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'Ruin porn' Detroit becomes pin-up for reinvention

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Detroit's attempts to reinvent itself could serve as a model for other cities
  • Crumbling backdrop of post-industrial landscape has proved an irresistable lure to filmmakers and photographers
  • City planners hope to create a more self-sustaining city

(CNN) -- Images of Detroit's crumbling industrial landscape have been documented so frequently that jaded locals now refer to them as "ruin porn."

But as a community potentially on the brink of a phoenix-like rise from the ashes of economic collapse, the people of Detroit may soon have to get used to seeing Motor City become another kind of centerfold.

"Everybody's looking at Detroit and the question is will Detroit be able to play that role of being an incubator or a model for cities all over the world that want to reinvent themselves," John Gallagher, a veteran journalist at the Detroit Free Press, told CNN.

"Whether or not we can actually get our act together here enough so we can provide some useful evidence to other cities, that's where we are at the moment."

The challenges facing Detroit are as big as the hulking car plants that once made this Midwestern city the booming capital of America's auto industry. Hit hard by economic recession, factories have shut and unemployment has soared. The metro area's jobless rate is around 13 percent, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The harsh economic conditions have caused thousands to flee the city. Detroit's population has fallen steadily since its 1950s heyday of 1.8 million. U.S. Census estimates put today's figure at just over 900,000.

We're getting some of these young people moving in from New York who say Detroit is the most interesting place in the country right now.
--John Gallagher, journalist and author

The mass exodus has resulted in a ghostly and photogenic landscape of abandonment much loved by the "pornographers" of post-industrial decay.

"I parked the car in one of these large parking lots during the summer, there was no activity at all, it was very strange," said French filmmaker Florent Tillon, one of many drawn by the city's egregiously grim reputation.

"We began to walk and there was a strange atmosphere, very empty. It was not obviously empty at first, but then there were signs like looking up and seeing a pigeon in a window where you were expecting to see someone sitting at a computer."

As Tillon soon discovered, that's not the whole picture. From under its thick coat of rust, green shoots are appearing in Detroit -- not just those provided by a handful of eco-farmers reclaiming overgrown lots, but also from the city's own rational approach to its future.

Faced with spreading decay, city planners led by Detroit Mayor David Bing decided last year to amputate, calling for the downsizing of deteriorating neighborhoods.

"[Bing] has been up front saying, 'Look, we're not going to repopulate the city, we're going to be a small but better city and figure how to reinvent it in terms of delivering services to a smaller population,'" said Gallagher, whose book "Re-imagining Detroit" explores options for the city's future.

"Now that we've emptied out a good portion of the city and we don't expect to fill it up again with shopping malls and new housing, we can be a greener city; a more environmentally sustainable city with more parks and more green corridors -- perhaps using Detroit land not for consumption but for production.

"We might have wind farms or fields of solar panels, urban agriculture, grow our own food -- there's already a local food movement and a lot of interest in urban agriculture."

According to Gallagher, the moves have already generated an undercurrent of optimism in the city, not least characterized by a new influx of young bohemians and innovators arriving to take advantage of cheap real estate and a thriving art scene.

"We're getting some of these young people moving in from New York who say Detroit is the most interesting place in the country right now and they want to be part of it," he told CNN.

"There is this level of optimism that is rising above the usual level of despair and depression so, without over selling it, it is an interesting time to be here."

Now other cities trying to reverse their post-industrial decline, such as Leipzig and Dresden in Germany, are turning to Detroit for advice, Gallagher says..

For filmmaker Tillon, the city has also gone from serving as a backdrop for a "B-movie fantasy" to providing inspiration for a more thoughtful video essay exploring a post-urban future that could be replicated elsewhere.

His 80-minute film "Wild City Detroit" is a visually poetic work currently in the running for best international documentary at Copenhagen's prestigious CPH:DOX festival, and with a few exceptions, locals are happy with the concept, he told CNN.

"One couple aged over 60 were saying it was impossible to see the city in this way because for them it was just empty with old memories of when it was full of life and people," Tillon said of a recent screening in Detroit. "For the rest, it was a more positive way to see their city."