Detroit: A story I never planned on telling

Detroit is now a shell of its former glory.

The following post is drawn from my lecture notes that accompany my presentation on the struggles of Detroit, my birth city. You also can see a PDF version of that PowerPoint. (Note, it may take 20-30 seconds to download.)

My Detroit storytelling project began after I published an essay in a political blog that highlighted the struggles of Detroit, following my visit to the city in April 2015. My piece examined Detroit’s sad decay and my perspective on what I saw throughout my birth city by simply driving through it.

In fact I never intended to tell this story. But it soon became inescapable. It was a story that found me.

While attempting to explore areas near the River Rouge plant, I stumbled on the Delray neighborhood and was dumbstruck by the scale of destruction and decay.

Arson is visible throughout the decaying Delray neighborhood of Detroit, near the River Rouge factory.

My second recent trip in September 2015 included visits to where I briefly lived as a baby and where my biological family lived. I discovered that the home of my biological grandparents had been gutted and leveled in a neighborhood being razed, with many burned out shells that once were middle-class homes.

By 2015, Detroit had already become the poster child of a new documentary photography genre called “ruin porn.” As an outsider, people do have a right question if my work fit this pattern. But who gets to judge?

Photographer/blogger James Griffioen says there are two ways to do it: responsibly and exploitatively: “The few photographers and reporters I met weren’t interested at all in telling the story of Detroit, but instead gravitated to the most obvious (and over-photographed) ‘ruins,’ and then used them to illustrate stories about problems that had nothing to do with the city (which has looked like this for decades). … These photographers were showing up with $40,000 cameras to take pictures of houses worth less than their hotel bills.”

In late 2015 and early 2016, I was unable to find a likely partner to host a lecture and slide show of my work on Detroit. I reached out to every major university in the Portland area and the Multnomah County Library—twice on its part. None bit at my pitch for a free slide show and discussion. Here is the presentation I did share with my coworkers, which took a long view of Detroit’s rise and fall. (Note the PDF file is large and may take 20-30 seconds to full download.)

In my pitch to the library, I wrote: “Detroit, once the nation’s fourth largest city and global center to automobile manufacturing, is now a global icon of deindustrialization and urban decay. Population has fallen from 1.85 million in 1960 to 680,000 today. The city has experienced the country’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy. More than eight in 10 residents is African American, following decades of white flight that saw no equal anywhere in the American industrial heartland. With 80,000 abandoned buildings and homes.”

The fierce urgency of the topic was painfully evident to me in late 2015, as one GOP candidate was using issues of decay and the loss of manufacturing jobs as his battering ram to win the White House. As the world saw, those messages changed history in the old manufacturing states of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The man who changed history, Donald J. Trump, is now president of the Untied States. Democrats as a party and most liberals failed and still fail to grasp these changes if they live outside of the area.

For those outside of the so-called Rust Belt, including mostly liberal-leaning Portland where I live, Detroit is far away. Detroit’s issues, told through images and data, highlight deep problems in this now African-American city. The role of race and systemic racism are impossible to avoid. That includes how Detroit grew and declined. But it now includes how Detroiters themselves are managing a reality today. And yes, blame is to be found among those who have been in power in the past two decades.

Why Detroit’s Real Decay Matters in the Trump Era

For those who have not been paying attention, Detroit’s evolution into a shell of its greatness is the stage on which billionaire and now president Trump ascended to power.

His phrases could perfectly fit on any highway billboard entering Detroit: “Make America great again” and “We’re going to bring back manufacturing and American jobs.”

By now most Americans have heard those lines, repeatedly, from the most famous person on the planet.

The River Rouge Factory, site of the main production facility in metro Detroit for the Ford Motor Co.

His economic message, made during his successful campaign in Detroit, in the most blunt terms, is a vast critique of the country’s decline. This can be seen spectacularly in the fall of Detroit from a great city to a city that imploded. It is hardly a surprise that Trump successfully attacked the company that made Detroit famous, the Ford Motor Co., during a much publicized feud during the election. Trump won that battle hands down.

No one but perhaps the Ford Motor Co. and its supporters will argue Trump successfully pressured the company to shut down plans to build a new manufacturing facility in Mexico before he even took office and invest its resources back in the United States.

The election battle over American manufacturing is the inevitable outcome of America’s decline as a country with a manufacturing economic base. In 1959 a third of the American workforce was involved in manufacturing; in 2009 that figure was 12 percent. In the same time span, conversely, the percentage of service sector jobs increased by a similar amount. Many people who used to work in manufacturing are now employed as service workers out in the suburbs.

