Camilo Jose Vergara has been photographing America’s urban ruins since arriving from Chile in the late 1960s. But one city captures his attention in a way the others can’t.
The trained sociologist began visiting Detroit in 1991, lured in by the city's mythologized past and shocking scale of decline. Guided by a local newspaper’s blight survey, Vergara began documenting the city's most neglected areas. He’s been going back one week a year since to keep track of the changes.
While the scenes Vergara captures are often devastating, many show the creativity and resourcefulness of Detroiters rarely recognized in post-bankruptcy narratives. This is a side of the city Vergara hopes people will acknowledge and remember, before it’s too late.
Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press) looks beyond the 7.2 square miles that serve as the face of the city's celebrated revival. In those other 132 square miles there are makeshift bus shelters, handpainted signs for repurposed and (and sometimes re-abandoned) buildings big and small, murals to black leaders and memorials to fallen neighbors, and people who increasingly feel shut out of the prosperity white newcomers keep finding today.
CityLab caught up with Vergara—hours after a late night of shooting in Newark—to talk about what he's learned from his time in Detroit:
Why are you drawn to ruins?
They have always been attractive to me. I can complete them in my mind: You see a building in an advanced process of decay and your imagination comes into play. You begin to think about what that building looked like before and when it was new. A building that is in perfect condition can be beautiful too, but it doesn’t demand that type of thinking.
We all decay and deteriorate. The end state of anything is a return to nature and I see great beauty in that process. It’s extraordinarily moving. To me it’s not gloomy at all. I try to see one thing as it evolves and it makes me think about what the next step is. When something is just finished it hasn’t really been touched, so you don’t get that sense of movement. A ruin has many more possibilities.
What makes Detroit especially interesting compared to the other cities you shoot in?
Several reasons. Detroit, unlike most of the other cities, comes with tremendous buzz. It was a technological wonder and extremely wealthy at one time. It has buildings of great quality and size. Detroit’s great train station is not only beautiful but it’s bigger than most others. You can say same thing for its abandoned factories. The quality of the public buildings is very impressive. I don’t think there’s another city of such a size that has seen such a dramatic change.
Detroit has a population that is very homogeneous. It’s majority black—previously over 80 percent, now slightly under. African Americans are leaving and it’s outpacing White and Latino growth. It’s been over 40 years since Detroit first became a majority black city and for those 40 years that population has been able to develop a culture. You can see it in other places where you have ghettos that seem to become permanent. That makes culture. Developers of the downtown today celebrate the old Detroit which is not Black Detroit but the Detroit of the 1910s and ‘20s, the mechanical wonder and assembly line Detroit.
What’s your game plan when you come to Detroit?
I want to make sure I get the evolution of the most decayed places. I had scheduled a trip in 1991 after seeing the Detroit Free Press survey from 1989 which counted up the city’s abandoned buildings and published which intersections had the most advanced decay. Those were the corners I ended up paying a lot of attention to. I wanted to know if anything was going to replace them, but I was also generally interested in driving around the whole city. I would take radial streets and then the side streets and whenever I found a tall building I’d make sure to go up to the top and view the cityscape. That has been my way of trying to repeat the phenomenon every year for 25 years.
Have there been moments or scenes that have really stuck with you?
It happens all the time, particularly at night when I’m alone or with a friend and standing on the roof of a car staring out at an extraordinary scene. It’s very moving. These places smell in a particular way, too. Going into these abandoned buildings, there’s an extreme surge: your heart beats faster and you feel the adrenaline. You’re surrounded by all the failings of an entire city so what’s to stop something from happening to you, too?
I used to drive inside the Packard Plant and I would wonder, “What if I hit a hole or the roof caves in?” A lot of these buildings have scavengers, so there’s generally a sense that you’re taking a risk. I’ll do one or two especially risky things in an outing and then I’ve had enough.
What kind of adaptations to these places stand out to you the most?
The ones that hit you the most typically have very short lives because it’s the kind of thing that embarrasses the city so much that they take it down. They’re slow to most things, but when they’re embarrassed about something they’ll take care of it quickly.
I took a photo of a bus stop with a man sitting on a board supported by tires and an abandoned police precinct behind it. I also shot one with a $7 plastic chair someone put out. What do you do to change your environment in a positive way when the city won’t do what they’re supposed to do for you? Chicago has bus stops, even in the poorest parts of town. Detroit is not like that, it’s missing over 3,000 bus shelters.
