Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: Detroit: 138 Square Miles

There are many haunting images in this gargantuan photography book by Julia Reyes Taubman, but the one that devastates my dad is a picture of two disintegrating steam Bob-Lo boats docked next to a US Steel plant in west Detroit. For nearly 100 years, the boats carried generations of Detroiters to Bob-Lo Island amusement park on the Detroit River. I vaguely remember riding in one myself as a kid - if there was anything exotic and exciting about living there, that was it.

To my dad, the abandonment of these boats is nothing less than the desecration of our elders. The rusting stacks, the ghostly white sheets hanging off the sides: these images are hard to look at for someone with affectionate memories. That the boats are now docked next to a steel manufacturing plant is weirdly insulting.

Photos of abandoned Detroit, aka "ruin porn" are pretty cliche at this point. Everyone's seen a photo of the empty Michigan Central Railroad Station or crumbling ceiling in some old factory. On the other hand, it's hard not to take a photo of abandoned buildings in the city - they're everywhere. Taubman's book contains many pictures of these ruins, but they don't feel like a rehash. The color tones, the sometimes ethereal perspectives seem to come from a place more of empathy and history than exploitation.

The East Side's empty lots (Photo: Taubman)
As an environmentalist, I was drawn to Taubman's photos of heavy industry. From the Marathon Oil tank farm and piles of coal on Zug Island to the Detroit salt mine and Ford River Rouge Plant, there are some epic images of the guts of our country's manufacturing legacy. Even my dad, who's been to some of these sites at ground level was surprised at the extent of the operations in Taubman's areal views.

"US Steel's manufacturing operations entirely occupy Zug Island" (Photo: Taubman)
The book provides visual confirmation of why zip code 48217 was recently identified as the most polluted region in the state. Michigan Radio's Environment Report has been following the expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery (the only oil refinery in Michigan) in the last month, particularly the buy-out offer Marathon's given to people living in surrounding neighborhoods. The expansion would "upgrade" the plant to allow it to process -- surprise, surprise -- tar sands oil from Canada. In Taubman's photos, the refinery's impossible tangle of pipes and smokestacks is fascinating and creepy.

There are people in Taubman's book too, but they are usually overshadowed by their surroundings. For instance, there are a few grainy, snap-shot quality photos of smiling people hanging out in dim bar rooms. After being inundated with images of architectural emptiness, these informal shots feel more weighted than they might be otherwise because we want to know what it takes to live here.

In the introduction, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty. By documenting the results of this driving character, Taubman forces us to question our cultural values.

0 comments:

Post a Comment