On the other side: Hope Porn

For the rest of the series, see:
A short history (1)
A short history (2)
The Ruin Porn Post
The Consequences of Ruin Porn

Out of the ruins, springs hope. It’s an inspiring idea, one that we hear all the time. Out of death, springs life, out of horror and hell, springs humanity and grace.

In Detroit, it’s out of ruin porn, springs hope porn.

Compared to ruin porn, hope porn is almost the exact opposite–but the two need and build on each other. Whereas ruin porn focuses on the devastation, decay and blight of post-industrialization, hope porn focuses on the potential. It sees in the burned out houses possibility, it sees in the abandoned streets a lovely blank slate.

The way that hope porn manifests itself is less in pictures, and more in words. Documentaries and sales pitches. It usually involves an intrepid reporter or explorer that comes to see if things are “really that bad.” After a careful two week study that involves the reporter talking to a specific group of people, there is the grand announcement: it’s not as bad as we’ve been told! And then we get the secret. The exclusive “in the know” report out. Since everybody *thinks* things are that bad–property values around here are outrageously low! You can get a house for a dollar! You can do whatever you want with this house! Because it’s only a dollar! You are only limited by your imagination!

Of course, it’s not really mentioned that the specific group of people that this documentarian/reporter/explorer is usually talking is made up of the very people who have moved into Detroit after hearing from other reporters that things aren’t that bad. And they sorta have a vested interest (that 1$ property) in making sure that everybody knows things aren’t that bad). But that’s ok. Because with the politics of hope porn comes…hope! And that’s a good thing, right?

Except that you don’t have to scratch too far to see how closely related hope porn is to the narratives of colonialism. What were the golden paved streets for Cortes and Columbus and the “house on a hill” for religious communities and the “free land” for hopeful farmers but narratives of “hope”? You don’t have to stay where ever you are and deal with the fucked up bullshit that you’re dealing with right now! You could move to the New World! Or Kansas! Or Oregon! Or California! And you can have everything you ever wanted! Everything is there for the taking! The only limits are what you can imagine!

VIDEO: the first part in the Johnny Knoxville documentary about Detroit. Some quotes:

“It’s a blank canvass. Right now there’s really a possibility to change the city.” “There’s like, opportunity to do stuff, whatever you want, really, and no one will really mess with you.” “That entrepreneurial spirt can be very powerful, can be a much needed anecdote to a city that had it’s heart ripped out….”

But just like with colonial settlers of the past, those who are charmed by the hope porn promises don’t ever quite think to ask…what about the people who are already there? If on the rare occasion that they do consider people already on the land, the seduction of hope porn easily convinces them that they are there to help the poor souls–and if they can’t help, that’s what they pack their guns for.

Which of course, leads to conflict. When you move to a city in hopes of mobilizing the economic potential without recognizing that it was that same mobilization of economic potential that ravaged the city to begin with all while continuously invisibilizing the people who existed on that land long before you got there (i.e. ruin porn), you get what you have now in Detroit.

For example. The gardens in Detroit are known world-wide. Sprung out of the lack of adequate grocery stories coupled with abandoned lots, poor people in Detroit used the land to meet the needs of their communities. People were hungry and were being fed by liquor store food. Crime was a constant problem around the empty and abandoned lots. And even more importantly–because everybody was poor, they had no resources to start up their own stores.

So different community members cleaned up the lots and planted food. They started projects with elders and youth working the land together. Elders teaching the youth about how to properly compost or how to catch rain. Community dinners were held at harvest time where people within the communities finally got to meet their neighbors over food rather than the latest worrying event. People broke bread together. The needs of the community *created* community. Community coming together and talking helped built a critical analysis of what had made this need to begin with (industrialization). And the community agreed. It was as important to continue addressing the vestiges of industrialization as it was to address the needs of the community. By addressing their needs, they were addressing industrialization.

But then the story of the gardens got attached to the hope porn narrative. And suddenly what was an innovative and transformative way to address the ravages of industrialization became a way to “bring people back to the city” and “create economic growth.” Or: through hope porn, the gardens became a selling point rather than a way to meet the needs of an existing community. And you started to see more situations like this one:

A couple of interesting — if not downright sad — examples happened at the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) the week of June 20. That was the first week of EMEAC’s Gardening Activism Media and Education (GAME) Summer Camp, when a group of a dozen or so youth attending the camp led by EMEAC Associate Director Ahmina Maxey visited two institutions in the city. One institution calls itself a “community garden,” but is in actuality is a private enterprise in Midtown. The other is a public building in the heart of downtown Detroit.

