Eco-Living Magazine

Stop Staring!: Ruin Porn, the High Line, and the Language of Shrinking Cities

Posted on the 17 November 2012 by 2ndgreenrevolution

Stop Staring!: Ruin Porn, the High Line, and the Language of Shrinking CitiesI am a recent transplant to Southeast Michigan. Coming from the bubbling economic cauldron that is Arlington, VA, Detroit and other shrinking cities had a certain mystery, they were enigmas. The built environments I inhabited were lively, the policies I worked to implement were generally successful in shaping growth. But, driving around Detroit was visually jarring, wide open urban spaces, overgrown grass, crumbling buildings. Combine this reality with a national media discourse that focuses on the shocking, on ruin porn, one begins to wonder: Why is Detroit like this? Why did this happen? As Detroit was the bellwether for urban america for much of the twentieth century, from industrial growth to tensions between labor and capital to race relations, is the current state of Detroit a harbinger for the future of many American cities?

One of the real problems in understanding Detroit and other shrinking cities is that there is not a common language, professionally or personally, for describing these places. There is urban planning language for re-birth, re-growth, re-vitalize, but that doesn’t fit for places like Detroit. Instead of “Re-troit”, a more apt moniker may be “Un-troit”. A movie like  Detropia tries to tell the story of Detroit based on personal narrative, anecdote, extrapolation, and oversimplification. It is a good, honest movie, but at times it feels like more ruin porn. The photo book the New American Ghetto magnifies decaying grandeur, leading to things like Professor Leary’s new book that will try to explain why Detroit is often treated like the “third world”.

Fortunately, the current economic conditions of shrinking cities provide some opportunities. First, land is cheap. People and groups with ideas, energy, and capital can make things happen. Also, there is an odd market for rust and decay. Just look at the High Line in New York City. Maybe there is a way for shrinking cities to capitalize on their opportunities and industriousness without it being exploitative. Or maybe not.

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