There’s More To Detroit Than Ruin and Decay, You Just Have to Look
“Detroit – Unbroken Down” is photographer David Jordano’s response to all the negative press his hometown endures. By offering up portraits of human survival and perseverance instead of ruin and decay, Jordano reveals the dignity and humanity of Detroit’s urban landscape. Jordano adds:
“My hope is that this work will convey in many ways that Detroit is a city made up of many small communities, all building a way of life through perseverance, hope, and sheer determination.
This project bares witness to the fact that Detroit is not a story about what’s been destroyed, but more importantly about what’s been left behind and those who are left to cope with it.
Jordano is one of four photographers that have been shortlisted for the prestigious AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize, Canada’s most significant prize for photographers.
The Prize will award C$50,000 to one winner, who is chosen by public vote. The four finalists will each be awarded a six-week artist residency in Canada and will present their work in an exhibition opening Sept. 9, 2015, at the AGO. Voting begins in person at the AGO upon the exhibition’s opening and on the Prize’s website on Sept. 15, 2015. Voting will close on November 29, 2015.
We caught up with David to learn more about “Detroit – Unbroken Down”. You can find the conversation below along with photos and stories from the powerful series.
Children Working on Their Bicycles at Southwest Riders, Southwest Side, Detroit 2013
Kyle supervises over a group of children who perform maintenance and build bikes for themselves. He is part of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative program, an organization dedicated to building vital neighborhoods. If the children volunteer 20 hours at UNI they can receive a bike for free from Kyle.
Kat in Her New House, Eastside, Detroit 2014
Kat just recently moved into this abandoned house just around the corner from her current residence which was filling up with people she takes in who are homeless or are in need of shelter. She’s in the process of trying to purchase it in order to continue her ongoing mission to improve the neighborhood. I’ve known Kat now for three years and I’ve never met someone who is as devoted to others as she is.
What do you think Detroit 2025 will look like compared to today?
I think Detroit will become a hybrid of its current condition. Many areas will continue to depopulate and return to a rural environment as the city continues to demolish abandoned structures, while the downtown core of the city and the mid-town area along the Woodward Avenue corridor will continue to thrive and grow. Detroit may never again reach a population of 1.8 million people like it did in the 1950’s, but the potential for growth at the moment has never been greater. My hope is that the present revitalization will spread out to other areas of the city and not just to where trendy millennials are gathering. The long-term residents of the city need just as much, if not more, help than the current popular growth areas.
Animal House, Heidelberg Project, Detroit 2010
The Heidelberg Project is art, energy, and community. It’s an open-air art environment in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side. Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director, uses everyday, discarded objects to create a two block area full of color, symbolism and intrigue. Now in its 26th year, The Heidelberg Project is recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives.
Polka-Dot Garden, Eastside, Detroit 2014
Robert, an 85-year-old retired interior decorator was afraid than an empty lot behind his house was going to be filled with trash so he began creating his imaginary “Polka Dot Garden” to protect the property. It’s a place filled with fanciful sculpture and flowering plants that the neighborhood can enjoy.
How do you feel about the ‘abandoned/urban decay’ photography that dominates imagery of Detroit? Many say they are just capturing what they are seeing.
In some respects it’s part of the city’s history and can’t be ignored. All of Detroit’s abandonment represents a perfect example of what can happen to a city when the corporate America that supported the blue-collar working class moves their factories to other countries in order to make more profits. Inner cities suffer the most, especially lower educated residents. It’s one of the pitfalls of a capitalistic society and Detroit was dealt a particularly heavy blow because of its mono-corporate structure. My problem with “ruin porn” photography is that it’s easy to create without investing much of yourself in the community, and it portrays a very narrow one-dimensional story about Detroit. It was unfortunate that the media as well as so many other photographers wouldn’t consider any other subject to describe the city by. I hope that the work I’ve made will add to the dialogue and foster conversation that goes beyond the well-known images of Detroit.
Firemen Resting, Eastside, Detroit 2012
Often working with broken, outdated and worn out equipment, Detroit’s firemen face a challenging task of protecting the city. Always putting their lives at risk, they respond to over 500 fires per month, half of which, like this one are arson related. For an arsonist a gallon of gas is cheaper entertainment than a movie ticket.
Volunteers Cleaning up the Brightmoor Neighborhood, Northwest Side, Detroit 2013
The Brightmoor neighborhood on the far Northwest side is Detroit’s most blighted area. Long the center of attention due to the sheer amount of trash, discarded tires, and collapsed houses that riddled the area, recent efforts by volunteer groups, most notably the Detroit Blight Authority, have caught the attention of the news media. On this particular day over 400 volunteers, most from the metropolitan area, showed up to perform clean up duty on a fourteen square block area, making an amazing difference in the visual appearance of the neighborhood.
Did you meet/know your subjects prior to shooting them or was this interaction your first with them?
I started this project from square one after being absent from Detroit for over thirty years. I really didn’t know any of the people I photographed before I met them, but on several occasions I would revisit and take more photographs of people I became good friends with and in turn they would introduce me to other friends of theirs, and so on. But the majority of my work involved canvassing neighborhoods, getting out of my car and introducing myself to people I met, explaining what my project was all about and then let the encounter evolve. Most of the time it resulted in my being able to take some photographs.
