Troubled city’s neighborhoods at night: awful, hopeful, beautiful
Utility wires span fields where a neighborhood disappeared. Gutters and garbage pile knee high in front of a burnt-out duplex. A fire hydrant serves a lonely house on a city block. The residential streets of Detroit are in the midst of rapid change with no end in sight. At night, photographer Bill Schwab travels areas in a fast state of flux, finding large swathes of ruralization and deterioration against a backdrop of skies dramatic in color and mood. Street lights, porch lights, window lights, bridge lights, moonlight shine quietly. During the day, the most aggressive blight removal program in the nation bulldozes its way up and down the streets. In its tracks: ghosts of what was and a spirit that hangs on.
“I pretty much cut my photographic teeth surveying the city where I was born,” Schwab said. “Detroit. Motor City. The 313. It has gone by many names in my lifetime, and not all have been good. Our downfall has been very public and very painful for those living here and who love it so much.” Schwab’s recent work of the transformation of what was once the fourth largest U.S. city is on display at the Charlotte Hale Gallery, 588 Markham St. The exhibit “Detroit: Where We Used to Live” opens Sept. 24 with an artist reception and runs through Oct. 8. “People everywhere can relate to this story, whether they have ever spent time in Detroit or not,” Hale said. “These photographs tap a larger narrative, one that touches all. It’s a story about the dignity of human works, not just the fragility of our civilization, but humanity’s stubborn durability as well.
This essential quality of place seems best captured at night, by a photographer such as Bill, who finds this dignity in the glow of night things in Detroit.” Amongst the city’s dilapidation, Schwab finds bastions of perseverance and hope. Light glows through the window of a house surrounded by vacant lots. A porch light shines on potted plants. A street lamp twinkles in front of a home renovation. “The auto companies may have largely abandoned their miles of factories, but the spirit of this place lives on,” Schwab said.
Fans following the project on FaceBook and Instagram liken Schwab’s photos to film noir movie sets, Edward Hopper paintings and Gregory Crewsdon settings sans people. “No one lives where I’m going tonight. At least not many,” Schwab told a Facebook follower concerned about his safety. “I haven’t yet felt any problems with anyone. The implication of inhabitants in these photos, rather than identifying them, is by design in that these places have belonged to everyone over the generations.”
At its peak around 1950, Detroit was home to 1.85 million people. Fueled by the auto industry going back to Henry Ford’s extraordinary pay offer of $5 a day in 1914, the middle class rose and prospered. Houses were built almost on top of each other. Stores thrived. Church pews filled on Sundays. That was the Detroit where photographer Schwab was born into a second-generation auto family. That was Detroit before riots in 1967 and white flight to the suburbs took its toll on the population followed by factory automation, City Hall inaction, the Great Recession and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Now, with 677,176 people, Detroit is the 21st largest U.S. city. The demolition of houses that were abandoned or foreclosed by mortgage defaults and unpaid taxes will continue for years. A city website tracks where 10,500 structures have been razed since 2014. Some 5,000 houses will be bulldozed this year and 6,000 more in 2017.
“Detroit is undergoing an incredible change at an incredible pace,” Schwab said. “There’s no way to ignore what is happening here.”
About Bill Schwab
Bill Schwab is a fine art photographer with a world-wide collector base. His work is part of many private, corporate and museum collections, including Detroit Institute of Arts, George Eastman House, 20th Century Fox, Royal Caribbean and MGM Grand. Schwab also founded North Light Press in 2005 with a mission to support and publish the work of emerging and established photographers. In addition, Schwab teaches various traditional processes at North Light Photographic Workshops. And, he is founder and host of Photostock, an annual summer solstice gathering of photographers, collectors and enthusiasts featuring workshops, presentations, reviews and demonstrations. Schwab lives between Dearborn and Harbor Springs, Michigan. See more of Bill Schwab's work at his web site.
Bill Schwab: Dearborn at Stone, Detroit
Bill Schwab: Melville at York, Detroit
Bill Schwab: Michigan Avenue at Wesson, Detroit