Sometimes it's useful to have a memento mori for our cities as well as ourselves
The Observer magazine in today's Guardian has a powerful photo feature on the decline of Detroit, based on a book published by young French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre: The Ruins of Detroit.
Here is a potent paragraph from the Observer's accompanying article:
Cumulatively, the photographs are a powerful and disturbing testament to the glory and the destructive cost of American capitalism: the centre of a once-thriving metropolis in the most powerful nation on earth has become a ghost town of decaying buildings and streets. There is a formal beauty here too, though, reminiscent of Robert Polidori's images of post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans. "It seems like Detroit has just been left to die," says Marchand, "Many times we would enter huge art deco buildings with once-beautiful chandeliers, ornate columns and extraordinary frescoes, and everything was crumbling and covered in dust, and the sense that you had entered a lost world was almost overwhelming. In a very real way, Detroit is a lost world – or at least a lost city where the magnificence of its past is everywhere evident."
The two old-building-loving shutterbugs have had many of these pictures on their website for some time. But they don't lose their potency with repeated viewing.
I know it's not really a great topic for the start of the year, but I think it's useful to have some graphic examples of impermanence around to remind us not to take our world (whichever size we like it to be) for granted.
Given the recent struggles of symphony orchestras in cities in the Rust Belt -- in particular, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh -- among other things, the pictures of decay are a powerful reminder that nothing stays put, and that, all wishful thinking aside, culture can't thrive in a place that isn't thriving economically. Even books have no meaning, as we can see in this picture from a former public library.
To have a grand-old symphony orchestra headquartered in a city of empty, decaying schools and burned-out neighbourhoods is a strange juxtaposition. Is it a symbol of High Culture standing its ground as a beacon of what once was and what, hopefully, could again be? Or does it become a symbol of a chasm between socioeconomic privilege and the near-total absence of civil society, of have-everything vs have-nothing? (If you were to put down dots on a map of the list of Detroit Symphony or Cleveland Orchestra patrons, I'm betting you would see something like a doughnut shape around the concert halls, with the empty centre being the distance to be covered as quickly and safely as possible between home and paid, secure parking.)
What kind of music is there growing out of the community in central Detroit, or Warren, or Flint? Can any of the kids left behind in the blighted neighbourhoods make their own music, even if they really, really want to?
Coincidentally, the Star's visual art critic Murray Whyte has a story on the front page of today's Entertainment section of a visual art community that's trying to make a go from inside Detroit's rubble. There are similar communities of adventurous artists in Cleveland and other decaying, Rust Belt cities. It's an interesting phenomenon, but I doubt that creation based on scavenging rather than building can be anything more than a sideshow.
Here's the amazing story of Betty Perry, who has set up an orchestra in Indianapolis -- the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra -- who is working with children and parents in distressed neighbourhoods. What makes her work different is how the adults are there, too, adding another layer of positive bonding to the musicmaking process: