What Those Viral 'Decay' Photos Got Wrong About Detroit

There are a few photos of Detroit blight going around that a few of my colleagues at Gawker Media couldn't resist posting because displays of the city's ruins are easily shareable. Except these photos are incorrect and misleading.

Being Gawker Media's resident Detroit resident gets exhausting, but it's nevertheless an exciting challenge. So when I get a one-two-three punch of Detroit coverage across the Gawker landscape, I have to do my Detroiterly duties and weigh in on what's right and what's wrong.

Clearly we've been down this road before. A few months back, Hamilton Nolan of the watermelon enthusiasts' site Gawker posted an internal chat log discussing Detroit's art situation. I responded by inviting Detroit writers to correct and clarify some of Nolan's (and other writers') assumptions about exactly what was going on, since he was perpetuating quite a few inaccuracies. I thought it was a fruitful (oh-ho-ho!) conversation, and the end goal was not to necessarily call out Gawker (OK, it was), but also show that the door was open if anyone wanted to discuss Detroit with actual Detroiters.

I opened the door again when a post showed up on Gawker last month tying the abandonment of the Pontiac Silverdome (misidentified as the Detroit Silverdome) to the financial ruin of Detroit. The art post was forgivable. But this post was wildly misleading and flat-out wrong. (And it still hasn't been corrected.) If this were the New York Times (a publication that Gawker EIC Max Read once advised his staff to "err on the side on"), there would be a correction in a future edition. But it's not NYT, it's Gawker. So in the tradition of "Fuck Boston," "Why Won't Technology Tell Us When To Fuck" and "Oh Fuck This I'm Not Shoveling My Fucking Walk Again," I decided to use a Gawker-esque approach to call attention to the fatal error in the post. (Which JK "What The Fuck Is Going On At The New York Times" Trotter later objected to for some reason.) And again, I invited anyone who wanted to discuss Detroit with Detroiters to come on in.

I've made clear that the door is wide open to Gawker and Gawker Media. (For example, if I ever find myself writing about Texas for Jalopnik, I always ask noted Texans Matt Hardigree and Patrick George for context if I'm confused about something. And they give me the same respect in return when writing about Detroit.) With that said, let's first extend the olive branch to i09 and Gizmodo, both of which have recently tackled the suddenly viral GooBing Detroit. We'll start with Gizmodo.

What Those Viral 'Decay' Photos Got Wrong About Detroit

I'm starting with Gizmodo because between Giz and io9, Giz had the least offensive and most accurate of the two. It doesn't mean the entire post is without fault, though.

"Though it's easy to crack jokes about Detroit's downfall from afar, it doesn't change the fact that there are very real people forced to look on as the place they call home slowly descends into decay," Ashley Feinberg writes. You know, there's always going to be that one part of me that absolutely despises when writers looking at Detroit from uh-farrrrrr (as if Detroit is not part of the United States and it hasn't been happening elsewhere in the United States) write such ledes with pity and despair, but if we're going with fact-based arguments, I can't argue; the city has indeed fallen into decay. I've acknowledged this. People living here have acknowledged it.

What we can talk about is the purpose of GooBing Detroit, which is the subject of Gizmodo's post. The point of GooBing is to highlight both the decay and the revival of specific properties and blocks in Detroit. (Which, and I don't know how many times I've said this in comments and in posts on Jalopnik Detroit, the entire city is not decayed!) So here's the sentence that's a bit misleading:

While it will almost certainly take quite a bit longer than that, hopefully one day, we'll be able to look back again, this time at a city rising from the ruins.

That sentence leads directly into a photo series of a large, Tudor-style apartment building that Feinberg doesn't describe. Of course, to anyone outside Detroit, it's just another ruined apartment building; no context there. Except it's not. It's actually the Palmer Lodge, which isn't decaying; it's under renovation.

In fact, it's one of several apartment buildings in the Palmer Park neighborhood that was bought by a private developer who has been renovating them one by one — different structures have different needs, so it's not exactly a speedy process — over the last few years. (The last few years fall into the timeframe of GooBing's depictions, of course.) Don't believe me? When I'm not writing on Jalopnik Detroit, I write for a few other places — and I wrote a story back in April for The Architect's Newspaper about the very project that's shown in Gizmodo as being in decay:

Around 2007, Shelborne Development took an interest in the area and bought some of the buildings—throwback names include Sarasota, La Fer, Seville, Madrid, and Eldorado—and began restoring them with a mix of private funds, state tax credits, grants from the city of Detroit, federal historic grants, and other public funding from neighborhood stabilization programs and brownfield credits. La Vogue Square, a Moroccan-styled building, was the first to be completed and is now housing residents. Palmer Lodge, a Tudor-style, is near completion. Shelborne's projects for this year and next include buildings further in the heart of the district: Coronado Square, The Merton, Unity Square, and The Del Mar.

