Detroit: America’s Acropolis?

Fisher Body 21 Plant

Camilo Jose Vergara, born in 1944 and a resident of the US since 1965, has been recording the state of American cities for two decades. He has noted, “In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many photographers were paid to photograph the phenomenal growth of cities. Today, there are very few photographers documenting their demise.” He has recorded changes in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New York City; Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Chicago; Gary, Indiana; Detroit and Los Angeles.

 Ballroom Lee Plaza Hotel

Vergara’s most recent published work, a collection of photographs and writings, is The New American Ghetto (Rutgers University Press, 1995). In the preface he writes: “Ghetto cityscapes, with their dramatic change of function, their starkness and sheer size, challenge us to reject the human misery they represent.”

The current display in Detroit is a return to an issue Vergara first raised in two magazine articles in 1995. At the time he created something of a scandal with his proposal that 12 square blocks of downtown Detroit be preserved as a “skyscraper ruins park,” an “American Acropolis.”

The photographer maintains that the city has a downtown unlike any other. He notes that Detroit has one of the largest collections of pre-Depression skyscrapers in the world and that in no other comparable urban area has the process of decay and abandonment advanced as far. One in five buildings in the downtown area is empty or thinly occupied, and most of the skyscrapers are “nearly empty and several in advanced states of ruin…. The place that invented planned obsolescence has itself become obsolescent” ( Planning, August 1995). 

In Metropolis (April 1995) Vergara commented: “In a late-twentieth-century version of the decline of the empire, down-and-outers—the elderly, homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, and the insane—loiter in the shadows of vacant skyscrapers.” 

In a telephone conversation, Vergara insisted that there was not a trace of irony in his proposal for a ruins park. He is a serious individual and a serious artist, so one wants to take him at his word. Although not quite as radical as the Surrealist proposal in the 1930s that the Arc de Triomphe in Paris—symbol of French nationalism and militarism—be buried in a mountain of manure and then blown up, there is an original and intriguing element to Vergara’s project. 

After noting in the Metropolis article that most of Detroit’s city center had been “saved” due to the cost of razing it to the ground, Vergara introduced his idea: “We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley…. Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.” 

Read the rest here: 

See more on Detroit’s ruin as a symbol of the American Empire’s End: 

Slide shows and commentaries here: 

And Environmental Graffiti’s pics for Five Lost American Cities of the Future here:

“The concept of a lost city has always astounded me, not because I don’t see how you can simply let a civilization dry up, but because I realize that in several hundred years, there will be anthropologists of that age looking at the ruins of whatever modern encampment didn’t quite work out, and asking the same questions we now ask about the Maya, or the Inca, or any other ruins we stumble upon with little explanation. 

With that thought in mind, and the coming climate change, what cities are most likely to be abandoned and raising questions? 

5. Atlanta


 Image from coka koehler 

We may have gotten a preview of the untenable expansion the capital city of the south has undertaken with the drought that dominated 2007, and will be felt through 2008 despite above-average rainfall so far. Being located in an area that is far away from any large water source may eventually force Atlanta to scale back, and climate change, as it takes hold, will only complicate matters, transforming the greenest city in America into a semi-desert environment. 

4. Miami


 Image from Mr. Clean 1982 on Flickr 

Atlanta won’t have enough water– Miami might be inundated. With much of the city at sea level, and already in a swampy condition with a high water table, the ground is poised to disappear from under the proud home of Crockett and Tubbs if the oceans begin to rise. Of course, this is the sort of phenomenon that normally takes place after endless amounts of time. Everybody will get out, but it’s possible that Miami will be a future Atlantis – a legend beneath the sea. 

3. Detroit


Image from MiRea on Flickr

Detroit is the lone city on this list that’s already in the process of becoming ruins– over fifty percent of the city’s peak population has already moved away, and vast areas of the city have been demolished to hide the occupancy issues posed by this economic tragedy. Obviously there’s hope in radically paring down and repackaging the city, but the possibility of success is yet to be seen. 

2. New Orleans

 New Orleans

 Image from *Toshio* on Flickr 

New Orleans, of course, already had one brush with death, and we know Amsterdam has been fine for centuries while existing below sea level–so why is the Big Easy included on this list? New Orleans, unfortunately, has yet to fully recover from the Katrina-inflicted blows, and the concern here is that if a large-scale disaster were to strike again, that the city would simply be left for ruins, tradition and culture or no. 

1. Las Vegas

 Las Vegas

Image from ::Topher:: on Flickr

Sin city, the shining beacon of fun (that your mother wouldn’t approve of) actually happens to be in the midst of a drought so bad that it makes Atlanta’s pale in comparison. The city government is actually paying residents to take grass out of their yards, and writing tickets to people that water their lawn. The Las Vegas aquifer has dried up, and Lake Meade can’t support the demand of this tourist-heavy metropolis, leaving it asking very hard questions about sustainability.”

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