The Economic Policy Institute today notes that the automotive sector still accounts for one in every 22 jobs in the United States. Detroit was particularly dependent on the love affair. In 1950, Detroit’s population hits 1.85 million, making it America’s fourth-largest city, with 296,000 manufacturing jobs.

Who Is to Blame?

Japanese automotive manufacturing plants are widely dispersed in the United States

Today, a typical U.S. made car may now have parts made in Canada, Mexico, and overseas, all linked with just-in-time delivery systems. Foreign manufacturers like Toyota and Volkswagen are now firmly rooted throughout America, particularly in tax-friendly states. Since the 1950s, the Big Three have lost market share to their global competitors for the U.S. market. During recent negotiations now between GM and the UAW, GM threatened to outsource even more parts production to Mexican factories—plans now apparently on hold with Trump in the White House.

A painful visual reminder of the decline of automotive manufacturing is the old Packard Co. factory. Packard began operations in 1903 and closed in 1958, leaving behind it’s once state of the art factory. It remains a shell, now occasionally used for film sets of post-industrial-collapse and dystopian films. Factories no longer have horizontal building design like the closed Packard Plant.

The old Packard Co. plant is now a famous ruin celebrated in dystopian films and documentaries on the Motor City.

The Ford Motor Co. left its original site in Detroit, and Henry Ford located his world-famous River Rouge complex (built on land he purchased for just $10,000) in Dearborn just outside of Detroit. Ford has not built a car or truck in Detroit since 1910.

Today GM’s main assembly plant in Detroit is actually in Hamtramck, a city within the borders of Detroit. Chrysler’s HQ is in Auburn Hills, a suburb. GM is still located in downtown Detroit, though its brand Cadillac just moved to New York.

The Ford Motor Co. left Detroit more than a century ago and located in next-door Dearborn.

It is no coincidence that Henry Ford, the man who helped to put Detroit on the map with mass production, high working-class wages, and assembly line production, also left Detroit in 1910 and relocated to Dearborn. Some argue his model for  middle-class and car-owning, working-class Americans spurred the movement of residents from cities to the suburbs, including in the Detroit area.

Ford’s model called for the centralization, rationalization, and integration of all operations under one roof—fabricate the steal, create the parts, assemble the vehicles, sell to the marketplace. River Rouge was the manifestation of that vision. The original model shifted after the 1940s. Auto companies compartmentalized their operations and moved from the city. They shifted instead to horizontal building configurations. One-story buildings were and still are cheaper to build and maintain.

Who Brought About Decay?

Some blame the United Auto Workers for the downfall of auto manufacturing in the United States, others blame the manufacturers.

In 2011, UAW workers got $58/hour from Ford, $55 from GM, and $52 from Chrysler. After the bailout, a two-tier pay system was implemented for new employees (recently contested in labor negotiations with Fiat Chrysler in Fall 2015). GM alone had $100 billion in pension obligations when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009, not all for union workers/UAW members.

Ford, GM, and Chrysler all relied on SUVs to boost their profitability, and those models spectacularly collapsed during the great recession, leading to bailouts by U.S. taxpayers of Chrysler (now Fiat/Chrysler) and GM. In December 2008, President Bush gave a provisional $17.4 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler. From May through July 2009 Chrysler and GM declared bankruptcy, and the President Obama administration provided financing and guided the automakers through expedited bankruptcy proceedings. A fundamental shift in management-labor relations occurred thereafter.

On Race and Riots:

Detroit has actually had three historic race related riots: 1863 (race related, tied to military draft, 2 dead), 1943 (34 killed, 25 were black), 1967 (43 dead, more than 2,000 buildings burned). That latter was the death knell for many whites determined to leave the city for the suburbs. The last riot followed historic demographic changes. From 1940 to 1970, 4 million blacks moved from the South to urban areas in the North, including Detroit.

The riots in Detroit in 1967 left 43 dead and 2,000 burned buildings. The city never recovered.

Scenes from the 1967 riots that forever changed the city and marked a turning point for white flight. My grandmother and grandfather (biological) moved out of west Detroit to the neighboring suburb of Livonia in 1968, a year after the riot.

As of 2014, Detroit was 83 percent African American, 7 percent white, and about 6 percent Hispanic/Latino of all major ethnic groups.

What About Leadership?

