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The received narrative of Detroit’s past forty years is one of epic decline. The gradual loss of the city’s industrial economic base and flight of the white middle class to the suburbs contributed to an immense population exodus. What remains is an evacuated city of ruins with a citizenry composed largely of those without the means to move. Most recently, the city has found itself literally bankrupt, and without the financial resources to continue to supply infrastructure to its vast hollow territory. This story has been popularized, and even romanticized, through the circulation of images of Detroit’s decay. Colloquially referred to as “ruin porn,” these images often portray architectural evidence of Detroit’s latter-day collectivities – train stations, movie palaces, schools, factories, churches and more. With cracked plaster and crumbling facades, all are depicted in an arrested state of entropy. Often historicist in stylistic reference, these buildings owe their photogenic nature to their inclusion in a paradigm in which architecture is meant to visually address and represent the urban public. Thus, ruin porn lends witness to architecture rendered mute by the absence of its audience.
Less discussed than Detroit’s monumental population loss, and certainly less publicized through imagery, is the relative stability of its metropolitan area. While the city’s population has dramatically contracted, that of the metro-area has either grown, or lost population at a much slower rate than the city in each of the past four decades. The United States Census reports that Metro-Detroit had approximately 4.3 million residents spread across 1,300 square miles in 2010. In 1950, that number was only 3 million. Partially attributable to the migration to the suburbs, this data speaks less to a narrative of urban disintegration, and more to one of a leveling of density within a morphology of sprawling regional urbanization. Such a morphology is poly-nucleated, evenly spread as a field condition across city and suburb, and networked by highways and transportation infrastructure.
The thinly spread urbanization of metro-Detroit is also less imageable than the center city. While downtown Detroit is spotted with ruined architecture for institutions that were meant to visually represent their public, the architecture of the metropolitan region commonly answers as much to demands of logistical protocols as to those of public collectivity. And so those features of Metro-Detroit that lend legibility to the region’s sprawl stand unique amongst speechless neighbors. Few such features are more prominent than Metro-Detroit’s many megachurches.
More in MONU #19 Greater Urbanism.