Striking Photos of Detroit’s Decay and Rebirth

Detroit, perhaps more so than any other American city, has emerged as a symbol of our current economic crisis. Case in point: Thanks to a shoutout in Monday’s foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney’s 2008 op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” is the second most viewed article on the New York Times’ website as of today. But for the people of the Motor City, struggling against financial decline is nothing new. They’ve been dealing with it since the 1950s, when the American automobile industry, once the world’s leader, started losing its hold on the market. The population shrank. Businesses shuttered. Then there were the riots of the ’60s. All hope was not lost, however. Or at least that seems to be the theme of Detroit Is No Dry Bones, a show featuring the collected work of Chilean-born, New York-based sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara that’s currently up at Washington’s National Building Museum.

Capturing what he calls “a city of contradictions” over the course of the last few decades, Vergara has created a series of photos that are more focused on creating an honest narrative about Detroit’s transformation than shocking the viewer with bleak images of abandoned buildings and neighborhoods in decay. “The story is more complicated,” as he recently explained to Co.Exist. “The story of destruction and ruin goes together with the story of rebirth and utopia.” Click through our slideshow of his work, and see if you agree.

Downtown Detroit, View from Sibley Street down Park Avenue, Detroit, 1991. Photo © Camilo José Vergara