After half a century spent quietly fading into the forgotten corners of American consciousness, Detroit has recently been thrust back into focus by a seemingly repellent quality: spectacular failure. The Motor City’s immense and thoroughly disquieting collapse is now officially typified by its tens of thousands of abandoned and moldering buildings.
I first eyed a photo series of Detroit’s “feral” houses about three years ago which featured former homes, mansions and institutions in various stages of severe and usually irreparable decay. Some remnants were almost completely obscured by hungry vegetation that had been slowly suffocating their skeletal remains for decades. The lots to both sides were empty, the lots behind were empty; strewn with garbage and fragments of material life. A great expanse of nothingness seemed to surround these once functional, even majestic monuments to prosperity and progress. Could this really be Detroit?
Like many, I was intensely moved by these images of decadent decay. While it’s true that I felt the normal, cursory emotions: sadness, disbelief and even fear- I have to admit that what I really felt was a pang of photographic lust tinged with the titillating sixth sense of opportunity. I could do it better- but I would have to do it fast. Although the two periodically coincide, the business of photography is ultimately about who can do it first, not necessarily who can do it better. Timing is everything. Little did I know that I was already way too late.
By 2009, photographers had already begun flocking to Detroit intent on documenting the visual catnip that was an estimated 70,000 abandoned properties: houses, theaters, train stations, schools, shops, churches; amidst what used to be a major American city. People like me, seduced by the strange creative beauty that beckons and blooms within deconstruction, justify these projects as being noble because they document the ever important ‘state of things’- but are there truly any unselfish motives to our hunger or are we just vultures picking at a corpse in the name of art? I often think about the fine line between discovery and exploitation, particularly in my field, and can honestly say that I consciously strive to create empathetic work which somehow always leaves the subject better off rather than empty and used up. I’m sure there are many who would argue that from time to time, I fail. However, I don’t think anyone can dispute the fact that exposure, for better or worse, inevitably brings some form of change.
Within the following year, several major, epic photographic books were published (Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City's Majestic Ruins by Dan Austin and Sean Doerr; Detroit Disassembled by Andrew Moore; The Ruins of Detroit by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre) This kind of proliferation is generally perceived by the rest of the photographic community as a clear-cut cue to throw in the towel- that the fat lady has indeed sung. The once edgy subject of Detroit had reached relative saturation in the photography and publishing world and was now mainstream, as banal as photographing kittens or cathedrals. Recently the media even clinched this saturation by officially naming the once fringe obsession with the superlative decay of America’s Motor City. It is now referred to as “Ruin Porn” a literal “fetish for decay”.
Despite the implied masochism of “Ruin Porn”, these books, blogs, news stories and documentaries have made the American public and larger media somewhat more aware of what’s been happening in Detroit. For a long time the city’s leaders were reticent to shout defeat from the rooftops, but now it seems that reform and resuscitation have become a priority and they are embracing the media in all of its fickle glory. Coverage has now moved beyond a voyeuristic peek at decay towards a jubilant, ‘up from the bootstraps’, roll up your sleeves approach. However, amidst the fury and the fuss of the past few years, while everyone was busy breaking into abandoned theaters, stalking secret entrances to haunted train stations and generally exploiting deterioration in the name of record and rebirth, new tenants were quietly taking over the sprawling abandoned and burnt out neighborhoods. Dogs. Tens of thousands of them.
The majority of abandoned houses in Detroit are just that- abandoned. Their owners finally left after years of frustration, encroaching violence, and the crushing financial reality that accompanies literally worthless deeds. Buildings are selling all over the city for $100 or $500. (Of course in many instances you inherit the tens of thousands in back taxes rendering the already sketchy properties in truly sketchy neighborhoods even less appealing). With the decline and desertion of the city and its property has come the inevitable abandonment of thousands upon thousands of dogs, many just turned out onto the streets when their owners were finally forced to leave their homes. The city shelter has long since run out of room and resources. Detroit animal control consists of a mere handful of officers who have little choice but to round up animals for certain death.
I consider myself fairly plugged in to what’s happening in the world of animal welfare, yet I had heard no whisper of this issue until author Ken Foster (The Dogs Who Found Me and Dogs I have Met and the People They Found) called me in fall 2010. We were ruminating about projects to do together when he mentioned the street dogs of Detroit. In April of 2011 we embarked on a reconnaissance trip to investigate and begin documenting the situation. The goal of our three day visit was to create a dozen or so sample photos and some sample text that would be used to further pitch the project. Once we received funding we would then return and collect enough material for a book. Due to a number of roadblocks (some were anticipated but others were unforeseen) months have passed and I still have no idea what will become of this project. I certainly hope something does, but for now, there are encounters which still loiter in my mind, persistent and unshakable, that I want to share.