In both instances, the campers were met by individuals bent on denying them access to these facilities.

In the first instance, the campers were purportedly denied access because there had recently been thefts at the garden — the implication clearly being that the campers were somehow likely to cuff something if allowed inside. Even after Ms. Maxey explained who they were, why they were there and that they were given the access codes to the garden by another member who was notified and approved of their visit, the gatekeepers still turned them away and saw fit to make sure the lock on the gate was turned to the inside — just in case the campers had a notion to double back when these vigilant gatekeepers were unawares and make off with the garden’s goods.

In the second instance the very next day, the campers were stopped that afternoon and told they couldn’t enter without a chaperone. When Ms. Maxey introduced herself as the chaperone and produced her driver’s license as proof, the gatekeeper still insisted they could not enter and only relented when Ms. Maxey appealed to a higher level staff member.

In other words, what began as a way to address resource hoarding (i.e industrialization)–is being used as a way to resource horde again.

Things are not hopeless. I personally know many white folks (and people of color!) who have moved in to the city as hope porn consumers–but through critical awareness and a willingness to politicize their own need to “hope,” have stepped back and questioned their own positions within the community, rather than continuing to uncritically accept the building over of the community hope porn incites. I recently had a long conversation with a white father who talked to me about how he negotiated being the white guy that all the people in power preferred to deal with over the black people that he organizes with. It was an eye opening conversation that really addressed a lot of my own hopelessness that white supremacy will always be invisible to white people. It won’t be. And it isn’t.

And just last night I was at an amazing community dinner that celebrated the recent harvest of local gardens. It was a multicultural dinner with lots of different people from all walks of life sharing a meal, music, and dancing together. And as the friar shared at the beginning of the meal, the dinner was a showcase of how what had started off as a charity organization had changed. That same organization decided it didn’t want to service the poor any more (i.e. “to help” the poor), it wanted to create a world where poverty no longer existed. And so it embraced the goal of “creating a just and beautiful food system for all.” So now in addition to giving away food to the poor, it also helps to create those relationships, the ones between youth and elders. It works to position youth as leaders of the movement towards a just and beautiful food system. It holds skill shares so that community members not only learn how to grow food, but how to sell it as well. It examines the idea of “selling” and what that means in the context of “just and beautiful.”

Things are not hopeless. They are just hopeless down the road that hope porn follows. Things *are* bad in Detroit. They just aren’t bad for the reasons that ruin porn tells us. And there is hope in Detroit. It’s just not hopeful for the reasons that hope porn tell us. To address the real problems of post-industrial cities, we have to put down the rose colored glasses–and we have to be brave.

And part of being brave means challenging a narrative that hopes to make others change instead of ourselves.

Author: has written 12 posts for this blog.

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13 Responses

  1. Jadey
    Jadey September 18, 2011 at 6:28 pm |

    These posts keep bringing me back to Chimamanda Adichie’s The danger of a single story. It seems like people keep trying to flatten the story of Detroit into one simple narrative, doing injustice to the real (if maybe sometimes contradictory) stories of people in and from Detroit.

    From the end of her wonderful talk, which I never tire of hearing:

    Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.

    Thanks, bfp.

  2. Nancy Green
    Nancy Green September 18, 2011 at 6:44 pm |

    everything is co-opted. it’s the story of America.

  3. llama
    llama September 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm |

    I am still enjoying your insights in this great series of articles.

    “To address the real problems of post-industrial cities, we have to put down the rose colored glasses–and we have to be brave.”

    I hope this is a clue that you have some ideas in this regard.

  4. Leah
    Leah September 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm |

    bfp- i really appreciate your entries. they are awesome catalysts for more discussion about detroit.

    i’m from michigan and although i’ve never lived in detroit i’m really interested in what’s happening there right now and i’d love to put that in a context of the histories of the peoples who have lived and continue to live there now.

    is there an e-mail where i can reach you to perhaps flush this out a little more? again, thanks so much for this!

  5. La Lubu
    La Lubu September 19, 2011 at 6:30 am |

    I hope this is a clue that you have some ideas in this regard.

    llama, have you been reading this series? Actually reading it? Because that statement sounds as if you are expecting bfp to lay out a 5-point-plan or 10-point-plan or whatever for Saving the Rust Belt….when throughout the series it has been emphasized that there is no Solution™, but solutions that come collectively from the people who are dealing with the problems. That the institutional structures and people who created the problems to begin with aren’t going to bring any solutions, because they aren’t vested in solutions—-just milking out what resources are left before moving on to do the same elsewhere.

