What Deindustrialization Looks Like

Terrance Heath

The Ruins of Detroit-Slideshow

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. Get a bunch of pictures together, and they tell a story.The Huffington Post has posted a slideshow of images depicting the decline of Detroit, Michigan, taken from the book The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Steve Cappazola, at the AFL-CIO blog, has the story behind the pictures: the story of what happens when manufacturing disappears.


Photos of Detroit show boarded-up and vacant homes.  New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye describes this “as dramatic testimony to the crumbling industrial base of the Midwest.”

The U.S. Labor Department reports that Michigan lost more than 320,000 manufacturing jobs, just between 2001-2008.  Little wonder then, that without job prospects, hundreds of thousands of residents have been forced to leave.

Seelye says the massive drop-off in population is “the largest percentage drop in history for any American city with more than 100,000 residents.”  The only comparable flight would be the “unique situation of New Orleans,” where 29% of the city evacuated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

What’s especially disheartening is knowing that Detroit’s exodus was preventable.  Failed manufacturing in Michigan, which has left so many without work, is the result of failed U.S. trade policy and little effort by successive administrations to ramp up America’s industrial base in the face of changing global economic conditions.

Times are getting dire.  What’s urgently needed is for the U.S. to implement a national manufacturing strategy to bring back good-paying jobs before it’s too late.

Abandoned Skyscraper

My husband is from Michigan, and so I’ve been to the state several times. At first, I didn’t believe his descriptions of Detroit’s abandoned skyscrapers. But then I saw them for myself, and over many more visits learned how they came to be abandoned, as Steve Cappazola described. The exodus of manufacturing jobs fueled an exodus of citizens so huge that some suggest the solution is to actually plow Detroit under and turn it into farmland.

Destroy the city in order to save it? Raze it and plow it under, rather than maybe doing something to reverse the manufacturing decline that’s the real story behind the ruins of Detroit? It seems a solution based on the assumption that nothing can be (or should be?) done about the economic conditions that quite literally sucked the life out of Detroit.

One of my favorite television shows is the History Channel series, Life After People, which is based on the premise that some unknown event — plague, planetary migration or some thing like that — has disappeared humanity from the planet, leaving our abandoned structures to decay in our absence.

But that’s not what’s happened with Detroit. Nor is this the story of some lost civilization that left only its architecture behind to help us determine just what did it in. We’re not talking about the Nazca Lines, the Lost City of Atlantis,  the lost colony.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had an affinity for abandoned places. During trips to visit my grandparents, I would pass the time looking at the kudzu-covered shacks, the abandoned storefronts, and old, empty houses along the Georgia highways. I’d wonder about the people who lived or worked in those places, what stories they held, and make up stories about how they came to be abandoned.

But when I look at the pictures of Detroit’s ruins, I don’t have to wonder or make up the story of what happened. Neither should anyone else.

We know what happened to Detroit, just like we know what happened to manufacturing in this country. And, like Steve said, we know if didn’t have to happen. If we think about it for a minute, we also know what we can do about it.

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