It is said that there are approximately 50,000 stray dogs on the streets of Detroit. Some people, like one convivial postman we met, think these numbers are completely overblown while others view it as a conservative estimate. It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate head count when so much of the population in question is very skilled at hiding.
The dogs of Detroit have adapted to life outside the realm of domestication in precisely the same way as the strays that I followed in Puerto Rico and Mexico. They have banded together in the fight for survival. When their needs are no longer met by humans, dogs tend to revert almost immediately to strong, innate pack instincts that are often quashed, distorted or simply not needed in the role of “pet”. The clear-cut roles of pack structure coupled with the obvious benefit of safety in numbers, make hunting for food, defending against predators and raising young much more viable for newly cast off canines.
The one thing the Detroit dogs have going for them that strays in other countries often lack, is shelter. With so many empty buildings, the dogs have no shortage of structures to choose from. Some properties are tightly boarded up, but we found many with unlocked doors and open or smashed windows. The dogs are clever and they find a way in. They make beds and little nests out of the debris left behind: often discarded clothes, mattresses and blankets. When none are available on site, they collect nesting material from people’s trash, the makeshift dumps that are everywhere or from other properties.
We kept seeing yard after yard strewn with stuffed animals, most of them decapitated or partially disemboweled. Eventually we discovered that the dogs were actually collecting them and bringing them home to play with. I was both fascinated and saddened by the notion that these animals who have lived unimaginably difficult lives, still felt the need not only to play, but to seek out and stockpile toys amidst the wreckage.
We navigated what felt like every square inch of Detroit searching for dogs. Sometimes I was glad to find them, and other times, I was relieved not to, but as we drove, I was repeatedly plagued by a weighty sense of déjà vu. Flooded with memories of long, painful months spent tracking dogs in Puerto Rico and Mexico, I felt a familiar sense of despair, but this was somehow different and even more unsettling. The most striking and obvious difference was that we were in Detroit- in America- but Detroit looked more like a second rate apocalyptic movie set with one neighborhood after another burnt out, abandoned and deconstructed. We needed armed security guards with us at all times. This was not so much to protect us from dangerous dogs but from dangerous people. The neighborhoods where these dogs live quite literally top every “worst” list with murder rates nine times higher than that of Los Angeles (2010 stats).
On the last day of our short trip, Ken and I followed a tip and went searching for dogs on a street called Elgin. The scene was pretty familiar at first: empty lots, a rusted, overgrown playground and street after street of desolation -but then we turned a corner and suddenly came upon five large dogs sprawled carelessly in the middle of the road. They appeared to simply be lounging, soaking up the weak sun on the sparsely traveled black top. We stopped the van about 20 feet away and two of the dogs immediately approached us.
The most gregarious dog was a stocky orange pit mix with a scarred face and injured, gimpy leg. A muscular male with floppy ears and a wide, smiling face, his whole body wiggled with excitement and joy when he approached us. The second dog, a young Collie/German Shepherd mix with an extremely long, bushy tri-colored coat was the second to make direct contact. She slunk slowly forward, tail wagging lazily, head bowed in unmistakable submissiveness until she was almost in my lap. The other three dogs, stocky black and tans who looked to be Rottie mixes of some kind, held back. We had hot dogs and began feeding them.
I think that what immediately struck us about these dogs was how trusting they were. Unlike many of the other strays who had learned (with good reason) to fear people and were all but unapproachable, these dogs seemed to yearn for human contact. Within minutes of stopping, the orange pit was belly up with Ken rubbing his exposed stomach and the Collie was actually nuzzling me. They seemed so vulnerable and were in a word, utterly ‘savable’.
It was heartbreaking to know that at some point we had to get back in the van and leave them there, having made their lives no better except for filling their stomachs with a few lousy hotdogs.
Although we only spent a few hours that day with the ‘Elgin Pack’, Ken and I were both riveted by the highly obvious and delineated pack order that we observed amongst these dogs. Their body language was so pronounced and unambiguous that it made discerning ‘who’s who’ almost effortless. The orange pit was clearly a beta male, ruled with an iron paw by the pack leader and alpha male, a rather puny Rottie mix. He closely guarded a youngish female who greatly resembled him and consistently used force in order to get the orange pit to submit. The scars on the latter’s face had almost definitely come from scuffles with alpha. The Collie seemed to be at the very bottom of the pack order, possibly a newcomer or even hanger-on, with one other stout Shepherd/Rottie mix female falling somewhere in between. Of course we will never know how these particular dogs ended up together in this particular neighborhood. Were they related? Did they know each other before being abandoned or did they somehow band together one by one until finally forming a pack?
