Post-Industrial Imaginaries: Nature, Representation, and Ruin in Detroit, Michigan
I examine representations made of Detroit, with a focus on images made over the past two years. I do this in order to assess how these images work as material objects that circulate inside and outside of the city, as well as what they say about broader anxieties on the part of people who view the images. My ultimate interest is in the intersections between landscape representation and landscape morphology, and this thesis is an attempt at assessing how representations filter back into the material or lived spaces of the city. I split the analysis into two related case studies. In the first, I analyze the idea of Detroit?s ruins in a broad sense. I argue that images of Detroit work to naturalize the city?s decline and erase its residents through a focus on the city?s aesthetic appeal. By resigning the city to a ruin, Detroit's cataloguers help to create a break with the city's present in favor of overwrought pronouncements about inevitability and material decay. I focus on two sites in the city -- the Michigan Central Station and Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project -- in order to deepen the analysis. I focus on representations that suggest Detroit is returning to nature. I argue that these images further help to obscure Detroit's present by pulling on conceptions of the natural world as that which exists outside of human life. Through recourse to a version of the nonhuman world that stresses what Bill Cronon has called the "wilderness ethic," photographers and journalists reduce the complicated ecologies emerging in Detroit to a vague story of natural reclamation. But I conclude by focusing on the extent to which these images suggest new urban formulations that have not yet been adequately theorized. As conventional narratives suggest, Detroit is a declining city, but it is also a city in the making. Finding new stories to tell about Detroit is a way of constructing new theorizations and imaginaries of post-industrial cities more broadly. Detroit will never be what it once was, but it is also not a dead city. Instead, the kinds of ecologies and spatialities emerging from places like Detroit suggest that we need to rethink how we conceptualize urban places. Finding stories to tell about the city that gesture at the interrelations between race, representation and, importantly, ecology, is a crucial project for urban geographers interested in understanding the post-industrial metropolis.