Ruins and redemption

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American Ruins
by Camilo José Vergara
Monacelli Press, $60, 224 pp.

The ongoing debate over Detroit’s abandoned buildings took a strange turn five years ago when New York photographer Camilo José Vergara made the modest proposal that the 12 square blocks surrounding Grand Circus Park be turned into an urban ruins theme park.

Some found the idea interesting but impractical, while others found it outright insulting. But either way, the idea drew new attention to Detroit’s decaying buildings.

Detroit is something of an obsession for Vergara – over the past decade, he’s been systematically photographing the city, including the images in glossy, coffee-table books. Detroit figures prominently in the recently published American Ruins, in which Vergara also continues to argue for the ruins theme park.

Vergara’s idea would include the David Broderick Tower and the Book-Cadillac and Statler hotels, as well as several other buildings surrounding Grand Circus Park. As the buildings shed their exteriors, he figures, plants will wind around their steel skeletons. Scaffolding placed around the buildings’ lower levels would protect pedestrians from debris.

It’s not the kind of plan those interested in historic restoration like to hear, but Vergara’s proposal magnified the problem the abandoned buildings present as well as drawing attention to what they represent. While the current dilapidated state of buildings such as the David Broderick Tower and the Michigan Central train depot clearly indicates a decline, the buildings themselves are also symbolic of Detroit’s past achievements.

For that reason, Vergara says even if these buildings aren’t restored, they should not be destroyed. Rather, he suggests that such buildings need to be preserved as symbols of the aspirations they represented when built.

This is particularly true in Detroit, where the concentration of pre-Depression architecture is one of the largest in the country. "Where else do you have these things, and what would you replace them with if you knocked them all down?" he says.

Katherine Clarkson, executive director of Preservation Wayne, agrees that the buildings are important symbols of Detroit’s past success, but says keeping them as ruins is "admitting that human beings are incapable of maintaining this achievement."

Clarkson thinks an urban ruins park is a contradiction in terms: "If you allow nature to win back man-made objects you are being anti-urban."

Allowing the buildings to fall into ruin also seems to undermine efforts to preserve a type of architecture that is no longer built. According to Clarkson, the state of Detroit’s pre-Depression buildings and their vacancy reflects the changing size and function of the city.

While the city’s population has decreased by half over the last 50 years, the size of the metropolitan area has significantly increased. Suburban sprawl and the practice of building structures with temporary life spans results in "the cheapening of our built environment," as Clarkson puts it.

Vergara calls it "building a lesser city." He cites the demolition of a Firestone tire dealership: "Nobody found the imagination to do anything useful with that building." This charmingly gawky, postwar aerodynamic glass and steel structure on the corner of West Chicago and Grand River was razed in 1997; a coin-operated laundry surrounded by asphalt sprouted up in its place. Although admittedly providing a service, the building’s low-rise design and parking lot contradict the logic of urban planning by favoring low-density development over high-density development and the car over the pedestrian.

Across Detroit, the plain horizontal forms of suburban buildings are replacing the vertical, ornate architecture of Detroit’s past. "Why are you bringing those terrible things? What have we done to deserve them?" Vergara asks.

Strip malls and Blockbuster Video stores are unlikely to one day elicit the same nostalgia that the Hudson’s department store did. "People whose memories are tied into all these (old) places are going to be devastated when all this goes."

Preservation-oriented Detroiters agree, at least in part, with Vergara’s ideas. "You wipe out the old buildings and you wipe out the identity of the city’s history," says Shawn Santos, a board member of Cityscape, a planning and preservation organization. But Santos cautions that the urban ruins theme park shouldn’t be considered as a real possibility.

Instead, she suggests Vergara’s photography and ideas should be viewed as a meditation on civilization.

"People misinterpret ‘ruins’ (as) meaning ‘ruined’," Santos says, indicating the offense many people have taken to Vergara’s assessment of Detroit. For her, ruins is a positive term which aptly conveys the strong symbolic meaning of Detroit’s abandoned buildings.

However, critics say Vergara’s idea about ruins ignores the fact that Detroit is a city with a million residents, not ancient Greece.

Jerry Herron, a professor of American studies at Wayne State University, says Vergara presents a hopeless image of Detroit. "Ruins makes it seem like there aren’t specific historical questions to be asked," he says.

"You have to figure out a way to imagine the place to make it intelligible," he notes, and "the myth of ruins" both fails to explain why Detroit’s buildings are how they are, and also evades future possibilities.

So, is ruination the only option? Bill Atwood, who also co-owns Pure Detroit, says these buildings are Detroit’s most valuable assets and that Vergara’s plan for a ruins park provides at least a temporary solution.

"He’s really advocating mothballing," Atwood says, adding that the more attention Vergara’s photography brings to the buildings, the better the chances for their eventual rehabilitation.

In any case, for now it seems as if Vergara has got his ruins theme park, pending future development. Grand Circus Parks’ skyscrapers remain vacant and deteriorating while construction on the new Comerica Park continues nearby. Perhaps the new stadiums will spark a renewed interest in the buildings, but Vergara says it’s going to take more than zoning and reinvestment strategies.

"I think Detroit was a big dream like Paris was a big dream. It’s just the old dream is being dynamited and there’s no new dream to replace it. Who is going to dream about casinos and a ballpark?"

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