Mayor Coleman Young, the city’s first African American Mayor, has a controversial legacy from 1974 to 1994. The Wall Street Journal squarely blames him for the city’s decline that accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. He is viewed by some, including the Detroit Free Press, for stoking racial flames. The Detroit Free Press however claims he was among the most frugal mayors and avoided debt, unlike his successors. My birth mother remembers him most for his inaction on Devil’s Night in 1989 and not stopping the first outbreak of widespread arson.

Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is best known for his sexting scandal with an aide but also widespread corruption. The Detroit Free Press blames him for pushing it into unprecedented debt: “The greatest damage Kilpatrick did to the city’s long-term stability was with Wall Street’s help when he borrowed $1.44 billion in a flashy high-finance deal to restructure pension fund debt. That deal, which could cost $2.8 billion over the next 22 years, now represents nearly one-fifth of the city’s debt.”

Former Mayor of Detroit and convicted politician Kwame Kilpatrick.

In November 2012, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation allowing for a state appointed financial manager or Chapter 9 bankruptcy for the Motor City. In February 2013, the state described Detroit status as “operational dysfunction” and in need of intervention.

In February 2013, Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as emergency manager. Orr promptly called the city insolvent. Detroit debts totaled $18.5 billion, with twice as many pensioners as workers by this point. In July 2013, Orr filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, the first time ever by a municipality. After court hearings, the state signed bills in June 2014 to move Detroit out of insolvency.

The Detroit Free Press ran a lengthy series on billionaire Dan Gilbert’s connection to lending practices that led to blight in Detroit.

Billionaire Dan Gilbert, CEO of Quicken Loans and now Detroit real-estate mogul, also is partially blamed by the Detroit Free Press for exacerbating urban blight and the huge foreclosure crisis. Gilbert’s Quicken Loans was central to decay. Since 2000, Wayne County has held one of the world’s largest real estate auctions offering 20,000 properties a year acquired through foreclosure—5 percent of Detroit’s housing stock. The venerable New York Times in 2014 described the city’s plight as post-apocalyptic.

A City Gone Wild

The evidence of arson is omnipresent throughout Detroit. I saw hundreds of torched homes and buildings without really trying to find them. I also saw large numbers of abandoned and in some cases scrapped and pillaged schools, left abandoned because of consolidation, loss of students, and gross mismanagement by Detroit Public Schools (DPS). There were 1,500 suspected arson fires between January and July 2015, according to the Motor City Muckracker blog news site.

A glaring example of that decay can be seen in how the Detroit Public Schools literally left its supplies to rot, much perfectly good (textbooks, supplies, sporting equipment), after a fire. The book repository building was then bought by billionaire Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun, who sealed it tight after famous photos surfaced in the 2008 and 2009. Photos of the repository by photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have now become world famous and synonymous with the city . The images can be found in their seminal work, The Ruins of Detroit.

The Michigan Central Station adorns the cover of the documentary photo book by French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre on the downfall of Detroit, called The Ruins of Detroit. It is a seminal work in photojournalism. It literally helped to spawn a new genre called ruin porn.

Today, many Detroiters are fiercely opposed to downsizing Detroit. In reality, some areas no longer have vital services delivered—water, lighting, public safety, fire protection. They have gone wild.

I remember one moment that captured this reality best during my last trip in late September 2015. I was driving in the center of the city. I needed to find a restroom. There were no facilities anywhere in sight. So I pulled my car over. There was an abandoned lot, with bushes shoulder-high. It looked like raccoons or coyotes could call it home. Not a soul was in sight. I relieved myself. I felt more like I was in an empty woods than a city that used to be the envy of the world.

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Scenes from a wasteland: inside an abandoned Detroit public high school

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

A year ago, in September 2015, I visited my birth city, Detroit. I saw things I could not imagine were possible in the supposedly most powerful country in the world. I toured the city and observed impoverished neighborhoods, shuttered factories, empty homes in every corner of the community, and the omnipresent ruins from arson that have made the Motor City the arson capital of the United States. Detroit had a surreal feel. I called it City of the Future and published several photo essays and a photo gallery on my web site. The most memorable and heart-wrenching place I visited was the now shuttered Crockett Technical High School, at the corner of St. Cyril and Georgia Street.

The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.
The trashed and gutted Crockett Technical High School was listed for sale in September 2015 by the Detroit Public Schools, which failed in every sense to protect the school from destruction by scrappers and vandals.

In my last photo essay on this gutted and neglected facility of learning, I recounted that Detroit Public Schools (DPS) recently had implemented a painful round of massive school closures, carried out by DPS emergency manager Roy Roberts. In sum, 16 school buildings were closed permanently. In the previous decade, enrollment in the system had fallen 100,000 students, and by 2012-13, enrollment was about a third of what it was a decade earlier.

