Talking ruins 

It’s a common sentiment among residents and outstaters that Detroit is a mess. But the layman, the homeless man and the dejected Detroiter may not know that for the last 30 years or so, the Motor City has been a petri dish for sociologists studying urban blight.

This week, the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities invites many of these urban scientists to chime in on (and maybe even shed some light upon) the topic with the international conference, “Ruins of Modernity.” They may even come up with a viable solution or two.

The conference, organized by U-M professors Julia Hell, from German Studies, and Andreas Schönle, from the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, is intended to spark intellectual and solution-oriented dialogue about the future of the city. In their press release, the organizers explain: “Ruins bespeak a loss of meaning, yet provoke the imagination with the suggestive spectacle of decay. They evoke an ambivalent break from, and nostalgia for, the past. A desire for preservation in the interest of historical continuity often conceals a political appropriation of ruins as signs of past greatness.”

Scholars from several disciplines, including architecture, cultural studies, film, history, art, literature and music, will come to Ann Arbor to discuss the meaning and function of the ruins in modern culture. The purpose of the symposium is to study America in the post-Ford era and its place in the modernization vs. preservation debate.

In addition to the conferences, “Ruins of Modernity” will screen Detroit: Ruin of a City for the first time. The documentary — though sometimes guilty of esoteric musing — is an interesting deconstruction of the city’s history. It explores the ebb and flow of Detroit’s automotive industry as well as the political, racial and economic strife that’s made Detroit a prime example of urban decay.

The story is told through a variety of fantastic archival footage — of Ford plants, mass labor protests and rare celluloid of Diego Rivera painting his famous mural, “Detroit Industry.” Local pundits, (including Metro Times’ W. Kim Heron and former MT staffer Lisa M. Collins) are interviewed.


March 17, 18 and 19, in the Rackham Building on the U-M campus (915 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor). 734-763-5019 or visit to a link to the full schedule.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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