Those adaptations tend not to last long but they reflect something that will happen hundreds of times. Then there are the other adaptations, changes that have to do with technology like the signs for businesses. For example, the car dealerships are gone and so, at first, a lot of them turned into mechanic shops or hardware stores so a signmaker would come in and make one for the new business. But then mechanics moved out to the suburbs where people are buying their cars now so the old repair shops that used to be dealerships are now car washes. And you need new signs for that new business!
When does ruin photography become “ruin porn”?
That term assumes that when you photograph or film your urban exploration that the visual is all there is. But people are motivated by an image to ask questions and the answer is not necessarily “this city is run by incompetent people” or “this is hopeless.” Using that term is a disservice.
This kind of imagery may lead you to despair but it also leads you to questions about what life is like inside a building in such a state. Decay can move you and make you want to experience it. It’s a combination of fear and being somewhere unfamiliar and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. What’s bad is to completely ignore what’s happening. You’d be ignoring what people have been doing and creating there all these years in and around these places. It’s another culture and a big part of America because decay is in so many cities.
Concentrating on the positives also has its effects, it ends up making you just see what the gentrifiers are doing: Great bread, coffee, and places to find like-minded people surrounded by neglect. Back in the early 1990s there was a feeling everywhere that what you could see wasn’t going to be permanent, especially downtown. But I do see more now a willingness to accept that ruins can move people.
How has your own perception of Detroit and the work you’ve done there changed since ‘91?
Well it’s an extremely uneven situation. There’s investment and creation of new businesses. People are finding their calling and moving there but that’s only happening in an area of 7.2 square miles. The cycle keeps on being repeated but that means the other 132 square miles are very different. It’s not that nothing is happening, but since the early ‘90s the sense of there being a strong black nationalist attitude in the city is going away. It wasn’t uncommon for the suburbanites to proudly say, “I haven’t been in Detroit for 20 years!” But then the stadiums were built and white people started coming back. Now, a new generation of people in their 20s see Detroit as a place of opportunity. With the softening or disappearance of that old antagonism, people from churches, business groups, and individuals come in from the suburbs and make contributions. They’ll come in groups to pick up garbage, mow lawns, board up abandoned houses. They have a sense that Detroit is in some ways a part of them, that it’s not a place to stay away from but where they can do something to improve it. It’s often in a cosmetic way but it’s still real. It involves tens of thousands of people and hours of labor.
Today, a millionaire will demolish houses and plant trees. Someone else will start a bed-and-breakfast. There’s farming now, too. You don’t know what’s going to happen as these things grow. There’s an influx of white people moving in to create their own version of paradise. There’s a creation of many things with a uniqueness about them and as it grows and promotes itself it creates an extraordinary force online.
But this is happening alongside a decline in the black population while foundations are looking for what to support. The rebuilding takes less precedence. As time passes, Detroit’s attraction will continue. You’ll find an alternative America there. Already today you’ll find stores that cater to a 19th century farmer. You see the barrels, the overalls, and folks with farmer beards. Something rich and interesting is happening. The tragedy of it, of course, is that blacks are moving out. The whites and blacks aren’t often working together and black gentrifiers are a rare breed.
I’ve been plagued with the question of what can be done? Why can’t these two worlds come together? The only options are to either look forward to reaching an income level or move out. It makes me think about what’s happened with Shinola, which now has stores around the country selling goods at high prices because of the emphasis on everything being made in Detroit.
What if you had a Shinola of the ghetto? What would that be like and what would it sell? It would have the designs from the the stores, the soul food restaurants, the mechanic shops on things like towels, blankets, shirts, ties. It could start with images that already exist and create a link to the painters who are probably going out of business because signs are now made on vinyl. You could generate the sense of design and creativity that manifested itself in the storefront churches, party stores, memorials. It seems to me like all of the folks trying to make that connection, the churches and volunteers, the work they do is beautiful but it doesn’t amount to much. They make special signs to welcome children to come in with a flower or a message of hope but there’s some unreality to that and it’s not lasting.
This kind of design is neglected all over the United States. Commissioning work from these places and giving them a wider outlet would convey a sense of authenticity like Shinola. Authenticity is almost holiness to people today, so why not? This kind of work reflects a view of the world and a sense of aesthetics. It might not appeal to U.S. audiences so much but I think it would work abroad. Whenever there’s a conference like Black in Design the work that “matters” is from people who work at SOM or teach at Howard, but never the kind of stuff that I show in my book. The names of those folks get lost and fade away and the signs will never be repeated. There should be a place for them in museums.
Camilo Jose Vergara's work is featured in More Than a Picture: Selections From the Photography Collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture starting May 5. His work will also be featured in Down These Mean Streets Community and Place in Urban Photography at The Smithsonian Museum of American Art starting May 11.
This interview has been edited and condensed.