Death of a school by scrapping and bureaucratic negligence

What I learned during my visit to Crockett from two friendly neighbors who were across the street would have been intolerable in nearly any other major U.S. city. I wrote in my September 2015 photo essay, “They noted that the DPS police did nothing to stop the scrappers once the schools alarm system failed. First the scrappers busted the windows and ripped out the metal. Then they went to work on the interior. One of the men, who said he had lived on that corner much of his life, said he even tried to follow the criminal scrapper and his accomplice once. His calls went unanswered by the school district, he said, and the scrappers did their destruction mostly at night.” The tragedy was compounded, according to one of the neighbors, because the school had been recently fitted with high-speed internet connections to promote a science and technology curriculum.

When I jumped into the old school, I saw newly built science labs completely trashed, eerily similar to how ISIS extremists would destroy monuments of culture and civilization in Iraq and Syria. But in Detroit’s case, the vandals were not crazed religious radicals, they were local residents, scavenging for scrap and destroying either for pleasure, anger, or both.

You can watch this June 2015 Detroit area news report on the scrapping at Crockett–all caught on live footage, with impunity. As one resident trying to protect abandoned public schools said, “How we can we hold off scrappers when we don’t have a license to arrest.”

Who really cares about Detroit’s decline or its public schools?

Today, the DPS is rated the worst in the nation for test scores. In May 2016 The Atlantic reported, “… the country has probably never witnessed an education crisis quite like Detroit’s.” And, then to no one’s surprise and certainly not to anyone in Detroit, no one really gave a crap. What happens in Detroit no longer seems to matter, no matter how awful and absurd.

After my trip to Detroit, I spent about four months trying to get respected Portland universities to host a lecture and photo show (click on the link to see how I presented the concept) on the decline of Detroit and how it looked in 2015. I was turned down by Portland State University, my alma mater Reed College, the University of Portland, and the Multnomah County Library. I made repeated requests to multiple faculty and these organizations.

The topic may just be too depressing or impossible to comprehend. Even worse, the story about mostly black Detroit and its current woes, like the simple destruction of one fine public school by the community itself, did not fit a narrative of race that is preferred many people at this time. A dominant narrative will always defeat an alternative story, particularly one that is rooted in ugly reality. I suspect this yawning disinterest was a combination of all of these factors.

To accept the reality of what Detroit is requires confronting the larger, painful issues about the United States that have not been addressed by our national political system. What we see instead are two candidates vying for the presidency who have used Detroit as a prop and photo-op to tell an economic story that does not resonate with the lives of people struggling in the city. Those two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, know little to nothing about the ordinary people in Detroit and have never stepped into any neighborhood where schools are abandoned, houses are burned, and blocks have gone feral. If one day one of them or any presidential candidate actually visit a place like Crockett, then I will retract this judgement

But let’s be honest. No one running for the nation’s highest office will ever see or want to see the real Detroit.

Note, I published the same essay on my What Beautiful Life photo blog on Sept. 30, 2016.

Detroit is dying and does this country give a damn?

Broken down Detroit Homes (Photos by Rudy Owens)
The River Rouge neighbhorhood is lined with broken and burned homes, like these.

As a native of Detroit, I present this first of several essays, with a profound sense of sadness. (See my photo blog for my first photo essay.)

Here's the proof if you need it--Michgian verifies I am a Native Detroiter.
Here’s the proof if you need it–Michigan verifies I am a native Detroiter.

It is hard to accept that my birthplace, this once great global city, has become a symbol for American industrial decay and capitalism’s larger ills. At one point, Detroit boasted nearly 2 million residents in the 1950s. Today is barely counts 700,000 residents. [Updated census figures, 5/5/2015.]

In its heyday of bustling industrial production, Detroit served as a global icon for American ingenuity, industrial might, and economic power. During World War II, when the larger metro area produced the country’s war weaponry to defeat the Axis powers, Detroiters proudly called their city the Arsenal of Democracy. In the 1920s and 1930, about 40 percent of all automobiles were manufactured in the Motor City and the Ford River Rouge plant was the world’s largest.

Today, Detroit is known more as the murder capital of the United States, and the arson capital. All told, 90,000 fires were reported in 2008, double New York’s number—for a city 11 times larger—according to Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be. It is the epitome of racial politics. Binelli notes, 90,000 buildings are abandoned, and huge swaths of the 140-square mile urban area are now returning to nature. Beavers, coyotes, deer, packs of wild dogs, and foxes are now reported in the city.

Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.
Photo Courtesy of Detroit Dog Rescue: up to 50,000 wild dogs roam Detroit.

I just visited Detroit, and the trip had a more profound impact on me than I was prepared for. How is it that our country could undertake two overseas wars to conquer and rebuild nations—Iraq and Afghanistan—and yet abandon a city that helped to make the country the global power it once was.

National partisan politics have played a role, with Detroit becoming a symbol of the Democratic Party’s failure, as a black city and union city, in the eyes of white and conservative detractors. Then there are NAFTA (pushed by Bill Clinton) and industry fleeing the country for cheaper manufacturing from global suppliers and gross mismanagement of the Big 3 automobile companies, two of whom were bailed out by U.S. taxpayers in 2009.

White flight eventually followed long-simmering racial tensions. There have been Detroit race riots in 1863, 1943, 1967, and 1987. Those riots were stoked by historic racism, redlining, job discrimination, and the building of freeways that helped to destroy America’s inner cities. Today, some criminal fringe actors among Detroit’s mostly black residents are burning what’s left of their own city, for at times just the hell of it.

Burned home Detroit Photo
A burned and destroyed home is a common site. This one is near Livernois and I-75.

Charlie LeDuff, author of Detroit, An American Autopsy, painted a heart-breaking tale of the city’s self-destructive conflagrations through the tales of firemen trying to combat the arsonists. “In this town, arson is off the hook,” said a firefighter to LeDuff. “Thousands of them a year bro. In Detroit, it’s so fucking poor that a fire is cheaper than a movie. A can of gas is three-fifty, and a movie is eight bucks, and there aren’t any movie theaters left in Detroit so fuck it.” (I will do a photo essay of fire-ravaged homes shortly.)

That latest malaise, on top of repeated political scandals and corruption by the city’s bureaucrats and criminal politicians, was a crushing bankruptcy filing in the face of an $18 billion debt. In December 2014, after a year an a half in limbo, a grand bargain was struck with creditors, the city, the state, and private industry that prevented the city from selling its city-owned artwork (Rembrandts, Van Goghs, and more) in the world famous Detroit Institute of Arts.

Diego Rivera Mural DIA
The Diego Rivera Mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts highlights the brutal and still glory days that once were Detroit, the Motor City.

As I wandered the glittering white palace that is the DIA, I wondered, what’s more important, this art or the blocks and blocks of emptied neighborhoods that most of this country has forgotten.

Tweet After Returning to Portland From Detroit
Coming back to Portland was hard. I posted a comment on Twitter as soon as I arrived back home how bizarre it was to be back in the whitest city in North America, Portland, after spending time in the city that America defines as African-American.

One of the best little health books ever published

Few books stay with me for long. I read them and give them away. One has stayed on my bookshelf, now for 26 years. That book is Dr. Stephen Bezruchka’s The Pocket Doctor. First published in 1982 by the Mountaineers, this pocket-size reference, now being published at a bit more than 100 pages, is exactly what its title implies. It is a guide to help a traveler cope with illnesses many people in the developing world face daily. You can buy it online from many vendors, like Powell’s Books.

The Pocket Doctor Cover
Cover of the second edition, 1988 version of Dr. Stephen Bezruchka’s The Pocket Doctor (personal copy).

I credit this book for saving my bacon and mental health on several best-forgotten nights. It helped me cope with medical problems that are normal for hundreds of millions of residents globally, and for me something I did not experience back in the comfort of the United States. But I am not the only writer and traveler who praises Bezruchka and his book.

Why many trust Bezruchka’s work

Bezruchka is a Canadian-born former emergency-room doctor trained at some of the nation’s best universities (Standford, Harvard, Johns Hopkins). He has both an MD and MPH. He has worked with medical specialists in the developing world, notably Nepal for 10 years. He also has written a great guide called Trekking in Nepal, which I used back in 1989. Today he is a lecturer on global health at the University of Washington School of Public Health (UW SPH) and a nationally recognized advocate for health care reform to improve public health outcomes and to eliminate health and income inequality.

I have taken this book with me now to three continents: Asia, Africa, and South America. I just cannot say goodbye to it, even when my developing-nation jaunts seem fewer and fewer.

The advice it provides has helped me to self-diagnose all manners of common gastrointestinal disturbances, such as food poisoning (nasty and scary in a crappy place), dysentery, and common diarrhea. I also used it to help me obtain the necessary medicine for what I still believe was malaria, which I had in Kigali, Rwanda in 1997.

