A new book documenting the majestic, crumbled buildings of Detroit sparks an exploration of other great and gone metropolises. By Eugene Costello
This town is coming like a ghost town. All the clubs are being closed down.” So sang The Specials
back in the early 1980s. Then, like now, the UK was a place of recession and decay; then, like now, the riots erupted in cities across the country. Then, like now, there was a feeling that urban living was under threat, an idea whose time might be over.
The debates around ghost towns have become more and more relevant in recent years thanks to a number of factors. The subprime crisis in the US has seen thousands lose their homes because of crippling recalculated mortgages. Riots and looting broke out in London, Birmingham and Manchester last summer. Natural forces have sparked devastation in cities from New Orleans to Bangkok and Tokyo. City-states, once the impregnable bastions of classical civilisation, have never looked so vulnerable.
What exactly is it about the theme of decaying civilisations that so grasps our imaginations, stirring something visceral, something thrilling, shocking and mournful? It’s long been a powerful leitmotif in culture – from the long-dead, once-mighty king Ozymandias in Shelley’s eponymous poem to the Statue of Liberty buried chest-deep in the final scene of Planet of the Apes, the Mad Max films, Escape from New York and Blade Runner.
Of course there are real lost cities [see sidebar overleaf], but they belong to ancient realms or to science fiction, don’t they? Well, no. From the 1970s to the 1990s there were magazine features and television documentaries about the growth of the 21st-century ‘supercity’ – both fictional, as in sci-fi comic 2000AD where Judge Dredd gunned his Harley substitute around Mega-City One – and real, as in sprawling behemoths such as Tokyo (which currently has around 34.3 million inhabitants), Shangai (24.8 million), Mumbai (23 million) or Mexico City (22.9 million).
Now it looks like things might be moving in the opposite direction. For many years, there has been a trend in North American cities to abandon the centre and head for the suburbs. Now this trend is in evidence in Europe – in Manchester, Liverpool and Berlin. The most advanced example, though, is Detroit.
In the 1950s, Detroit was one of the great cities of the world. It was the base of the fabulously powerful American car industry, its factories building cars that were shipped to the furthest corners of the planet. The idea that it was simply a manufacturing and industrial hub, though, would be quite wrong. The profits were pumped back into the city, with handsome municipal buildings and architectural treasures. The wealth found its way down to the plant managers and assembly-line workers – Detroit had the highest median income and widest home ownership of any major American city.
Since then, the near-total collapse of the car industry means that the population has halved and many parts of the city have been abandoned.
French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffree began to document the collapse of Detroit in 2005. Speaking to The Economist, they explained the allure of decay: “A fading and rotting building reminds you how fluctuating and ephemeral things are.”
Marchand and Meffre are at pains to point out that it is what is left behind that brings home the human tragedy of urban decay. The pictures they took of schools and libraries full of books were the ones that distressed them the most.
“Even if you know the context,” says Marchhand, “you really don’t get why it has been left like that. It says a lot about the loss of culture, lack of education and social waste.”
It is not a problem that is confined to Detroit. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 there was an exodus of East Berliners or Ossies (the same etymology gives us the lovely word Os-talgia, to describe the fondness of East Berliners’ for Communist-era products). In the process, more than a million apartments were simply abandoned, leading the German government to found the Shrinking Cities Project 10 years ago. For the project, architects, artists and academics studied this global trend, looking at cities such as Berlin, Leipzig, Detroit, Manchester and Liverpool, created exhibitions and published books
on their findings.
As well as the erosion of manufacturing, cities’ existences can be threatened by physical phenomena. San Francisco, perched on the San Andreas Fault, suffers almost perennial quakes. According to researchers at the University of California, there is a 50% chance that San Francisco will be hit by a “big one” – an earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater – by 2050, and a 75% chance that it will happen by 2086. Those kind of statistics are surely part of the reason – with all kinds of additional cultural and economic factors – why San Francisco is now one of the fastest-shrinking cities in the US.
Well-documented rising sea levels only add to the trend for moving away from coastal areas. Ten years ago, the World Bank published a paper on how climate change might affect population trends. It concluded that Banjul, the capital of Gambia, is set to sink into the sea; it also highlighted other cities at risk, including Alexandria, Jakarta and Bangkok. Social and economic factors give cause for concern, but it’s climate change that could be the biggest threat to cities.
Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow at California’s Chapman University who writes about successful cities, says there are even simpler reasons that many cities fail and start to die – successful cities
play to their advantages, which could be logistical superiority in terms of location and access to road, rail and air infrastructure.
One sign of hope is that back in Detroit residents are reclaiming inner-city areas to turn them into allotments and market gardens. So could cities be set to undergo change and adaptation to external factors – as they always have done – rather than suffer complete abandonment?
And let us not overlook the strong sense of self that people derive from identifying with their city – anyone who’s sung ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’, ‘In Dublin’s Fair City’ or ‘New York, New York’ can attest to the strength of city-patriotism. Many are determined to rebuild and redevelop their troubled cities rather than simply abandon them to water, weed and creeper.
After the well-catalogued woes of New Orleans in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, the city was evacuated and whole neighbourhoods abandoned. Yet people are reclaiming and rebuilding their city, and defending its right to exist.
When Newsweek last year gave New Orleans top billing in its list of Top Ten Dying Cities, the article provoked widespread outrage. The Newsweek website went into meltdown as angry New Orleans residents logged on to proclaim their loyalty to the Crescent City and their hopes and plans for its future.
So perhaps it is a matter of interpretation. One man’s dying metropolis is another man’s reborn homeland. Let us not sound the death toll for cities just yet.
‘The Ruins of Detroit’ by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre is published by Steidl at £78
Massive. Home to Helen. Great city walls. All undone by a wooden horse. It fell into decay and its remains were finally discovered by 19th-century archaeologists near Cannakale
in Turkey. (Presumably they had to work like Trojans to excavate the site.)
The lost city of the Incas in what is now Peru. This eyrie was built in 1450 – pity the poor labourers lugging stone up those mountains – but was abandoned only 100 years later, a consequence of the Spanish Conquest. One of the best-known, and best-preserved, ‘lost’ cities in the world.
Possibly the most significant find of the Indus Valley era, the huge Gujarat city of Lothal dates back to 2,400BC and was only discovered in 1954. All that remains today is the system of trenches and tributaries that served this mighty port, showing that even the mightiest city will eventually return to dust and soil.