Mark Covington and His Son Mark Anthony, Eastside, Detroit 2014
Mark is the founder of the Georgia Street Community Garden, one of the largest community efforts that help anyone who would like to have fresh vegetables for free. It’s a lot more than just a garden though. See here – www.georgiastreetcc.com
Michelle, Community Organizer, Detroit 2014
Michelle volunteers for “Detroit Soup”, a small organization that offers mini-grants by having pot-luck dinners where people donate money to have dinner. Four people are invited to make proposals that improve their neighborhood and then the group votes at the end of the dinner. The group with the highest votes get all the money raised during the night to support their cause. There is one dinner each month at different locations throughout the city. Here is a link: detroitsoup.com
Although you live in Chicago, you’ve returned to your hometown countless times for this series. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Detroit?
The biggest misconception is that everyone thinks Detroit is a dangerous place. Just because it’s predominately black and poor doesn’t mean that you’re going to get mugged. It bothers me that people, mostly suburbanites, feel this way about Detroit when some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are from the inner city. It’s all about breaking down racial barriers and accepting people for who they are, and 99.9% of people in Detroit are really no different from you and I.
A group of Men in a Makeshift Neighborhood Park, Eastside, Detroit 2014
Established for years, this abandoned piece of land is transformed into a local neighborhood park that serves as a community gathering spot for local residents. Apparently these guys were as interested in me as I was of them.
Crowd Gathering, St. Aubin Outdoor Music Festival, Eastside, Detroit 2013
Every Sunday afternoon throughout the summer at the corner of St. Aubin and Frederick Street, an empty lot transforms itself into a lively and free music venue. Hundreds gather to spend the afternoon eating, drinking, dancing, and listening to live blues.
Can you tell us of a particular encounter that really impacted you?
I think the one person who has impacted me the most is Tom. After living homeless for several years he built himself a tiny hut no larger than a dog house on a small patch of abandoned city property perched along the Detroit River. He’s lived at this location for the past twelve years and has since built two other structures, one measuring about 7 X 10 feet and his current one which he is in the process of building will measure 16 X 16 feet. All of his building materials are derived from discarded bits and pieces he’s found in construction site dumpsters or abandoned buildings. Extremely resourceful, introspective, and independent, he has lived these past several years without conventional heat, electricity, or running water.
Tom Digging the Foundation for His New House, West Jefferson Avenue, Detroit 2014
Tom’s Cabin, Near Westside, Detroit 2011
The small cabin that Tom built and lived in for eight years. The scale is somewhat deceptive in that his front door is only four feet high and 18 inches wide.
Were there any specific neighbourhoods that struck you as being full of life and energy?
There are so many different neighborhoods scattered throughout the city that it’s hard to single out one in particular. They are all unique and have their own individual characteristics. Even the poorest neighborhoods have community involvement in the form of vegetable gardens, neighborhood watch patrol, clean-up days, looking after senior citizens, etc. If you look close enough you see these things. I’m not saying that every part of the city is rosy, far from it, but there are glimmers of hope just about everywhere you look.
Willie on the front steps of his House of Peace, Eastside, Detroit 2015
Willie, who has lived in this house for the past 37 years is on a one-man crusade to clean up his block. He was the first black man to live here when it was a mostly Italian-American neighborhood. Now there are only four houses left on the block that are occupied.
Neighborhood Fireworks on the 4th of July, Goldengate Street, Detroit 2014
This street is located in one of the most blighted neighborhoods of Detroit, but residents still can come together and have a good time. They were having a friendly competition with neighbors down the street where each successive firework got bigger and bigger.
Did you ever meet a subject that you decided not to photograph or to not release their image/story?
Yes, in a kind of indirect way. A couple of women that I photographed for the Darkness in the Light Project who had gotten themselves off the street, had gone through rehab, and were on the road to recovery contacted me after seeing their picture on my website and requested that I remove it, which I did of course. I think it’s important to be respectful of someone’s feelings.
Jackie and Donny, Brightmoor Neighborhood, Detroit 2013
This abandoned house sits across from Jackie’s, as well as two more on the either side of her house. She organized the neighborhood kids to paint the houses with colorful depictions of ocean life and sunsets as a way of beautifying the street.
Hakeem in His Room, Detroit 2012
Broke, divorced, and after losing his business, Hakaeem found his salvation his Muslim faith. He scraped $500 to purchase a run down house on the north side of town and now repairs cars from an abandoned two-car garage across the alley from his house. Turning a small room of his house into a place for meditation and reflection, he continually writes original phrases of wisdom, inspirational quotes, and factual tidbits on his walls that guide his moral and spiritual life. Always positive of mind, he doesn’t see himself as a victim anymore, but someone who accepts adversity as a metaphor to building one’s character.
What’s something you’ve learned from this experience?
The most important thing I’ve learned from this project is that no matter how dire your situation is, the will to survive and persevere is greater than giving up. I’ve seen a lot of struggle in Detroit, but the overriding feeling is that most of the people I’ve met possess a constant sense of hope in spite of the difficulties they’ve encountered from living in a post-industrial city.
Andrew Harvesting in His Garden, Farnsworth Street, Detroit 2012
Andrew and his wife Kinga live almost entirely off of what their garden produces throughout the year. They live on a street where many of the residents trade and barter with each other.
Swimmers on Belle Isle Beach, Detroit 2010
After years of being heavily polluted due to industrial waste, Detroit has made steady progress in cleaning up the Detroit River to the point that it is safe again for fishing and swimming. Beavers, which have been absent for more than 50 years have recently been spotted along the shoreline.