Sunday, October 04, 2009

Rust Belt Landscape And Memory

Ruin porn or Rust Belt chic? Last week, Rust Wire served up a great topic for discussion. The issue is the coverage of urban decay. The stereotypes of shrinking cities are obvious. The cropping of images (i.e. "ruin porn") creates a mythical landscape devoid of context. This perspective is recycled in one story after another. Casualties include places such as Ann Arbor. The entire state of Michigan is cast as urban rabbit butchers and war-torn buildings. The result is a thriving, entrepreneurial college town that can't attract talent.

Negative stereotypes are only part of the problem. The fetishism of urban frontier, something I regularly invoke, is also critiqued. A useful icon for this local/outsider tension is Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. Ruin porn in Northampton:

Leone hopes that Fetterman's talk will spark students' interest in the Rust Belt and inspire some students to procure Praxis internships in Braddock. Judging by student reactions to the talk, this partnership seems likely.

"I see it as a call to a kind of activism we haven't seen much of in our privileged environment at Smith," Leone said. She is confident students will take up the cause. "They are an activist bunch," she said.

Braddock is portrayed as the playground for "privileged" anti-globalization forces. The resistance to the idea of farming the urban prairie is reminiscent of the neo-Marxist invective against gentrification or the post-colonial mocking of the First World valorization of Che Guevara. Go play out your vision of utopia somewhere else and stop subverting the locals.

Is there a social justice of landscape representation?

All of the above geographies are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just because I'm an Erie native doesn't mean my imagined Rust Belt has authority over that of a cosmopolite living in Notting Hill. There's a lot of hand-wringing over authenticity. What is the real Braddock? Where can one find the essence of Detroit?

Artists, not journalists, are in a better position to handle such questions. The "truth" about the Rust Belt is subjective. In Buffalo:

"We thought they would laugh. But they didn't," Spector said of the ArcelorMittal management's reaction to her request for access. "They all thought there was this beauty in their workplace that they wanted to show us and share with us and that they felt was important. And it obviously energized their lives to think somebody would be interested in it."

Shortly after her arrival, Calame decided to trace a dilapidated wading pool in Buffalo's old First Ward, as well as sections of the Albright-Knox parking lot. In terms of scope, the residency and year of studio work that followed, Calame said, was her biggest project yet.

Spector stressed the educational potential of the show — about the conceptual challenges of the art itself and in terms of what it can reveal about the history and landscape of Western New York.

"From an educational point of view, the connection of art and the community is a really natural one," Spector said. "The expression and the creativity that goes along with art are the kinds of skills that people need to have good lives. They need to, I think, look at something beyond what's right in front of your nose."

I don't expect to find an accurate portrayal of a community in a newspaper or magazine. There are many threads to follow and I don't think an AP photographer can capture all the nuances. Is it fair that a Harvard educated white male from York, PA gets to speak for Braddock? The media obsession with Fetterman raises all of the same concerns about ruin porn and artists could shed some light on that.

In the past month alone, the plant’s been used by the New York Times, the British Daily Mirror, and the Polish Auto Motor as a visual for stories it has no concrete connection to other than occupying the same city. The Packard also shows up twice in the same Time photo spread from December, although the second picture is just captioned with the street address to make it look like their photographer visited more than three sites.

Here’s the bummer: To get a nice, wide westerly view of the building complex you have to go into the adjacent cemetery. On the outer path at the edge of the plots there’s a large, jarringly ugly sign warning visitors to lock their cars and be alert for muggers. Next to this, on my visit, there was a haphazard stack of concrete grave liners sprinkled with dirt near an idling front-end loader whose front end was loaded with topsoil and plastic flowers.

There are families of white folk who fled Detroit for the suburbs in the 60s who have now become so terrified of visiting the city that they’re willing to disinter their dead loved ones and rebury them in their current neighborhoods. And it’s not just one or two oddballs doing this—more than 1,000 bodies have been exhumed and moved since 2002. It’s a full-blown trend.

What a powerful image of a very real suburban fear. That dramatic anecdote captures my own urban anxieties. Such geographic abstractions define who we are and make our behavior predictable. Art can challenge these assumptions and allow us to see the world in a new way. As for journalists, all the positive or fair stories in the world won't do much to change our perspective. The onus is on the reader. Passive consumption of media is the problem, not the cropping of pictures.

1 comment:

Mark Arsenal said...

Maybe my own enjoyment of postapocalyptic pr0n is why I have such a problem with change in just about all it's forms. That's why I chose Lawrenceville, and why I get frightened every time I read about it's success or renewal.

I latch onto places that are dirty and desolate because I find that attractive; I don't want them to become successful because they will stop being as ruinously beautiful. Might also explain my fetish for reading and writing about economic d00m.

Once a goth always a goth, I suppose...