Dave Jordano photographs Detroit residents in his book, Detroit: Unbroken Down.

Shifting the Focus From Detroit’s Decaying Buildings to Its Resilient Population

Shifting the Focus From Detroit’s Decaying Buildings to Its Resilient Population

Behold
The Photo Blog
Aug. 26 2015 11:35 AM

Shifting the Focus From Detroit’s Decaying Buildings to Its Resilient Population

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Glemie, West Side, 2011. Glemie, a retired truck driver and 50-year resident of Detroit, is an accomplished blues singer, but he’s also known for his small game hunting skills.

Dave Jordano

Dave Jordano grew up just north of Detroit. When he left, after graduating from the College for Creative Studies in 1974, the city was still vibrant; the downtown office buildings were full of employees, the streets were bustling, and shops were open. 

In 2010, Jordano spent two weeks in Detroit, and when he traveled around with some old friends, they took him to all the abandoned sites—including Michigan Central Station and the Packard Automotive Plant—that other photographers, often accused of producing “ruin porn,” had frequented. “I guess there’s sort of a purpose to it; it’s part of Detroit’s history after all. But I thought it was a very narrow point of view and not a very sensitive one,” he said.

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Cynthia With Her Family, Dubois St., 2010.

Dave Jordano

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Left: DeShawn, Midtown, 2010. Right: Micah, East Side, 2013.

Dave Jordano

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Diane Sleeping, East Side, 2013. Diane was homeless and staying at a friend’s house temporarily.

Dave Jordano

In the last five years, Jordano has returned to Detroit more than 30 times with the goal of shifting the narrative of the city from the abandonment and decay of its architecture to the resilience and life of the people who’ve remained in it. His book, Detroit: Unbroken Down, will be published by PowerHouse Books in September. “I wanted to put some humanity back into the city. There are still 700,000 people living there, a lot of people struggling and trying to get by,” he said.

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On a typical day in the city, Jordano sets out in his car from his mother-in-law’s house with no particular destination, stopping to photograph whomever he encounters along the way. His subjects, he said, tend to be “people on the fringes; the marginalized, the poor, and the forgotten eking out a living day to day.” He’s photographed a few people more than once, including Tom, a man who built a home for himself on an abandoned industrial lot because he was tired of sleeping on park benches, and a group of people squatting in abandoned homes on Goldengate Street.

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Semira Sleeping in Kat’s House, East Side, 2012. Kat will take anyone into her home that needs food or shelter.

Dave Jordano

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Left: Tammy, Goldengate Street, East Side, 2012. Right: Dayvon and Christian, East Side, 2011. Two young boys canvassing the neighborhood trying to sell mixed-breed pit bull puppies.

Dave Jordano

In the years since Jordano started photographing Detroit, parts of the city have seen substantial investment and development, and millennials have started moving there in great numbers. Jordano sees those changes as positive, but he said they don’t reflect the reality of the majority of the city and its longtime residents. As a result, he’s stayed away from contributing to the narrative of Detroit’s rebirth.

“Basically the area that’s being redeveloped is about 7 square miles and that’s where all the jobs are being created and all the money’s being invested. The rest of the city is getting some street lights replaced and it’s getting some of the abandoned properties torn down but it’s still struggling,” he said. “I talk to people every time I go back and they say, ‘When are they going to do something in my neighborhood?’ ”

Ultimately, however, Jordano wants his message to be a positive one. And while progress has been slow for the people he’s photographed, he said he keeps coming back to them because he’s inspired by their persistent pride in the city they love. “I’m trying to think of another photo project to start but I can’t get my mind out of Detroit.”

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Mo, the Birdman of Detroit, 2012. Mo loves pigeons and has been raising them ever since he was a young boy living in Iraq. In the past 50 years he has raised more than 2,000 of them.

Dave Jordano

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Hakeem in His Room, East Side, 2012. Hakeem scraped together $500 to purchase a run-down house on the north side of town. He turned a small room into a place for meditation and reflection. He continually writes original phrases of wisdom, inspirational quotes, and factual tidbits on his walls that guide his moral and spiritual life.

Dave Jordano

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Resting Firemen, East Side, 2012. Often working with broken and outdated equipment, Detroit’s firemen face a challenging task of protecting the city.

Dave Jordano

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Left: April Braiding Her Younger Cousin Kayla’s Hair, Southwest Side, 2014. Right: Shane With His Turnips, Goldengate Street, East Side, 2013. Shane is from the East Coast. He left the corporate world in search of a more fulfilling life.

Dave Jordano

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.