The area they inhabited was quite a ways off the main road, comprised of a couple of streets lined with abandoned houses in various states of deterioration. Some were completely burnt out while others were simply boarded up and moderately decrepit. Many still sported old, lopsided signs declaring the property ‘condemned’ that hung on the boarded up windows and doors but one lone house at the very end of the last block was occupied. Although the house was aging, the property was immaculate and almost cheerful looking with a green, manicured lawn, new fence and even a few flowering plants. An elderly white man was outside mowing the grass. He was literally the only human resident left on the street and was clearly trying desperately to maintain a (perhaps pointless) sense of order and normalcy amidst his bleak reality. It must have been his trash that the dogs frequently scavenged for food.
After an exhausting evening filled with frantic attempts at organizing a last minute rescue for these dogs, we returned the next day, defeated but determined to see them one last time before flying home that afternoon. We assumed that the pack had made a home in one of the many burnt out houses nearby and after not finding them in the grassy fields adjacent to the rows of houses, decided to systematically check out some of the buildings. One of the most poignant photos on the shot ‘wish list’ for the trip was of dogs actually inside one of the abandoned buildings- but this had proved both elusive and downright dangerous since the structures were usually extremely unsound and the dogs very prone to fleeing. I was five months pregnant and much more cautious than usual so Ken would go into the houses first to check for rotting stairs, sunken floor boards and other dangers, and then I would follow.
Ken tiptoed into a two floor partially burnt out, boarded up wooden house at the top of the street to check for signs of dogs. I started to follow. The silence inside these houses was absolute and almost electric. I remember feeling a prickly rush of heightened awareness coupled with a sickening thrill of fear. The silence hummed in my ears and seemed deafening. We paused briefly to hear the usual creaks and groans emitted by the decaying wood as it was whipped by the Michigan wind. Then suddenly there came a loud scuffling noise and the frenzied sound of movement followed by a flash of fur that blasted down the stairs and out the back door. Several of the dogs had been inside and we had unwittingly flushed them out into the adjacent field where they then gathered, staring at us as we emerged from “their” house. The sweet Collie was absent. Maybe she was off looking for food or perhaps she had never been part of the pack to begin with.
When we approached the dogs this time, they didn’t come running up to greet us but instead hung back, watching from under the jumbled branches of a straggly tree dappled with tiny new spring leaves. We had quite a bit of time before needing to be at the airport and decided to just sit and watch them- watching us. After a few minutes, they relaxed and laid down in the sparse shade under the tree, popping their heads up every few minutes to monitor our movements. The eldest female went trotting off into the neighborhood.
After about 15 minutes, we noticed the female returning carrying something in her mouth. The others ran up to greet her and then fell into a line forming a little procession through the tall grass back to the cropping of trees. As she drew closer, we were able to make out the white plastic grocery bag filled with trash that she carried jauntily in her mouth. Her walk was crisp and proud. The other dogs, gamboling with tails wagging, were clearly excited about her find.
The bag was loosely knotted and bulging with what appeared to be a mixture of paper products and food scraps. We waited to see what would happen next. The little pack congregated near the tree and the female laid the bag carefully on the ground. Then she looked up at us. We waited, expecting to see one of them rip open the plastic and strew the contents around the field- but they didn’t. All four dogs just sat and watched us; clearly guarding the bag and definitely unwilling to open it while we were there.
We tried sitting very still at an old picnic table in an abandoned playground across the street, but they remained vigilant. We tried hiding in our car, but they were not fooled. The dogs simply sat and waited patiently for us to leave. I found this remarkable because self-control, particularly when it comes to food, is not something I find to be very common amongst the average canine. Add to this the fact that it had probably been months since these guys had experienced the luxury of regular meals, and you have some really fascinating behavior.
Exhausted and distressed by our experiences of the past few days, we finally had to admit defeat, climb into the rental car and head for the airport vowing to try and help these dogs- somehow.
Many months have gone by now and I our project has not yet moved forward. I think of the Elgin Pack daily, wondering if they are still alive. Maybe one of the local rescue efforts was able to help them. Maybe at least a few are safe in a loving home- but maybe not. With thousands of homeless dogs in need of help and no shelters, foster homes or even potential adoptive homes to send them to, the future is bleak for these dogs. Now it is winter and bitterly cold in Detroit. Many dogs will freeze to death. Hopefully our pack is huddled together for warmth atop a mound of salvaged detritus left by Detroit’s former human tenants.
Hope in Detroit seems to be rising but its dawn is much like the winter sun: late and weak. Many claim that the city's restoration has begun, other say things are worse than ever. Either way, help will come too late for thousands of dogs that a city forgot.