New book traces the fate of Detroit buildings

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

In 1997, New York photographer Camilo Jose Vergara proposed that Detroit’s empty pre-war skyscrapers be preserved as an urban park he dubbed an “American Acropolis.”

Not surprising, perhaps, Metro Detroiters had a fit.

Detroit’s sign painters intrigue Vergara, whose work he finds particularly ephemeral. Shown here is Willie’s Garage on Michigan Avenue.

“The very concept that this city should have produced a ‘magnificent ruin’ that others would come to marvel at is considered to be an embarrassment to city residents,” Wayne State University professor of urban studies and planning Gary Sands wrote in a Detroit News opinion piece at the time.

“After all,” Sands added, “Detroit prides itself on producing things that are useful and stylish, not things that are abandoned and decayed.”

Lost in the outrage, however, was the fact the Chilean-born Vergara — who’s in town Wednesday and Thursday promoting his new book, “Detroit Is No Dry Bones” — was one of the few outsiders two decades back who found the city both remarkable and beautiful.


Vergara, 72, recalls the jarring contrasts while walking around downtown at night in the ’90s.

“The buildings would be all dark,” he said, “but the People Mover would go by, completely lit up and empty.”

It was a time when most of the towers from the teens and ’20s — the Book-Cadillac Hotel, the David Whitney Building and the David Broderick — had been abandoned for years, often with trees growing off the roofs.

The photographer has no regrets about the storm “American Acropolis” generated.

“In a sense, that made my career,” Vergara said in a conversation Monday, and indeed — there’s nothing like notoriety to attract the spotlight.

Case in point? Five years later, he won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship.

Vergara’s work is part documentary photography, part sociology. “Detroit Is No Dry Bones” is a striking visual survey of his relationship with the city stretching over 25 years.

In the book’s introduction, University of Michigan architecture professor Robert Fishman wrote that Vergara almost singlehandedly reinvented “the tradition of critical urban photography that dates back to Jacob Riis’s ‘How the Other Half Lives’ (1890) and to adapt it to what he called ‘the new American ghetto.’ ”

Vergara’s particular interest is in tracking the progressive dilapidation of buildings over time, a downward spiral that’s particularly striking in the book’s series of Packard Plant photos from 1991 to 2015.

“He calls himself a street photographer,” said Elysia Borowy-Reeder at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, where Vergara will speak Thursday evening, “but he goes well beyond that.”

Detroiters shouldn’t feel singled out. The photographer’s also gone back repeatedly to shoot the same buildings in Camden, New Jersey, and parts of Chicago and New York City. But, as with so many urban issues, the Motor City stands out.

“I had seen the ruins of Rome and other parts of North America,” Vergara said, “but nothing was as impressive as Detroit. Looking at those abandoned skyscrapers, it was just such an incredible vision. And I thought, ‘Where else could you see this?’ ”

Of course, the Detroit of 2017 isn’t the same city as 1997 — at least not in downtown and Midtown. Vergara acknowledges this in his photo series of Brush Park’s Ransom Gillis mansion, which he documented in its various stages of collapse — as well as after its recent, A-plus renovation by TV’s “Rehab Addict.”

He’s also drawn to less-polished sorts of renovation.

“No Dry Bones” has a delightful parade of photos showing how ordinary Detroiters, generally without deep pockets, turned the city’s empty little banks into churches, restaurants and even a Michigan Avenue “gentleman’s club.”

The recent uptick in parts of Detroit has surprised Vergara as much as anyone, although like many, he has some moral reservations about what’s happening.

“There is improvement in the center area,” he said, “and people start having these rays of hope. But what’s troubling, is the fact that the poor areas continue to be just as poor.”

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

Speaking engagements

‘Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age’

Author Camilo Jose Vergara will read and sign books at these venues:

Literati Books, 124 E. Washington

Ann Arbor

7 p.m. Wednesday

(734) 585-5567

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

4454 Woodward


7 p.m. Thursday

(313) 832-6622