Love Among the Ruin Porn, Part 1: The Highland Park Plant/Model-T Plaza

Notice the icon beside the words CVS/Pharmacy, which depicts the Model T with classical simplicity.

Notice the icon beside the words CVS/Pharmacy, which depicts the Model T with classical simplicity.

The Mustang gave me a degree of mobility that I have not otherwise enjoyed here in Detroit–although apparently all this walking has lost me some weight–and I was excited, because it meant a chance to show Caroline some of Detroit’s classic abandoned factories.

Henry Ford's Highland Park Plant, where the Model T was produced, all boarded up and shit.

Henry Ford's Highland Park Plant, where the Model T was produced, all boarded up and shit.

Detroit sprouts with abandoned factories the way dandelions bloom from suburban lawns in the springtime.  The factories have a particular beauty that is well documented, especially at Lowell Boileau’s website DetroitYES.com (be sure to check out Boileau’s digital “tour,” “The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit”) and in the photography of Camilo Vergara.  Just last month, Harper’s published a photo essay–highly derivative of Boileau and Vergara–by Will Steacey called “These Mean Streets: Scenes From the Abandoned City”. For more than ten years, the flayed and rotting architectural corpses left over from America’s industrial heyday have exuded romance and seduction for a small army of photographers.

A new article in, of all places, the usually-odious Vice magazine really takes abandoned-building enthusiasts in the media to task for their efforts to harvest Detroit for its most emblematic architectural images of despair and obsolescence.  According to article author Thomas Morton, the practice of scoping out and shooting images of Detroit’s most fucked-up-looking lost-glory edifices has by now become so cliché that reporters view a trip to Detroit as a routine labor-saving exercise, the urban equivalent of Clip-Art or one of those websites that lazy undergrads dial up when they don’t feel like writing a paper on their own:

“The problem is it’s [the vampiric trend of journalists going to Detroit to take pictures of abandoned buildings, in particularly factories that symbolize the city’s lost industrial Golden Age] reached the point where the potential for popularity or ‘stickiness’ or whatever you’re supposed to call it now is driving the coverage more than any sort of newsworthiness of the subject. There’s a total gold-rush mentality about the D right now, and all the excitement has led to some real lapses in basic journalistic ethics and judgment. Like the French filmmaker who came to Detroit to shoot a documentary about all the deer and pheasants and other wildlife that have been returning to the city. After several days without seeing a wild one he had to be talked out of renting a trained fox to run through the streets for the camera. Or the Dutch crew who decided to go explore the old project tower where Smokey Robinson grew up and promptly got jacked for their thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.”

Former entrance to the Highland Park Plant.

Former entrance to the Highland Park Plant.

Somehow, at some point, the project of attempting to document the situation in troubled postindustrial cities devolved to the point where it actually became a way of hiding those problems, and turning complex social issues into a form of pornography.

The earliest photographers to attempt to yield a degree of aesthetic pleasure from the (as Lowell Boileau calls them) “fabulous ruins of Detroit,” I think they were onto something.  Before I had ever been exposed to “ruin porn” in the media, it had a pornographic effect on me of sorts when I simply saw, entered, or drove past the buildings.  However, the fact that my relationship with these abandoned residences and factories was couched in my status as a visitor contains a clue as to how the “ruin porn” genre of journalism and photography could possibly fall as far as Morton suggests that it has.

A homeless man sleeping in the grassy area in front of the Highland Park Plant/Model T Plaza.

A homeless man sleeping in the grassy area in front of the Highland Park Plant/Model T Plaza.

That said, I think it is worthwhile to ask ourselves why so many people would choose to feast on images of decay, failure, and neglect, and celebrate them for their aesthetic qualities.  I actually think there’s a pretty good reason for it.

My theory is that modern society is driven by its ability to commodify absolute anything, co-opt any object at all into the circulation of capitalist exchange, and so those structures that have been removed from that system of circulation achieve a unique form of authenticity, at least in the perceptions of certain people who perceive them.  In “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducbility,” Walter Benjamin discusses the way in which the work of art loses its “aura” as a result of becoming a commodity–to my mind, abandoned factories are appealing to visual artists because the factories’ status as abandoned negates the factories’ status as commodities.  

Having lost their exchange value, the factories simply exist, nothing more and nothing less, and the zero-degree pureness of this gives them a degree of “aura” that no commodity can possess.

Model T Plaza, Ford Industrial Park behind it.

Model T Plaza, Ford Industrial Park behind it.

For reasons that have nothing to do with Benjamin, furthermore, a visit to the abandoned factories of Detroit makes you want to invoke spectral figures like auras, ghosts, phantoms, hauntings, and  poltergeists with abandon.  The urge, as much as I may hate to admit it, is irresistible.

