DETROIT'S TALE OF HUBRIS

~ Posted by Simon Willis, July 23rd 2013

Today we published online our latest photo essay, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, two young French photographers. It is about railway stations from Buffalo in New York to Canfranc in Spain, and like all the places Marchand and Meffre photograph, they are abandoned. Two of the shots were taken in the city which has become a byword for decline and dereliction—Detroit. Last Thursday it became the biggest city in American history to file for bankruptcy. In 2011, Marchand and Meffre published a whole book about it, "The Ruins of Detroit".

In his introduction to our photo essay Edward Carr, The Economist's foreign editor, writes that the railway stations were

blighted by hubris as well as miscalculation...Despite being bold statements of the future, the projects fatally misjudged progress itself. As Michigan Central Station (above) took shape in Detroit, Henry Ford was building a car plant nearby. When the station opened, trains were the only way to cross America. But the locomotive would soon be supplanted by the internal combustion engine.

If Detroit's train station was hubristic, so, as it turned out, was the whole city. The car industry was responsible for the city's boom and eventually, as the auto manufacturers left in search of more space and cheaper labour, for its bust. In his introduction to Marchand and Meffre's book, the historian Thomas J. Sugrue explains that "The collapse of Detroit's automobile industry is a key explanation for the city's bleak landscape today".

Marchand and Meffre capture that bleakness in all its variety. They shot theatres and churches, houses and apartment blocks, schools and offices, factories and shopping malls. Several affecting images in the book show what became of technological and industrial ambition. At the Detroit railway and harbour terminals warehouse, the machinery lies rusting and caked in years of dust and grease. There's even a frosting of snow on the machine casings. At the Continental car plant the panes of glass have gone, weeds grow in the doorways and frayed wires hang across the yard. The chimney, thrusting into the sky and bearing the name "Continental" in high white letters, looks pathetic rather than potent. But perhaps the most poignant shot in the book shows the drawing classroom at Cass Technical High School. Sheets of sketches are scattered among broken glass and upturned chairs. On the wall there's a poster for the most famous symbol of American power—Superman.

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life and a former associate editor of Granta. His posts for the Editors' Blog include Emma Hardy's Cambodian colours and Sebastio Salgado's call to arms