Beautiful detritus or a grim reminder of what has become of one of America’s most important cities?
Detroit was once the fourth largest city in the United States. It is now the 18th most populous due to a massive population bleed that started in the 1960s and became a hemorrhage in the past decade. Census figures show that from 2000 to 2010, Detroit lost a quarter of its population. Once upon a time, 44 percent of the Metro area’s population resided within city limits. Today, that figure hovers at just 18 percent.
It has been enjoying a hipster renaissance of late, and is a darling for the urban farming movement. Nevertheless, the fact remains: Motor City is in a state of post-decline, primed to be built again or razed and reinvented entirely.
In the meantime, the remains of more than 70,000 abandoned buildings stand undead in the city: They are standing, if by a skeletal frame, but void of familial and community life. They stand rather like apparitions; ghastly specters of a Great American Dreamscape turned burial ground. For that, they are striking. But are they beautiful?
I touched base with Kevin Bauman, creator of the photographic essay 100 Abandoned Houses, to discern just that.
Photojournalists and artists have been making pilgrimages to Detroit to capture its haunting detritus for years, notably New York photographer Andrew Moore and Parisians Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.
Bauman, however, is a local.
Having grown up in the Detroit Metro area, Bauman started photographing the abandoned houses in the mid-90s as both a creative exercise and a way of understanding what was happening to his native city.
“How could a city in the United States of America be in such a bad state?” he asked himself, thinking, “This is absurd or some sort of sad joke.”
He initially focused on the Brush Park area on the outskirts of Detroit’s entertainment district. The area has since been redeveloped with the construction of new sporting arenas, lofts and condos. Bauman turned his camera on the remaining 135 square miles of Detroit that was left untouched and ignored by developers. He switched from photographing in black and white to color and adopted a more documentary style.
Eventually, people started asking for prints and now his work hangs in galleries (currently on exhibit at the Victor Lope Arte Contemporaneo in Barcelona).
“At first, I didn’t feel right selling pictures of the houses because that was what people had to live with,” he says. “If you have to look at these abandoned houses every day and live across the street from them, you don’t see any beauty in them.”
The eeriness of being in an urban area and hearing nothing save for the howl of a roaming dog (warning: graphic video) unnerved Bauman, as well. During his photographic expeditions he’s encountered 20 foot high piles of toilets, houses with their facades ripped off completely, entire floors stuffed with garbage, and – the lifeblood of any city – concerned citizens.
“In respect to the people that live there and want to live there, I hope my project makes people want to learn more about Detroit.”
Mayor David Bing has announced plans to bulldoze large swathes of the city; meanwhile, the abandoned structures serve as eyesores to neighbors, nefarious playgrounds for criminals, and art canvases for others.
Images: Kevin Bauman; Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre