Forgotten Spaces:
[Ruin+Disaster Photography]

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The images in this article were photographed and selected with great care and deliberation by The [204] Design Collective, they are intended solely for the purpose of educational and critical engagement.

In recent years, it has become a trend to frame beautiful photographs in dilapidated, run-down environments. Cities exhibiting crumbling structures, overgrown landscapes and graffiti-littered surfaces are in vogue. The aesthetics of these spaces are exaggerated and manipulated by the media to appear mysterious and visually alluring. This is also projected onto the architecture of these spaces that appear to the outside observer as blank forms, waiting to be shaped. This type of photography can become dangerous in that it propagates the idea of open opportunity, as the majority of the photographs are devoid of context. The nature of this type of ruin photography curates an image of an abandoned place, when in reality these places are still filled with life and struggle. In this way, ruin photography becomes the fetishization of disaster and tragedy, as the spaces that are photographed are not without some kind of struggle or misfortune. These forgotten spaces are the casualty of social and economical flux, which begs the question, how can design and architecture influence these spaces without reducing them to pornographic spectacle?

Industry and manufacturing were the driving forces behind the rise and fall of great American cities. The rhetoric used by politicians in the 1950’s centered on the narrative of the American dream. This dream pushed for an auto-dependent city, where the middle class fled to suburban areas away from the inner city core. This dream was rooted in opportunity, which came in the form of industry and manufacturing. But by the 1970’s, the inflation in oil prices began to devastate the American economy, which was then invested in trade and exports [1], and by the 1980s, industry had failed, jobs were lost, and people began to abandon the cities they once called home [2]. What many of these American cities are now left with is a graveyard of abandoned homes, vandalized buildings, and looted factories. These structures stand as empty monuments and constant reminders of the failed promise of a brighter, richer and more fulfilled life.

Two significant examples of cities affected by the economic downfall, and recent popular subjects of ruin and disaster photography, are Detroit, Michigan and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Detroit, Michigan, was the archetypal, all American city centered on the auto manufacturing industry. Commonly known as the motor city, there were several obstacles that contributed to its economic downfall, and ultimately, its bankruptcy in 2013. The Detroit riot of 1967 was the result of existing racial divides within the city. As a result of this there was further racial segragation, where the inner city was predominately African American and suburban regions were predominately white [3]. “White flight” is a term that originated in the United States, and describes the exodus of white people from racially diverse urban cores to a homogenous periphery [4]. To this day, “metropolitan Detroit is the most segregated urban area in America – which plays a role in many residents’ anxiety about being physically displaced [5].”

Detroit is arguably the muse of the ruin photography movement. The continued depiction of this economically disenfranchised city as aesthetically pleasing, empty subjects, results in the mass influx of young and creative visionaries, hoping to make their mark on this seemingly forgotten space.

 Photograph contributed by [Neil Loewen]  "This is a common sight throughout the city. I think something interesting about this image is that it doesn't stand out in my memory. It could be anywhere in the city, and there are innumerable other images like them that I could have taken. " - NL

Photograph contributed by [Neil Loewen]

"This is a common sight throughout the city. I think something interesting about this image is that it doesn't stand out in my memory. It could be anywhere in the city, and there are innumerable other images like them that I could have taken. " - NL

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 Photographs contributed by [Neil Loewen]  "This building is the old train station in Detroit, now entirely abandoned. It's a massive and imposing structure that speaks to the confidence of a now-unrecognizable city from the past. It can be seen from just about everywhere due to the empty lots around it and throughout the city that grow larger in number every year. The fact that this building now sits completely unused is one of the purest symbols of Detroit's wholehearted conversion to an automobile city - a move that destroyed all of its other forms of transportation, and finally the soul of the city itself. " - NL

Photographs contributed by [Neil Loewen]

"This building is the old train station in Detroit, now entirely abandoned. It's a massive and imposing structure that speaks to the confidence of a now-unrecognizable city from the past. It can be seen from just about everywhere due to the empty lots around it and throughout the city that grow larger in number every year. The fact that this building now sits completely unused is one of the purest symbols of Detroit's wholehearted conversion to an automobile city - a move that destroyed all of its other forms of transportation, and finally the soul of the city itself. " - NL

 Photograph contributed by [Neil Loewen]  "This image is from "The Heidelberg Project". I interpreted it as a monument to abandonment and the dehumanization of many of Detroit's citizens, by the media and the outside world. The project was initiated with a different intention but this is what I took away from it. Sadly this project is threatened due to the many arsons that have been occurring in the neighbourhood over the past few years." -NL

Photograph contributed by [Neil Loewen]

"This image is from "The Heidelberg Project". I interpreted it as a monument to abandonment and the dehumanization of many of Detroit's citizens, by the media and the outside world. The project was initiated with a different intention but this is what I took away from it. Sadly this project is threatened due to the many arsons that have been occurring in the neighbourhood over the past few years." -NL

New Orleans’ geographic location made it the most significant port in the United States. Serving as a hub for trade and export, Louisiana flourished for much of the early 20th century, until automobiles and rail began to dominate the industry. This led to an economic and population decline, making the inland petrochemical port in Louisiana the primary source of economic growth in the region.  This city has an extensive and complicated history related to the racial segregation of blacks and whites in the south. With a population of just under 400,000 people, the racial demographic of the city has changed from 70% white and 30% black (1940) to 33% white and 60% black (2010)[6]. Hurricane Katrina, in 2004, accelerated and amplified both the economic and racial tensions within the city.

The Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans is the region most heavily affected by the hurricane, and has been exposed to and by the lens of disaster photography. Much of the art and journalism that comes out of this area is guilty of exploiting the catastrophic event by curating a pornographic image of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, aestheticizing the devastation of this natural disaster. The spectacle, further propagated by celebrity endorsements, invites outsiders to participate in disaster tourism. Similar to ruin photography, disaster photography subjects the Lower 9th Ward to the false image of an abandoned and forgotten place. Every year groups of tourists visit New Orleans to gaze upon the areas affected by the disaster, only to discover that these are not abandoned spaces, but are still occupied by the predominantly impoverished residents who never left.

 Make it Right Community in the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans  "Poor immigrants and free people of colour settled in the area between the Mississippi River and St. Claude Avenue. By the 1870's the population increased to include free slaves... In the 1940's to provide affordable homes for African American servicemen returning from World War II. [7]"  The Make it Right Community in the Lower 9th Ward is a project funded by celebrity and actor Brad Pitt. An international competition was held to design a community of 150 safe, green and affordable homes for families who lost everything in the storm. This project was intended to bring attention and awareness to the challenges of rebuilding, but was also supposed to be a temporary solution to a deeper seeded issue.  The houses stand at odds with the rest of the neighbourhood as these modern beach style homes disregard the architectural vernacular of the city. While these homes included design features that were sensitive to the needs of a hurricane-prone area (i.e. roof access and elevation of foundations), they become a showcase for the architects and the celebrity rather than rebuilding the community as a whole.  These temporary homes have become a permanent solution for the people who now occupy these homes and as such, have surpassed their expiry date, resulting in the deteriorating structural integrity of the homes. The Make it Right Community stands alone as a monument, as a symbol of abandonment in a time of need, and is a constant reminder of the lack of continued global and national support.

Make it Right Community in the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans

"Poor immigrants and free people of colour settled in the area between the Mississippi River and St. Claude Avenue. By the 1870's the population increased to include free slaves... In the 1940's to provide affordable homes for African American servicemen returning from World War II. [7]"

The Make it Right Community in the Lower 9th Ward is a project funded by celebrity and actor Brad Pitt. An international competition was held to design a community of 150 safe, green and affordable homes for families who lost everything in the storm. This project was intended to bring attention and awareness to the challenges of rebuilding, but was also supposed to be a temporary solution to a deeper seeded issue.

The houses stand at odds with the rest of the neighbourhood as these modern beach style homes disregard the architectural vernacular of the city. While these homes included design features that were sensitive to the needs of a hurricane-prone area (i.e. roof access and elevation of foundations), they become a showcase for the architects and the celebrity rather than rebuilding the community as a whole.

These temporary homes have become a permanent solution for the people who now occupy these homes and as such, have surpassed their expiry date, resulting in the deteriorating structural integrity of the homes. The Make it Right Community stands alone as a monument, as a symbol of abandonment in a time of need, and is a constant reminder of the lack of continued global and national support.

In recent years, the artistic aesthetic in forgotten spaces has been brought forth by a wave of young creatives, who aspire to both live and work within these cities. The “yuppie renaissance” is a term used to describe this movement of “young urban professionals”, typically upper to middle class, moving into cites that have experienced economic downfall [8]. While this movement, in theory, brings life back to the inner city by occupying formerly abandoned buildings, these “outsiders” are re-shaping the new identity of these neighbourhoods, therefore defamiliarizing these spaces to the locals. The yuppie renaissance contributes to the gentrification of city neighbourhoods, it “… aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, and dramaticizes spaces but, never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival of the city.” [9] These new trendy businesses uncritically turn spaces of trauma and tragedy into a spectacle of consumption, which rarely ends up benefiting the community they are occupying.

Grace Lee Boggs, author, feminist and social activist, states “you cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it” [10]. As a citizen of Detroit, Boggs argues that understanding the way a community works is integral to the re-design of struggling cities. This becomes an important critique as an artist, designer, and humanitarian. It is important to acknowledge your ignorance and limits as an outsider, and not attempt to appropriate a space despite good intentions.

[1] Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit
[2] How Detroit Lost Its Way. Time. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1925897_1925903_1925880,00.html
[3] Woods, Ashley. Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters to Survive, It Needs Black People. Huffington Post, 2014.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/10/saving-detroit-thomas-sugrue-hipsters_n_4905125.html
[4] Beyer, Scott. New Geography. 2013. http://www.newgeography.com/content/003897-root-causes-detroit-s-decline-should-not-go-ignored
[5] Woods, Ashley. Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters to Survive, It Needs Black People. Huffington Post, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/10/saving-detroit-thomas-sugrue-hipsters_n_4905125.html
[6] New Orleans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans
[7] Make it Right Community. 2014. http://makeitright.org/where-we-work/
[8] Woods, Ashley. Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters to Survive, It Needs Black People. Huffington Post, 2014.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/10/saving-detroit-thomas-sugrue-hipsters_n_4905125.html
[9] Leary, John. Detroitism. Guernica. Detroit, 2011. https://www.guernicamag.com/features/leary_1_15_11/
[10] Boggs, Grace. Do One Thing Heroes for a Better World. http://www.doonething.org/heroes/pages-b/boggs-quotes.htm