October 24, 2017

The Stories of Ruin Porn

Abandoned Buick City Complex

Ruin Porn is a new concept to me. Although its origins are in the Rust Belt, and primarily Detroit, I never noticed the phrase being used to describe pictures of abandonment. The main complaint of ruin porn is that it ignores the people and focuses on the abandoned buildings. I must have been focusing too much on the people who come from these fallen monuments to industry.

One year ago the most memorable street person that I’ve ever seen emerged from a field of weeds and broken bottles. He was wearing a heavy coat, gloves with the fingers cut off, and had the dusty orange hue that’s so familiar to the homeless exposed to years of sunshine. The sunshine of the homeless doesn’t brighten the day. It just means they’re on the clock in the miles of walking to an unknown destination. This homeless man was strumming a guitar and singing as he marched. A woman’s eyeballs almost popped from her head when she came around the corner and saw this incredible apparition coming at her.

The man was a ruin porn star if there ever was such a thing. The abandoned Buick City complex is a massive structure of broken windows and piles of twisted metal, surrounded by a high fence with warning not to trespass signs on the fence about every fifty yards. Homeless like the Guitar Man walk the empty streets around the complex. Some of them have small backpacks. These people are the supporting cast to the Guitar Man. They’re in their element here.

Earlier in the day, a young homeless guy with a worn backpack and jug of water was sitting outside an upscale produce market in a very nice area many miles from the Buick City complex. I felt sorry for him and wondered where his parents must be, or some relative who could help him. Suburban shoppers walked around him, eating free corn on the cob samples. Everyone pretended not to notice him. He wasn’t their problem as long as their eyeballs didn’t connect with his.

Or mine. I also walked the long way around him. Fear is the motive for avoiding ruin porn in the bad areas. Greed is the motive in the nice area. The Michigan blueberries were mine, damn it.

Billy Durant took charge of Buick in 1904, a year after Jack London’s Call of the Wild was published. Durant incorporated General Motors in 1908. The ruin porn reminds me of Buck in the Call of the Wild. The “dominant primordial beast” grew and became strong in Buck as he was forced to do or die- adapt to the fierce environment. Buck learned from the harsh experiences. The man with the club, the packs of dogs waiting to kill him if he showed weakness, the wild environment shaking him from the comfortable suburban domestic life- it arose in Buck the instinct to survive and compete fiercely as a wolf. Buck’s muscles hardened and his tolerance to pain, his and others, became callous.

I felt more callous to the homeless walking near the abandoned Buick City complex. I expected them to have a higher tolerance to pain. Ruin porn numbs the soul, another criticism of its obsession with abandonment. Critics accused ruin porn stars of exploitation without offering solutions. There’s an abandoned Vietnam Memorial park near the Buick City complex that qualifies as a ruin porn war memorial. The nearest literary “celebrity” to this place is Thomas Lynch, the poet and funeral director in Milford. In his book The Undertaking, he writes about the coffin business shifting from wood to metal in the early 1900s, copying the transportation industry’s demand for sheet metal. The metal coffin offered permanence and protection from the elements. Loved ones didn’t share the Call of the Wild for the deceased lowered into the grave. But the bombs of World War One and World War Two blew to bits the graveyards. The British discovered the value of cremation.

Historian James MacGregor Burns writes in The Workshop of Democracy of the “pulse of the machine” and the rise of mass production. Henry Ford’s Rouge plant in the 1920s employed an army of 75,000 workers that were treated as industrial soldiers. Mass production “reduced the necessity of thought on the part of the worker.” Of course, historians and writers become obsolete as machines. History has a way of reducing books, even those from historians, to literary ruin porn. James MacGregor Burns had a strong leftist perspective. The totalitarianism of thought from the left and the damage it inflicted on the 20th century escapes him, making his own body of work exposed to rapid decay. Maybe the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch has the best perspective. Everything is cremated over time.

Tom Friedman’s┬áThe World is Flat is about the importance of openness. “Cultures that are open and willing to change have a huge advantage in this world” says one high tech CEO interviewed for his book published in 2005. The World is Wild is a good title for the history of ruin porn.

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