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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Detroit 138 Square Miles by Julie Reyes Taubman - Foreword by Elmore

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Detroit: 138 Square Miles
Foreword by Elmore Leonard

The way it used to work in crime movies: the boss wants a rival taken out and tells one of his guys to “Call Detroit,” the place to get a shooter. The reference quite likely influenced by Detroit’s Purple Gang, notorious gunmen looking for work once Prohibition was repealed.

What Detroit became, cars now rolling off assembly lines, was a rowdy, workingman’s shot and a beer town. It offered few cultural pretentions besides some of its architecture

Buy Detroit: 138 Square MIles at The Elmore Leonard Bookstore

and the Detroit Institute of Arts. During the war, Detroit was known as “The arsenal of Democracy,” turning out bombers and tanks, all types of combat materiel. By the war’s end, Detroit was a city of nearly two million people hopping streetcars to shop downtown—no malls in sight yet—while auto plants were working three shifts a day to supply the entire country with new cars.

It lasted until foreign models began to creep ashore.

Our car industry ignored them, holding to the belief Americans preferred big American automobiles, not those toy Japanese models. What do you do, wind them up? Executives who worked in the GM building spoke the name General Motors with reverential tone, my father one of them.

By this time 700,000 working people had left town for ranch homes in the suburbs, ones they could afford, and Detroit, its population down by half, was no longer “The Car Capital of the World.”

Ten years ago Julia Reyes Taubman came out of the East, New York and Washington DC, not enthralled with the prospect of living here; and yet the lack of order and expectation seemed, well, interesting, maybe somewhat exciting. It was like living on the edge of a changing civilization with an undefined future. At first it was the ruins of industry that caught her eye: the old Packard plant where ceilings resembled stalactites, the roof a forest of green. Julia began photographing the city as a hobby. It would soon become her vocation, her passion.

She focuses on scenes that offer little or no hope, buildings that appear war-damaged, bombed out, but with a positive feeling of history about them. We view the Michigan Central station, its architecture striking but gone to hell and we wonder if it can be restored. Or is it too late?

There are aerials of empty blocks in the middle of the city gone to overgrown fields; the cemetery still there, no one going anywhere.

How did the Boblo boat get so old? It doesn’t seem that long ago we were dancing to live music on a Boblo cruise down the Detroit River. But it was 65 years ago when we had our girlfriends on the dance floor doing the delfoy. Was it Nancy that evening?

Belle Isle still looks pretty good, though no canoes in the lagoons now or horses on the riding trails. We played Detroit Federation baseball on a diamond with a grass infield in 1939. My family came to Detroit five years before that and I’ve lived here three-quarters of a century with no intention of leaving—even though I was born in New Orleans and the Big Easy is still the Big Easy, despite Katrina. The reason I’m still here must lie in Julia’s pictures. I’ve watched the city deteriorate. I know the factories, the neighborhoods, but Julia’s work shows more than what I remember. Maybe that old machinery isn’t as ugly as I thought.  She thinks the buildings need to be preserved and appreciated they way they are, not restored.

Some neighborhoods where she shot, Julia had to have police protection. See if you can pick them out.

I told her she should write a tag line for each shot. It doesn’t have to be descriptive, you had fun doing this, say what you want. Like, “Could you imagine taking a shower in here?” But you’ll do better than that.

She’s thorough, she covers what she’s shooting until she gets what she wants you to feel.

In Julia’s composition there is beauty in despair, and sometimes a glimmer of hope. We see life and death in Detroit, nothing Chamber of Commerce inspired, but more real than any other reality show. If what happened in Detroit is a crime, Julia’s book is the crime story.

—Elmore Leonard

 

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