This is what the end of the American empire looks like.

Michigan Central Station

French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre collaborated for five years to produce “The Ruins of Detroit,” an astonishing collection of photographs documenting the decaying remains of what was once the fourth largest city in the United States.

United Artists Theater

I have never been to Detroit.  But growing up in and around Philadelphia, I’ve seen countless buildings in similar states of decomposition; one can see dozens of them from the windows of any train between New York and DC, especially when traveling the segment between Trenton, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware.  The great cities of the American Northeast are pocked with deserted industrial and manufacturing zones, and these frequently stretch out far beyond city borders along the surrounding waterways and train routes.  There are dozens of once-thriving small towns along the rails and rivers, silently decomposing in plain sight.

Vanity Ballroom

But this is nothing like the sheer scale of Detroit.  Over a generation, economic devastation visited more calamity here than any other American city.  The Detroit of the mid-20th century is a carcass.  From the photographers’ web site:

Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire.

William Livingstone House

The photographs of Marchand and Meffre shake me to my core, perhaps because they so easily bring to mind the possibility of Philadelphia’s iconic art museum in a similarly hollowed-out state, or its magnificent train station, or City Hall.  Or the Empire State and Woolworth buildings in New York.  As wealth disparity spirals to levels not seen since before the Great Depression, and money and power coalesce more and more into the greedy hands of a reckless few, it is terrifying to ponder how quickly transformations such as Detroit’s can take place.  Still, there is for me a profoundly deep, awe-inspiring beauty to be glimpsed when contemplating the fragility and impermanence of ourselves and our world, and these silent spaces are a compelling testament of our species’ unique ability to accomplish great things.

Ballroom, American Hotel

A grateful Palace is indebted to Yves Marchand for permission to post the works seen here.  Many more stunning shots can be viewed on the photographers’ website, and a beautifully printed hardcover book is available for purchase here.  “The Ruins of Detroit” exhibition runs through April 5, 2012 at the Wilmotte Gallery in London.

Fisher Body 21 Plant

[h/t  SJ – who else?]

2 thoughts on “This is what the end of the American empire looks like.

  1. I saw this book last fall in “our soon to be closed I’d guess”, local Barnes and Noble – since we’re discussing declines. I found it fascinating, beautiful, upsetting, scary – above all though, depressing. Since you added the Philadelphia connection, which I also share, it’s the same situation. It’s as if the generation that created the original wealth, were not able to pass along an interest to their heirs to respect and preserve the past. They took the money and ran, allowed the decline of not only the buildings, but also the businesses that fed them. The auto industry was not destroyed by Japan originally, it was falling apart because the manufacturers in Detroit were not building cars that people wanted or cars that performed well, etc – making room for manufacturers from Japan, Korea, Europe. It’s taken two near collapses of the industry and finally a total collapse with the needed bailouts, to get Detroit to wake up.

    The ruins of Detroit are beautiful, even in their decay. It would be cool to preserve in the current state.

  2. Pingback: Explore the Ruins of the United Artists Theater in Detroit | When On Earth - Places to See, Things to Do, Gear to GetWhen On Earth – Places to See, Things to Do, Gear to Get

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