    I don’t know how bfp could possibly put it any more plainly than with this quote: “That same organization decided it didn’t want to service the poor any more (i.e. “to help” the poor), it wanted to create a world where poverty no longer existed.”

    Get that? a world where poverty no longer existed? That’s a radical statement in a world whose economic system requires “haves” and “have nots”, whose religious systems demand that the poor will always exist. But if that is one’s starting point….it opens up possibilities that starting with the former assumptions (we need the rich, we need the poor) doesn’t.

  6. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. September 19, 2011 at 8:40 am |

    Mr. K made a similar colonialization comment after reading the prior thread. I’m still ponder the last set of questions. What you talk about here is the fundamental problem of trying to create a non-capitalist system in a capitalist world. If a resource exists, it will be packaged and sold.

  7. AshleyLynn
    AshleyLynn September 19, 2011 at 9:50 am |

    I’ve been following your posts but not commenting, because I really haven’t had anything other than “You are brilliant, this is brilliant, thank you thank you thank you”.

    And I still don’t, really. But I do want to say thank you. I live in Michigan, close to Detroit. Many of my friends live in Detroit. I spend a great deal of time there. And for me there’s always been a disconnect between the rest of the world’s perception with Detroit and my ideas and experiences. It’s not something that I am very good at articulating, but you did it wonderfully, and thank you.

    You’ve made my days a lot better with your writings.

  8. Fat Steve
    Fat Steve September 19, 2011 at 10:35 am |

    La Lubu:
    I hope this is a clue that you have some ideas in this regard.

    llama, have you been reading this series? Actually reading it? Because that statement sounds as if you are expecting bfp to lay out a 5-point-plan or 10-point-plan or whatever for Saving the Rust Belt….when throughout the series it has been emphasized that there is no Solution™, but solutions that come collectively from the people who are dealing with the problems. That the institutional structures and people who created the problems to begin with aren’t going to bring any solutions, because they aren’t vested in solutions—-just milking out what resources are left before moving on to do the same elsewhere.

    I don’t know how bfp could possibly put it any more plainly than with this quote: “That same organization decided it didn’t want to service the poor any more (i.e. “to help” the poor), it wanted to create a world where poverty no longer existed.”

    Get that? a world where poverty no longer existed? That’s a radical statement in a world whose economic system requires “haves” and “have nots”, whose religious systems demand that the poor will always exist. But if that is one’s starting point….it opens up possibilities that starting with the former assumptions (we need the rich, we need the poor) doesn’t.

    If you are interpreting llama’s comment correctly, then your points are all valid. However, I didn’t interpret “ideas in this regard” as “ideas to save the Rust Belt.” I thought llama was wondering if bfp had any ideas of how to get people to remove their rose coloured glasses.

    Hopefully llama will clarify.

  9. AndrewJenny
    AndrewJenny September 19, 2011 at 10:53 am |

    Thank you for providing a critical lense to view the narratives of urban ruin and hope through. You have definitely made me rethink my ideas about economic revitalization.

  10. DouglasG
    DouglasG September 19, 2011 at 12:13 pm |

    Besides agreeing with Ms Kristen, I liked the intrepid reporters. How do reporters become intrepidated, anyway? And what happens to unintrepidize almost all the ones who cover politics?

    (If I spend the rest of the day wondering what the difference is between intrepidate and intrepidize, I shall hurt myself – and not just because I read Appendix B in *Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf?* during the two weeks I had no home internet.)

  11. nein09
    nein09 September 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm |

    Hi. I’m a white lady who grew up in a small town just outside of Flint. My parents still live there. I live in Seattle now.

    This series is completely amazing and thank you for writing it. It’s put a lot of what I felt about the recent media coverage of Flint and Detroit into words.

  12. Katie
    Katie September 20, 2011 at 10:34 am |

    This article is fantastic. Thanks, BFP. I shared it with my facebook peoples.

  13. maruja de lujo
    maruja de lujo September 23, 2011 at 3:35 am |

    Don’t US Americans have a word for people who move in after a war or other damage to a region in hope of profiting? I thought it was “carpetbagger”. Or is that an outdated southern term? Naomi Klein talked about “disaster capitalism”.
    I’m really impressed by this series of articles, by the way.

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