the past leads to development plans for a future Detroit that hurts those already living downtown.

Depicting a Contemporary Detroit Neighborhood: Gran Torino

While documentary filmmaking is oriented more toward the historical rather than imaginary world, fiction filmmaking is, “a complex symbol system, made up of images, words and sounds.”6Schuth, “The Image of New Orleans on Film,” 240. The 2008 fiction film, Gran Torino, highlights this system with its setting, plot, characters, and character development. I chose to analyze this film because it serves as a contemporary example of Detroit’s downtown neighborhoods. In addition, the transformation of the neighborhood from white and working class to a largely lower income, minority-based neighborhood is represented through the film’s main character. Visual images of the neighborhood’s decline emphasize the use of ruin porn. It creates a positive image of the past when the neighborhood was neat and well-manicured.

The film is set in Detroit with Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) as the main character. Walt speaks in a deep, raspy tone that embodies his negative outlook on life. He is a former auto plant worker and veteran of the Korean War. The film is set in the Highland Park neighborhood of Detroit, where drastic change occurred over the years. Walt’s home is perfectly manicured, and well taken care of in comparison to the unkept lawns and decaying facades of similar homes on the street. In fact, Walt represents the American white middle-class who used to live in the neighborhood. As time passed, many white families moved to the suburbs for affordable tract housing and increasing factory jobs. However, Walt stayed in Highland Park, witnessing its decline. Walt owns a Gran Torino, which similarly represents his time as a Detroit autoworker. The car is a shining example of Detroit’s ingenuity as a city that made world-class cars. Figure 3 emphasizes these characteristics of a white working-class auto worker featuring Walt in the center, holding a pointed rifle, his Gran Torino muscle car in perfect condition, and a sliver of the American flag.

Figure 3. Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, represents Detroit’s past

The plot centers around Walt’s relationship with his neighbors, the Vang Lor family. The family is of Hmong descent, and the film emphasizes the next-door neighbor’s cultural differences. Gang violence in the neighborhood, especially targeted toward the Hmong family, is prevalent throughout the film. Although unwary and unkind to the Vang Lor family at first, Walt becomes close with two family members who are repeatedly attacked by the gang. In fact, he becomes closer to his neighbors than he does with his own family. Walt suspects his family is vying for his house, and prized Gran Torino.

At the conclusion of the film, Walt is shot on his porch by gang members. As the members drive by his home, Walt makes a gesture indicating he has a weapon. He does this to ensure that the gang members go to jail and stop targeting the Vang Lor family. In the end, we find out Walt does not have a gun, and that he was willing to die for this family with whom he had become close, even with numerous cultural differences.

Gran Torino acts as a fictional representation of the current state of Detroit. As Schuth explains about filming on location, “films could not have been set anywhere else with the same impact, as both employed aspects of the city for plot, character development, symbolism, motivation and believability.”7Schuth, “The Image of New Orleans on Film,” 243. Filming in the Detroit neighborhood of Highland Park creates a realistic setting for the movie. On-location filming casts an image of Detroit that showcases the transformation neighborhoods have undergone because of economic instability, deindustrialization, depopulation, and racial tension. The film represents Walt as a common stereotype indicative of Detroit’s boom years. Characteristics displayed in the film like Walt’s former job, prized Gran Torino, immaculate home, and attitude reflect this relationship between the past and the present. In fact, Walt’s character acts as a signifier of the past, of what the neighborhood used to look like. When looking at Walt’s home in comparison to neighboring homes, it is clearly visible which home is looked after. Because Walt symbolizes the former white working-class neighborhood with well-manicured homes, it’s easy to yearn for that past glory. Walt’s representation in the film acts as an analogy of what many visualize when deciding on Detroit’s future. In Detroit’s case, the future is often represented in its past. Investment and restoration plans aimed at Detroit’s downtown usually don’t consider the homes of minority residents. The transformation of homes in comparison to their homeowners is indicative of the city’s decline. Investment and urban renewal plans often emphasize the historically well-kept homes owned by white families in comparison to minorities’ decaying homes in order to regain a sense of vibrancy and wealth. This is why minorities are often overlooked when planning for Detroit’s future.

Conclusion

When comparing Detroit’s present state, it’s hard to forget the past. Depictions comparing Detroit’s then and now pops up once you search “Detroit” on the internet. Today, we hear nothing but negative news coming from the city. Negative headlines that include the FBI naming Detroit the most dangerous city in 2017 or the city filing for bankruptcy in 2013 are two primary examples. However, it was not always this way. Detroit’s architecture represents the former wealth of the city. Art deco buildings throughout the city, including the Michigan Theater and Michigan Central Station are gleaming examples of Detroit’s former wealth. Wealth emanated from Ford and General Motors auto plants, providing their workers with decent and livable wages. The auto industry as a whole was a source of capital that greatly benefitted the city. American’s reliance and love of the automobile created a sense of pride for Detroit and a justification to create more and better vehicles. However, Detroit’s sole reliance on a single industry caused the rapid boom and bust we look back on today. The coupled effects of economic instability, deindustrialization, depopulation and racial tension were major factors in Detroit’s decline.

The documentary film, Detroit: Comeback City and fiction film, Gran Torino are examples of different media sources that reflect both boom and bust years. The documentary provides a detailed synthesis of Detroit’s history and seemed to be quite hopeful of the future. However, comparisons of Detroit’s past and present are difficult to ignore. The film emphasizes that small businesses located in “up and coming” neighborhoods as well as big investments from corporate businesses like Quicken Loans are beneficial to Detroit and its residents. Yet, the documentary did not include the effects of displacement and gentrification on downtown neighborhoods inhabited mostly by low-income, lower educated minority groups. Glorification of the past and determining how the city can overcome its current contestations and return to a vibrant city once again does not take into account minority populations that reside in downtown Detroit neighborhoods. Job growth will certainly be targeted toward young professionals, mostly white, and will not cater to Detroit’s low-income inhabitants.

In addition, we get a sense of what Detroit’s downtown neighborhoods used to look like in the fiction film, Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski symbolizes the past. He is a signifier of what the neighborhood used to look like before Detroit’s decline years. Walt’s character, a white working-class former autoworker and veteran is a curmudgeon, wary of his transforming neighborhood. Walt’s home is in immaculate condition while the other homes on the street are decaying and unkept. His home serves as a looking glass into what the neighborhood once looked like with well taken care of homes and well-manicured lawns. Glorifying what was does not leave room for what is. The majority of the neighborhood in Gran Torino, although fictional, represents the racial demographic of Detroit’s downtown neighborhoods today. It creates a sense that without white families living in such neighborhoods, these areas are not worthy of the city’s commitment and resources. Glorification of the past in both media sources creates hope that Detroit will return to its past state. However, reaching that goal will mean displacement and gentrification of minorities, often benefitting white working individuals. It is my hope that Detroit will return to a state of vibrancy which will take into consideration all residents, old and new.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Reynolds Farley, “Detroit Fifty Years After the Kerner Report: What Has Changed, What Has Not, and Why?” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 4, no. 6 (2018): 209. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/704134.
2. George Steinmetz, “Drive-by Shooting: Making a Documentary about Detroit,” Michigan Quarterly Review45, No. 3 (Summer 2006), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.act2080.0045.310.
3, 4. Steinmetz, “Drive-by Shooting”.
5. Wayne H. Schuth, “The Image of New Orleans on Film,” Southern Quarterly, 19, No. 3 (1981): 242.
6. Schuth, “The Image of New Orleans on Film,” 240.
7. Schuth, “The Image of New Orleans on Film,” 243.

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