An American Abroad

Detroit: We Did It to Ourselves

Detroit’s Michigan Central Station is now an American icon, a metaphor for the ruination of American industry and the hollowing out of once-vital American cities. Its very existence is commentary on our current inability to construct buildings that are grand, beautiful, or even functional. In his essay “Detroitism,” John Patrick Leary wrote:

The station is the Eiffel Tower of ruin photography and probably Detroit’s most recognizable modern monument other than the downtown Renaissance Center complex, as shown by the hobbyist and professional photographers who descend upon it on every sunny day. An imposing, neoclassical behemoth even in life, the windowless station has become a melancholy symbol of the city’s transformation in death.

The first view I got of it yesterday was from an elevated highway. From that vantage, I could see through the building from front to back. Light streamed through the ruin unimpeded by office furniture, walls, or workers. One might have thought it was a Potemkin building, a grand edifice thrown up to impress visiting dignitaries as they drive by in air conditioned comfort. But as I stood on the street directly in front of the station, it became clear that this was no two-dimensional facade, but a very real place where real people had worked, a place of heft and substance that had been allowed to fall into ruin.

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The placement of a new American flag in front of the station puzzled me. Was it supposed to instill pride? To symbolize determination in the face of adversity? Or, as Leary might suggest, to commemorate America’s new national monument?

As I looked at my photo, I recalled another photo, one I did not take:

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That image of the American flag planted amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, backed by strong vertical lines, always seemed to me to be an expression of perseverance, national unity, and determination to wreak vengeance on the men who destroyed the twin towers.

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But here, the men who eviscerated American industry and gutted our cities were not foreign terrorists. Pace Walt Kelly, we did this to ourselves.

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Inside the shell of the building, a handful of workers were engaged in labor whose purpose was obscure to me. It didn’t seem to be restoration or renovation. Perhaps they were securing the structure against trespassers. For their own safety, of course.

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Roosevelt Park sprawls in front of the ruins. A group of elementary-age kids sat in a semicircle under a tree, presumably getting instruction of some kind. The scene was almost pastoral. And it called to mind yet another image, Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting of Apostle Paul Preaching on the Ruins:

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I didn’t get close enough to hear what was being preached to the children in the shadow of the derelict Michigan Central Station. I think I was afraid to listen.

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