No matter how reactionary this reaction may be, the sight of these factories is indeed positively eerie: they feel like living things, on some level, turned silent not out of obsolescence but out of sheer bitterness because their present-day neglect is such a shabby reward for their great accomplishments of the past.

Love among the ruin porn.

Love among the ruin porn.

That said, Metro Detroit’s powers that be are making an effort to reintegrate them into the city fabric.  Much more so than in the 90’s, when I as a teenager used to delight at the forlorn sights of factories standing sentinel to busy Detroit Saturday nights with their soundtrack of pounding techno beats and balloons filling up with nitrous oxide, the city and the region are actually trying to use the factories for a purpose these days.  Everywhere you go you see signs advertising lofts in former sites of manufacturing, even if Detroit area brokers seem to be having problems filling them up.

Because Detroit’s abandoned factories still exert the weird aesthetic-spiritual aura that first made them attractive to visual artists, and yet are also the object of a wide variety of schemes to make them into profitable commodities, I think that it is possible to take pictures of the factories and write about the factories without lapsing into sheer ruin porn.  By emphasizing them as components of a dynamic city environment, and not just massive isolated symbols without a relationship to human society, writing about Detroit’s vast open-air museum of neglected historic manufacturing sites can still be interesting, in my view.

Henry Ford’s Highland Park Plant is a particularly interesting and amusing case in point.  In 1909, Ford built the plant from a design by Albert Kahn–in the design of the plant, Kahn made the ingenious decision to subtitute reinforced concrete and brick for wood, from which most factories had been built up to that point.  Then, in 1913, the Highland Park Plant became the first factory in history to institute an assembly line.  

A historical marker indicates the boarded-up abandoned building behind it as very, very important; it also notes that the innovations that took place inside the building helped "set the pattern of abundance for 20th Century living," which is grimly hilarious.

A historical marker indicates the boarded-up abandoned building behind it as very, very important; it also notes that the innovations that took place inside the building helped "set the pattern of abundance for 20th Century living," which is grimly hilarious.

At the Ford Motor Company website, a short historical article about the Highland Park Plant explains the Plant’s significance. The site is fastidious not only in its attention to Ford’s ingenuity, but also to the ethnicity of Ford’s assistant:
“To improve his manufacturing process, Henry Ford latched onto a concept that was, for manufacturing, rather revolutionary—instead of bringing the man to the work, the work must be brought to the man. Henry and Charles Sorensen, a hardworking Dane Ford had hired as his assistant in 1905, kept experimenting to find the solution.”

 

The article describes how, in a series of steps between April 1913 and early 1914, Ford, his Dane, and his other employees trimmed the amount of time that it took to produce a single Model T from 12 hours and 30 minutes to only 93 minutes.  By 1925, as we see in the National Historic Landmarks marker pictured above, the Highland Park Plant could turn out 9,000 Model T’s in a single day.  The path to Waterworld had been discovered.

The Highland Park Plant in its heyday.

The Highland Park Plant in its heyday.

Trees in front of the Highland Park Plant make it difficult for drivers on adjacent Woodward Avenue to recognize it.

Trees in front of the Highland Park Plant make it difficult for drivers on adjacent Woodward Avenue to recognize it.

In general, Model T Plaza gives the impression that the city of Highland Park is attempting to prevent the abandoned factories of this area from being seen by the public, even as the strip mall itself goes out of its way to emphasize the historical significance of its location.

Model T icon, far right, emphasizing that this strip mall was once the site in which Model T's were produced in serious volume.

Model T icon, far right, emphasizing that this strip mall was once the site in which Model T's were produced in serious volume.

This is interesting, because it shows the city doing something like the inverse of what Thomas Morton in Vice accuses abandoned-building romanticists in the media of doing with their images: rather than journalists and photographers eliding the city and its population in favor of symbolic buildings, here, the city and its population elide the buildings in favor of the buildings’ symbolism.

The question I have is, what is the point of trying to hide either one of those.  I’m not ashamed to admit that this whole topic puts me in a romantic frame of mind, and the notion of some kind of utopia, where factories and strip malls can coexist in peace, is lulling me at the moment to the point where I think I should probably stop writing for a while.

More “Love Among the Ruin Porn” to come soon.

A turnstile, presumably used at one time by workers entering the Highland Park Plant, now overgrown with brush and vines.

A turnstile, presumably used at one time by workers entering the Highland Park Plant, now overgrown with brush and vines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 22, 2009.

One Response to “Love Among the Ruin Porn, Part 1: The Highland Park Plant/Model-T Plaza”

  1. […] other words, the proverbial “fabulous ruins of Detroit” don’t have the same aesthetic power for her as they do for a lot of people.  Think of it […]

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