Detroit's Otherworldly Decay

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The blighted auto capital may soon become the first major U.S. city to have all of its public services privatized. A photographer wanders the ruins of a crumbling metropolis.

detroit3-top.jpgIn a once-elegant apartment building, an armchair looks out on windows without glass. (Julie Dermansky)

Detroit is a city in flux. There are bright spots -- pockets of development, a vibrant art scene, sophisticated restaurants, and a growing number of community gardens -- but signs of life are overshadowed by miles and miles of blight. Last May, the state turned Detroit's public schools over to an emergency manager, a businessman named Roy Roberts with a long history in the auto industry and financial markets.

The city as a whole may soon find itself under the same kind of supervision. As I photographed a public school that's up for sale, I spoke to a developer who is trying to get a "green project" built. I asked him whether or not an emergency manager would be good for the city. He shrugged and said he could only hope the governor would put smart a smart person in charge.

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Detroit's urban landscape is a mix of deserted schools and churches, factories, and houses. Its abandoned manufacturing plants have become otherworldly environments, the haunt of photographers shooting what has been called "ruin porn." Michigan Central, once the world's tallest train station, is fenced off as workers in hard hats scurry around. The Packard Automotive Plant, a graffiti artist's heaven, is set for demolition this summer. Plans for the redevelopment of these sites has yet to be revealed.


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Things have been managed so badly for so long in Detroit that many find the idea of an emergency manager enticing. But the track records of emergency managers in Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor, and Ecorse have been controversial. Organizations such as Michigan Forward warn Detroit's citizens' not to hand over their city, arguing that services will get worse and people in the "99 percent" will have to pay more for them. The benefits, according to these groups, will be reaped by major corporations, at the expense of the poor and middle class. And once an emergency manager is in place, they argue, the entire political process will be put on hold -- there will be no votes, no city council, no way for citizens to make their voices heard

Could Detroit become the first major city in America to have all of its public services privatized? Signs are pointing in that direction. The question for those living on the precipice in the Metro Detroit area is whether to stay and turn things around or leave before they get worse.

To view the rules concerning eligibility for emergency managers in Michigan and a current list of cities deemed eligible, see this page at Michigan.gov.

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Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. She is an affiliate scholar at Rutgers University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.

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