Detroit's Fight to Survive: A Humanist's Look at the Motor City

4 minute read

To illustrate this week’s cover story on the city of Detroit’s fight to survive, TIME turned to the work of photographer Dave Jordano. A second-generation Detroit native living in Chicago, Jordano returned to his home city three years ago with a mission: not to photograph what’s been destroyed, but to record what’s been left behind and the lives of those coping with it. The photographer spoke with LightBox producer Vaughn Wallace on Tuesday; their conversation has been condensed and edited below.

I’m from Detroit originally. I was born there in 1948 and then grew up in Royal Oak, a suburb of the city. At one time my father was an auto-worker in the Packard Automotive Plant, and after they went out of business, he went to work for GM. I studied photography at the Center for Creative Studies, which is an art school in downtown Detroit.

In 2010, I started seeing all these books about the abandonment and ruination of the city. They were all so empty! I thought, God, this is such a lopsided point of view. The whole idea of what’s come to be known as ruin porn is fascinating and sensual, but it masks the real problem of what’s happening in Detroit. Because the pictures are so beautiful and captivating, it’s easy to overlook their real meaning.

I was disturbed by that. While living in Chicago for 30 years, I never went back to Detroit. I never experienced the slow progression, degradation and emptying of the city firsthand. It never occurred to me this was happening until I got the idea to go back and re-photograph the same scenes and architecture I shot as a student in the 1970s.

I had all these negatives with the addresses written down on the sleeves — I knew exactly where they were. So for a week and a half, I completed an entire re-photography project. I had reacquainted myself with the city and was shocked at what I saw. I was drawn in and immediately started shooting the same subject matter as my predecessors, but then I realized that I was contributing nothing to the story of the city.

I asked myself: what can I contribute to Detroit that’s different? What angle can I take that’s more humanistic, more compassionate, than what all these people are coming here to do? I began thinking about the neighborhoods: what about the people who still live here? How are they coping?

So I switched directions.

I started driving around random neighborhoods and just hanging out. I said, I’m going to make this about the people that still live here and my encounters with the folks I meet. And as the project progresses, I’ve gone back and visited the same people and become better friends with them. I’ve returned over and over, trying to get even closer into their lives and homes and backyards. I want to create a more personal way of looking at the people of Detroit — to put a face on the city that I felt was sort of overlooked.

I’ve made over 20 trips to Detroit in the last three years, staying 10-14 days on each trip. But every time I go back, I’m still not used to the way the city looks. I can’t get it out of my head. I wish everyone in the country could tour Detroit and see what’s happened there.

It’s tragic that everyone has turned their back on the city. But I see perseverance and pride. The people I’ve met make do with what they’ve got. For me, when I see people living the way they do, I’m blown away by their positive attitude. Detroit’s a city people shouldn’t write off.

Dave Jordano is a fine art and documentary photographer based in Chicago. See more of his work here.

Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.

A Neighborhood Group Playing in the Street, North Corktown, Detroit, 2012 The temperature hit 103 degrees on this July day, forcing many neighborhood residents to open up fire hydrants to relieve themselves from the sweltering heat.Dave Jordano
Semira Sleeping in Kat's House, Eastside, Detroit, 2012 The child of a homeless mother sleeps in Kat's bedroom. Kat will take anyone into her home who needs food or shelter. Often as many as eight people stay in her small two-bedroom house.Dave Jordano
House with Sign Painted by Andre Ventura, Milner St., Detroit, 2011 One of over 250 signs hand-painted by Andre Ventura and placed throughout the city to create awareness about crime, social issues, and political corruption.Dave Jordano
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.Dave Jordano
Clifford, Goldengate Street Resident, Detroit, 2012 Clifford lives in one of the rooms of Beezy's house on Goldengate Street. He lives and works with a group of like-minded people who have taken over a half dozen abandoned houses on the street. They repair the houses, cook community meals, garden, raise chickens and share in the domestic well-being of the community.Dave Jordano
Animal House, Heidelberg Project, Detroit, 2010 The Heidelberg Project, now in its 26th year, is an open-air art project 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.Dave Jordano
Mo, The Birdman of Detroit, Detroit, 2012 Mo has loved pigeons ever since he was a young boy living in Iraq and in the past 50 years, he has raised more than 2000 of them. His neighborhood is notorious for prostitution and his tenant Lori, a local sex worker who has been living with him for the past two years, helps share in the living expense of the household. Mo prefers not to know what Lori does and he will not let her bring customers into the house, but through their shared arrangement they have each found companionship and mutual support.Dave Jordano
A Woman Sleeping in a Parking Lot Near East Warren Avenue, Detroit, 2010 There are many homeless shelters in Detroit where victims can go in order to seek out help, but many can't or will not go for various reasons. Often mental illness, a lack of trust or anti-social behavior prevents homeless people from reaching out.Dave Jordano
Patricia in Her New House with Her Cigarette Ration, Goldengate St, Detroit, 2012Dave Jordano
Police Cadet Riot Control Training, Northeast Side, Detroit, 2011 The Detroit Police Academy will often train cadets in open public spaces in order to show local residents that their tax dollars are going to good use and to promote better public relations.Dave Jordano
City Skyline from Michigan Central Train Depot, Detroit, 2012Dave Jordano
Bey-Bey with Memorial Car, Eastside, Detroit, 2012 A young man stands in front of a car memorializing the death of his mother who died from an asthma attack at the age of 34.Dave Jordano
Hand Painted Commercial Wall Graphics, Northeast Side, Detroit, 2011 Small businesses with minimal budgets for advertising often hire non-professional sign painters to create distinctive murals in order to attract the attention of customers.Dave Jordano
Jay Thunderbolt (alias), Far Northeast Side, Detroit, 2011 Jay operates an exotic dance business from his house. His clients make appointments for private lap dances that take place in his back den.Dave Jordano
Marcus and Bey-Bey, Eastside, Detroit, 2012 Two brothers with tattoos on their chests memorializing the death of their mother who died from an asthma attack at the age of 34.Dave Jordano
Glemie Playing the Blues, Westside, Detroit, 2011 Glemie, a retired truck driver and fifty-year resident of Detroit, is an accomplished blues singer, but he's also known for his small game hunting skills. Every fall he hunts an average of 150 raccoons, which he skins, dresses, and sells as food to clients. This extra income supplements his meager retirement benefits.Dave Jordano
Firemen Resting on Roof of House, Eastside, Detroit, 2013 95% of the 500 fires per month that the Detroit fire department responds to are arson related. For most arsonists, a gallon of gas is cheaper entertainment than a movie ticket.Dave Jordano
Diane Sleeping, Poletown, Detroit, 2013 Diane was homeless and staying at a friend's house temporarily.Dave Jordano

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