Words are mine, and so is the emphasis.

I've been emailing back and forth with Alex Alsup, the creator of GooBing Detroit, about his thoughts on the Gizmodo post and the io9 post (which we'll dissect next): "Yeah they're both on the lazier side. I don't much care for the term 'feral houses' either, blech... It turns what is the product of a very specific policy and legislative driven process into something abstract and mystical (at least when referring to tax foreclosed properties)."

The point of GooBing Detroit, as I mentioned in my own post over on JD long before the rest of the Gawkerverse picked it up, is to underscore the problems which lead to blight, something Alsup's employer, LOVELAND Technologies, is tasked with solving. That the blight is there is undeniable. That both the mission of GooBing Detroit was lost in translation and the consistent failure to acknowledge that something is being done about the blight by both LOVELAND and the city of Detroit is unforgivable, in my opinion.

On May 27, a full week before Gizmodo posted about GooBing Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan announced a wide-sweeping plan to eradicate blight in the city. I mean, I guess it would've been nice to mention that as well, instead of just leaving readers hanging with "well, this is how it is and it's never going to change, but let's hope for the best in the meantime." Except we're doing more than hoping for the best; we're actually doing. (See also: The city selling blighted property through auction, which I've also talked about.) Give us that, at least. But I can't tell anyone how to write their posts. I can just argue the facts, and the fact was that at least part of that post was incorrect.

Let's move on to i09, which had this yesterday:

What Those Viral 'Decay' Photos Got Wrong About Detroit

I could read a headline like "Historical Street View Shows How Detroit Is Turning Into Chernobyl" and easily get upset.

Again, I can't tell anyone how to do their job. But seriously, Chernobyl? I mean, how many writers in the last few years have played the Detroit-is-Chernobyl card? Like I said, the blight is undeniable. But tired cliches are, too.

Basically everything I wrote above with the Gizmodo criticism applies to the i09 post: The point of GooBing Detroit is to highlight both decay and revival, but the decay is what George Dvorsky chose to focus on. And just a few sentences, compared to Gizmodo at least trying eke out a little thought. It would've been nice to, again, mention the blight-removal efforts that were announced two weeks before i09's post, and maybe a little more about GooBing's mission, but…you know…

Most might read this and think that people in Detroit only want to see writers write about the good things and hide all the filthy details. I'm here to say that's absolutely not fucking true. You can read here for yourself on Jalopnik Detroit that we talk about the good and the bad. The only thing most Detroiters (you're never supposed to say "all," but most of you do, anyway) want is context. OK, there's blight. We all know that. So why is it there? (Writers: Explain.) Is the entire city suffering like this? (No.) And what's being done about it? (Lots. Explain.)

Which brings me to Nolan again and this Gawker post from yesterday.

What Those Viral 'Decay' Photos Got Wrong About Detroit

I got a couple tweets as soon as this post went up wondering if I would go after Nolan like I did Dayna Evans when she did the Silverdome post. I'm absolutely not going to do that. Why? Because Nolan — and the source he got the information from — is right. Infant mortality in the city is horrific. Again, no one wants to hide that.

My bigger issue is with Nolan's lede: "Detroit, a crumbling metropolitan area with America's highest concentration of ruin porn and indignant local journalists…" He's right about that, and I think that's a funny joke probably aimed at me that lightens the mood of an otherwise grim subject, but shouldn't the local journalists here be indignant?

Even a few more minor details there: It would've been nice (but again, can't tell people how to do their jobs!) if HamNo hadn't juxtaposed the infant mortality rate with the rescue of the city's art museum (as if that's the top priority in this city?), and it would've been nice if he had referenced the city of Detroit's efforts to provide free prenatal care for expectant mothers — an initiative that was announced three weeks ago. Kind of like that one time when HamNo wrote that Detroit was besieged with wild dogs, and the next day those numbers were total bullshit — but there was no follow-up on Gawker. (In a future edition of Friendly Chats About Gawker Media's Recent Detroit Posts, we'll talk about how Gawker regularly reprimands big media for their failures but bites onto any Detroit coverage hook, line and fucking sinker.)

Again, if anyone in Gawker Media needs to talk about Detroit with a Detroiter, I can be reached at aaron.foley@jalopnik.com! Or Twitter at @aaronkfoley!