Accepted Paper:

Life Amidst "Ruins": The pornography, destruction and reclamation of Detroit's built environment  


Simon Johansson

Paper short abstract:

Detroit is today a symbol of post-industrial decay and blight. This paper examines how Detroiters relate to the "ruins" that surround them by exploring how abandoned houses turn into sites of pornography, destruction and reclamation that highlights the city's contentious futures

Paper long abstract:

A third of Detroit is blighted or vacant. City estimates put the total acreage of vacant properties at 40 square miles, almost twice the size of Manhattan. No problem of Detroit is as emblematic as the extent of its abandonment. Their removal have been framed as a prerequisite for the future of Detroit to arrive, while the inabilities of the city to expedite removal is a recurring theme of critique, providing a rationale as to why the city have yet to make a comeback.

To live amidst "ruins" is to live with a past that is materially present. Not unlike the rings of a tree, the landscape of Detroit lends itself to a reading of time. The process of urban accretion makes visible decades of decline, but also decades of failed regeneration, of "past futures"; projects envisioned to deliver that comeback that never came. Visually striking, the city's environments have recently facilitated a veritable cottage industry of photographic journals, books and Instagram accounts that showcase its "ruins".

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, the paper discusses three separate ways in which the "ruins" of the past becomes meaningful sites that engage with the city's present and future. First through a discourse on morality that seeks to resist the colonial gaze by reframing depictions of its"ruins" as a form of pornography. Secondly, as a ritual of destruction and manifestation of regional power relations. Thirdly as reclamation, where abandonment provides a raw material for the manifestation of a "new" Detroit.

Panel P162
Materializing the past and imagining the future