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Detroit: 138 Square Miles

by Pedro Vélez
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Julia Reyes Taubman, Detroit: 138 Square Miles, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2011, 488 pp., $65.

As far as vanity projects go, Julia Reyes Taubman’s Detroit: 138 Square Miles is so heavy that if it accidentally fell off a coffee table it could crush a Yorkshire terrier. God forbid tragedy striking those expensive little critters that look so sinfully cute inside the lavish purses of the Real Housewives.

I don’t know if Miss Taubman owns a Yorkie but I can tell you she is unabashedly rich, an attitude that has some 99%ers fuming because she is using her access to the highest spheres to promote her new book. 

Wouldn’t you do the same?

Taubman is an architectural historian, amateur photojournalist and patron of the arts. She has served on multiple boards, including the one for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is a founder of the non-collecting Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), the book’s publisher, where she is also chairman of the board. Nine years ago she arrived in Detroit’s high society via her marriage to mall magnate Robert Taubman (son of former Sotheby's chairman A. Alfred Taubman). Back in New York, according to Nick Paumgarten in a recent article for the New Yorker, her duplex has “a spiral staircase, views of the High Line and the pit where the new Whitney Museum is going to be.”

Her ambitious photographic mapping of the Motor City’s decaying urban landscape in Detroit: 138 Square Miles was undertaken by air, water and ground, and even Elmore Leonard, the famous novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, makes a guest appearance phoning in one lazy foreword.

Rich people have it so easy, don’t you think? Now, how about talent?

We’ll, that can be tricky. From 2005 to 2011 Reyes Taubman took close to 40,000 photos -- only 454 made it into the book -- and even though most of her vistas are truly impressive in a point-and-shot kind of way, they’re nothing out of ordinary given the colossal subject on hand. During her brief visit to Chicago I dared ask about any technical limitations she might have with the camera, and her answer was candid if not honest. Her goal is not to achieve artistic excellence, she said, but to document the city she loves and to see it preserved just as it is. She also expressed dismay with the so-called “ruin-porn” commonly exploited by tourists.

Scholar Jerry Herron makes a good case for her yearning boosterism in his essay (the one that follows Leonard’s), which is titled Living with Detroit. Herron says the one-time “City of the Future” has also become “the richest site in America when it comes to ruins.” Because sections of the city were abandoned in the short period of 20 years, “all the infrastructure required to house and feed, organize and entertain the million former residents who don’t live here anymore” just sits there.

Intriguingly, Herron observes that "the grassland that now overtakes much of the inner city is not a reassertion of some primordial condition; this place was never grassland to begin with.” He adds, “The prairie of Detroit is not elemental at all, then, but altogether new, and of specifically urban making.”

Details like this make Detroit: 138 Square Miles exciting, and the fact that it can take the reader close to two hours to browse through the large, glossy pages graced with abandoned schools, funky dive bars, empty public plazas, scary underpasses, scarce suburbia and architectural sites overwhelmed by vegetation. The book also has an extensive reference section in the back where each photo has been identified with its corresponding sociocultural description.

My favorite images can be found in pages 126 and 127. Here Taubman documents a house fire being put out by a pair of lonely firemen. Only a handful of neighbors watch the action in what seems to be a deserted community. The uneventful vista is not monumental, but more like an intimate portrait of a marginalized city

And yes, Taubman also includes all of the obligatory still-beautiful crumbling landmarks like the Aztec-inspired Vanity Ballroom (designed by Charles Agree in 1929), or the massive Michigan Central Railroad Station built in 1913. Then there are the theatrical aerial views of the Bob-Lo Boats shipwrecks standing still in front of the U.S. Steel Ecorse Oxygen Plant. For nearly a century these steam boats ferried people to an amusement park at Bois Blanc Island, even in times when segregation refused access to African-Americans.

Detroit has been inundated by "Ruin Porn" in recent years. Take Johnny Knoxville’s optimistic documentary Detroit Lives, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s slick vistas in The Ruins of Detroit, or even last year’s Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial featuring Rap star Eminem. In the end it's all about branding.

However, Reyes Taubman goes further, ever so slightly, showing a sentimental portrait of Detroit as a city in transition. You can tell she cares. Whether its citizens will take to heart her recommendation that the city's glorious ruins be left just as they are, and neither restored nor destroyed, remains to be seen. At least she is making an important cultural contribution, and that my friends can't be torn down just because of her social status.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.