The Consequences of Ruin Porn

So whenever I talk about ruin porn, I’m always asked why any of this matters. What does it matter if there’s a hundred or a million pictures of “dead” Detroit? They’re just pictures! They’re pretty!

Only, they’re not just pictures. As discussed here, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you can often draw the wrong conclusions about what a picture is really showing.

And when thousands and thousands of pictures and books and movies and websites and videos are made that showcase ugly old abandoned Detroit (or any post-industrial city), that means thousands and thousands of people are going to be drawing the wrong conclusion about that city. Eventually, a *narrative* is created about that city. In the case of Detroit, the narrative that ruin porn supports is that Detroit is dying. That it is being abandoned. That it’s a ghost town. That it’s not just dying–it’s dead.

And that narrative has consequences.

VIDEO: A person from Highland Park (a hamlet within Detroit proper) records the local energy company removing a streetlight from the street.

Recently, the Highland Park community got a shock. The local energy company was going up and down the streets removing the streetlights. It turns out that the city owed the energy company money. And this action of removing all the streetlights except the ones at the intersections would put the city back in the black.

This didn’t make national press. And with the exception of a few local progressive newspapers, it didn’t make local news either.

And yet, there are consequences for the community members.

From the Michigan Citizen:

Many residents, however, are concerned that the removal of residential streetlights has left them vulnerable at night.

“She doesn’t feel safe,” said the caretaker of 90-year-old Highland Park resident Jessie Calhoun, who lives in the middle of her block where the streetlight has been removed. “She’s a little afraid.”

From Calhoun’s front porch, her caretaker says the senior resident only travels to church, but is especially concerned when daylight savings end and it gets darker outside earlier.

Kennedy says residents were told the lights would be cut off and would only be provided at the intersections.

She says some residents and block clubs are coming together to purchase additional lights, but “it’s going to be expensive,” she said.

Calhoun, who’s on a fixed income, is concerned she won’t be able to afford that option.

“We’re hoping when winter comes and the leaves fall from the trees there will be more light, because now the trees block a lot of light,” Kennedy told the Michigan Citizen.

Some residents, she says, have gaslights in front of their homes. Others will have to keep their porch lights on.

“The only choice she has,” says Calhoun’s care-taker, “is to leave her porch light on and take an expense herself.”

So not only do senior women like Jessie Calhoun have to worry about their actual physical safety as a result of the removals–but they also have to pick up the cost of supplying their own lights. But if you situate Ms. Calhoun within the context of Michigan–you see that seniors were just required by the government to pay taxes on their pensions. And that amount of time you’re allowed to be on welfare got limited to 48 months. And the first group of welfare recipients will be kicked off in October. Oh, and unemployment in the Detroit area fluctuates anywhere between 20 and 50% depending on what area you’re in.

So there’s little chance that Ms. Calhoun will be able to get a job. Especially in light of her age and the fact that she needs a caretaker. But her income, which is undoubtably fixed as most seniors income is, is steadily being eaten into. Meaning that the meager income seniors already have is suddenly even smaller.

And yet nobody knows about these light removals. And worse yet, if people did know (who are outside of a social justice type sphere), they wouldn’t care.

Because Detroit is a dying city. It’s an abandoned city. There’s nothing there but crime and abandoned houses. If people don’t like it–they can leave just like everybody else did. Except how do you sell your house when there’s no streetlights on the street? Or when people know that your city is so scary, so awful, so dead, that you couldn’t pay them to take your house?

When you think that something is dead, and your neighbors tell you it’s dead, and your family tell you, and you read newspapers that tell you, and you go to a coffee house and find books that tell you and you watch movies and they tell you and you surf blogs in England and France and Norway and they all say the same thing…That city is dead.

Do you continue to invest in it? Do you feel a sense of outrage for it when it is hurt? Do you think it can be hurt? Do you advocate for justice with it? Or do you just shake your head at the sad inevitability of death?

Ruin porn as a narrative helps to justify the withdrawal of resources from people who are least able to successfully manage that withdrawal. And then it blames them for not managing it better.

Ruin porn has consequences. The most immediate ones are for people like Ms. Calhoun, who now has even more worry to bear in an already over-worried city.

Author: has written 12 posts for this blog.

Return to: Homepage | Blog Index

16 Responses

  1. Sophie Inchains
    Sophie Inchains September 15, 2011 at 10:58 pm |

    I had no idea about ruin porn as a genre of photography, however I have seen it plenty without thinking about it. Thank you for two very informative and well written posts. You have given me a whole new consciousness about Detroit and severely depressed areas across the US.

  2. Kristi
    Kristi September 16, 2011 at 12:09 am |

    It’s really late for me to be posting a comment, but as someone who is ankle-deep in images of ruined Detroit (the city I was born in, but moved away from at the age of 3), I have to argue that these photos are subject to more than one possible interpretation. The photos are stunning and otherworldly, but when we put them in the context of what we know about the city, when we recognize that the damage we see in many of these photos actually occurred decades ago and yet these buildings can be photographed in this state today, they are evidence of a shameful neglect of one society by another. They are evidence of a divide that most of America doesn’t want to or have to admit exists, and they are they for all of us to see and know that despite our differences both the wealthy and the poor had a part in this. The middle class, families like mine, fled Detroit because the government of the city turned their backs on the neighborhoods and the people and turned their attention to the wealth. In my (admittedly limited) opinion, there are two Detroits — the one that makes the cars, and the one that “makes” the decay. The failure of the two to recognize each other as members of the same community, to treat each other like brothers, the willingness of the one to leave the other to the flames while the middle class jumped in their Pontiacs and moved to South Bend or Toledo while the getting was still good is the real tragedy of this story. In those pictures I see abdication of responsibility by anybody — wealthy, poor, middle-class — and I see potential. We can look at a city like Detroit and see our future — will we stand together and build communities, or will we sacrifice one another and fall apart? There is incredible potential in those ruins, but who will step up and start rebuilding? And if no one does, are we looking at the city that represents where all of America is headed?

  3. llama
    llama September 16, 2011 at 5:02 am |

    I too have found these articles a real eye opener. Thank you for writing them.

    The story about the removal of street lighting beggars belief.

  4. La Lubu
    La Lubu September 16, 2011 at 6:21 am |

    Ruin porn as a narrative helps to justify the withdrawal of resources from people who are least able to successfully manage that withdrawal. And then it blames them for not managing it better.

    Bolded for the truth.

    In East St. Louis and Danville Illinois, this was done on a large scale and included the removal of traffic signals. (while I wasn’t necessarily surprised to see former traffic light intersections replaced by four-way stop signs in either place….I was floored by Danville’s replacement of four-way stop signs with “caution” (something like enter at your own risk) signs—that made me drop my jaw, because surely it couldn’t be any more expensive to just have the damn stop sign there, right?)

    (Lauren, are you out there? You know what I’m talking about, right? Have you seen those signs on your many travels?)

  5. time123
    time123 September 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm |

    I might be missing the forrest for the trees here but you’re description of highland park missed a few things.
    1. You made it sounds like a part of Detorit. It’s not. It’s a seperate city that is currently broke. Completely broke.
    2. If you want to talk about the troubles of highland park the streetlights should come well after reviewing the need to elimante their fire department and drastically reduce their police services due to budget cuts.

    All that said, your POV on ruin porn is pretty interesting.

  6. Jen
    Jen September 17, 2011 at 5:08 pm |

    So much of “ruin porn” has to do with the angle of the photo and just what you’re choosing to photograph, as well. I live in a “rustbelt” city. Yes, there is a lot of economic decline from the loss of factory jobs, and there are a lot of abandoned buildings. But there are communities and sectors that are doing well here, too. There’s one corner where if you took a photo facing one way, you’d see these abandoned old buildings looking tragic, but if you face the other direction, you see bustling businesses.

  7. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub September 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm |

    Jen: So much of “ruin porn” has to do with the angle of the photo and just what you’re choosing to photograph, as well. I live in a “rustbelt” city. Yes, there is a lot of economic decline from the loss of factory jobs, and there are a lot of abandoned buildings. But there are communities and sectors that are doing well here, too. There’s one corner where if you took a photo facing one way, you’d see these abandoned old buildings looking tragic, but if you face the other direction, you see bustling businesses.

    This is making me wonder why there isn’t as much popularity around photgraphs of the beautiful moments in everyday life with the people who live and work in the areas across from these abandoned buildings.

    And BFP, awesome post. Honestly, people can wax poetic about how these abandoned buildings are beautiful, etc., but fetishising a dying city isn’t helping anyone. (And when people go on and on about how it’s cool that nature’s taking these areas back, it makes me livid, because they seem to not give a flying fuck about the actual human beings who are affected like Jessie Calhoun.)

  8. Sheelzebub
    Sheelzebub September 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm |

    La Lubu: Ruin porn as a narrative helps to justify the withdrawal of resources from people who are least able to successfully manage that withdrawal. And then it blames them for not managing it better.Bolded for the truth.In East St. Louis and Danville Illinois, this was done on a large scale and included the removal of traffic signals. (while I wasn’t necessarily surprised to see former traffic light intersections replaced by four-way stop signs in either place….I was floored by Danville’s replacement of four-way stop signs with “caution” (something like enter at your own risk) signs—that made me drop my jaw, because surely it couldn’t be any more expensive to just have the damn stop sign there, right?)(Lauren, are you out there? You know what I’m talking about, right? Have you seen those signs on your many travels?)

    WHAT??? Oh, FFS. Nope, no upper-class white supremacist heteropatriarchy here.

  9. Aaron
    Aaron September 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm |

    What metric should I look at in order to see Detroit as succeeding?

    I’ll support efforts to improve life in Detroit, to expand or reproduce projects that improve the quality of life or bring jobs to the city. Yes, a focus on the ruins, abandoned building, decay, etc., can deter people and businesses from investing in Detroit. I would support a huge injection of federal money to clear out some of the large, abandoned buildings, perform environmental clean-up, and turn them into brownfields for redevelopment.

    But let’s say you had $500,000 to spend on starting a new business – what type of business would you open and why would you pick Detroit over other Michigan cities?

  10. DaisyDeadhead
    DaisyDeadhead September 19, 2011 at 3:23 pm |

    Great post, BFP.

    Newt Gingrich, in the Tea Party Labor Day debate here in Carolina, suddenly says (in a “jobs” discussion), “Why hasn’t Obama fixed Detroit? What has he done for Detroit?”

    I was dumbfounded. Is that supposed to be HIS job, more than any other president? (Now, why might THAT be?)

    And there he is, running for president… well, what’s HIS answer? What’s HE gonna do, to “fix Detroit”? Somehow, that is understood not to be his problem, but Obama’s.

    I just got furious, sputtered, but could not readily analyze the ramifications of what he was saying… now I have the words: RUIN PORN! Thanks, BFP.

  11. Linnaeus
    Linnaeus September 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm |

    Hey, bfp, have you seen this essay in Guernica magazine from January of this year? I think it might resonate with you:

    “Detroitism”, by John Patrick Leary

  12. 4catlady
    4catlady September 20, 2011 at 12:13 am |

    Two of my nephews are doing their part to try and bring business back into Detroit. Here’s a brief intro to their business – The Detroit Institute of Bagels. http://www.detroitinstituteofbagels.com/

  13. time123
    time123 September 20, 2011 at 8:02 am |

    @BFP,
    Now that I see why you were focusing on the street lights it makes more sense to me. So much more that I feel like a moron for not getting it right up front. I usually describe D’Ham (or highland park) is a city totally surrounded by Detroit. Your way may be better, it just read to me like you were saying it’s a neighborhood of Detroit and not an autonomous city. But, we’ve already established that I had low reading comprehension for your initial post.

    Honestly, for cities like Highland Park, Flint, and Saginaw. I don’t know what the right answer is. Unless you’re already there or there’s an emotional attachment drawing you in there’s really no reason to live there. The population and tax base has shrunk to the point that it’s hard to meet the fixed cost for running the city. This leads to cutbacks in services and pressure to lower wages for city workers and a worse city. After a certain point it makes sense to live somewhere else. Why buy a house or rent in highland park/flint when you can get a place really close in Detroit or Burton for about the same price but with lower taxes, and much better police and fire services? This turns into a downward spiral and soon you’re left with very few business and residents who lack the resources to move, but are

    I think the approach Flint has taken is the best so far. Consolidate the residents into more densely populated areas and turn the abandoned spaces into Brownfield. It’s not perfect *at all* but I think it might be the least bad alternative. I think it’s a lot better than having the state step in and take over the city. But given the population trends in the rust belt and the costs posed by aging infrastructure and municipal pensions I think a better solution is needed.

    Regarding what Obama has done for Detroit, he did help make sure GM and Chrysler didn’t go bankrupt during a major financial meltdown, get liquidated and have the assets sold off as scrap. It hasn’t turned Detroit into a utopia but I’m pretty sure that it helped more than a little.

  14. NancyP
    NancyP September 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm |

    Is Detroit’s port potentially high capacity? How far east can you get with a mid-sized cargo vessel? Is it economically feasible to use the Great Lakes for shipping? Despite having lived in Toledo for 4 years, I don’t have a clue about the economic impact of the Lakes.

    I know that direct access to rail lines is an advantage in certain types of manufacturing, specifically those that use raw materials. Many plants have or had rail spurs running into the plant building or adjacent to it.

    People are still shipping up and down the river systems, I see plenty of coal barges passing Cincinnati, Ohio (family there).

    Anyway, Detroit might have assets that other cities lack. Transportation costs are only going up, so long as we use diesel trucks for longer hauls.

Comments are closed.

The commenting period has expired for this post. If you wish to re-open the discussion, please do so in the latest Open Thread.