With this book in my hand, I felt I could handle the predicaments that afflict visitors from developed countries to less-developed areas. In my 1988 published version, 13 pages are devoted to common drugs and medicines that address typical maladies, such as the  antibiotic ciprofloxacin, to tackle infections, with information laid out in a table on a drug’s use, likely place of need (city, remote, “third world”), form, and dosage.

Basic health care advice can be fun with good writing

Bezruchka’s writing is straightforward and direct. In his chapter on drugs, he begins his recommendation with a simple message: “Remember that drugs, though valuable, are not a cure all.” He provides advice on assembling a medical kit, working with doctors at home and abroad, and dealing with major sources of health problems—namely, food and water.

Bezruchka also highlights a major global health issue that is more severe than microbial agents, trauma from vehicle accidents. “Trauma, especially that caused by motor vehicle accidents results in the majority of disability acquired in developed countries,” writes Bezruchka. “This is even more true in third world countries. Trauma causes more disabilities to travelers in foreign countries than all the exotic diseases put together.” That observation remains true to this day, as shown in global health data.

Photo courtesy of the University of Washingston School of Public Health faculty photo.
Faculty photo of Dr. Stephen Bezruchka, courtesy of the University of Washingston School of Public Health web site.

But there is much more. Rabies? Check. Animal attacks? Covered. Ticks and leeches, fever, rashes? All addressed. The two-page section, in my old and battered version, on dealing with stress in less-developed nations is a classic summary of what many first-world travellers experience.

“If the culture shock of a third-world setting with its attendant poverty and hopelessness have you in despair, take steps to improve your psyche,” writes Bezruchka. “Seek out help, another traveler, or a religious organization or individuals.”

Bezruchka even has sections on death and how to cope with returning from travels with an illness. I definitely experienced lingering issues when I came back and took this advice to heart.

Meeting Bezruchka later in life

When I first met Bezruchka in person during my studies at the UW SPH, I mentioned how much I enjoyed his book and used it frequently in Nepal. I even mentioned how enterprising Nepalis had published black-market copies of his book they were peddling on the streets in Kathmandu. As I recall, he considered that a compliment to the value of his work.

Sometimes small and perfectly executed creations are ones that have the most impact. In Bezruchka’s case, there is far too much to choose from to say what is best—from published papers to advocacy to mentorship of future health leaders. I will submit this still fine tome as work that stands the test of time and proves that small is often better.

The enduring influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher

Photography is a highly personal artistic and communication medium. I have found that those who are successful in this arena achieve that status because their work is clearly recognizable. Success is never by accident, and the photographers I greatly admire remain consistently clear and compelling over time, and usually with great impact on others in the field.

Sebastião Salgado comes to mind for me in the field of visual storytelling with a clear vision. His impact can be seen widely in imitators and co-travellers. The same can be said with the husband-wife duo Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Lime kilns, by Hilda and Bernd Becher.
Lime kilns, by Hilla and Bernd Becher.

The German couple photographed industrial architecture in Europe and North America for nearly 40 productive years, until Bernd’s death in 2007. Their easily recognizable subjects include water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, timbered homes, and other industrial features.

The pair published books with their images, grouped together in what they called “typologies,” or sets of images of the same objects from different geographic locations, usually in sets of say nine or 21 images. Each image would be photographed identically, with direct frontal composition, no lens distortions, and with a neutral density skyline that did not distract the viewer from the subject.

These ordered collections had almost no captions and simply conveyed the form of the objects, letting the similarities of the objects communicate the meaning without any of the often absurd and blabbering arts-speak that is usually associated with art and photography commentary. (I imagine the Bechers would find such nonsensical writings absurd.)

Their books of photographs, such as Industrial Landscapes and Typologies of Industrial Buildings, compile their work into compelling sets of images. The influence of their aesthetic can be seen in numerous imitators and students, including this series I found recently on abandoned homes in Detroit.

Toward the end of his career, Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, leading to a crop of photographers and a style of picture-taking that is is known as the “Dusseldorf School of Photography.” Bernd’s well-known and accomplished students include Thomas Ruff and Andres Gursky, one of the most celebrated photographers of the world who has sold the world’s most expensive photographic print.

Bernd and Hilda Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Blast Furnaces, at the St. Louis Art Museum.

I may have stumbled over the Bechers’ work without knowing it. However, I do recall feeling trapped in a hypnotic trance when I discovered a collection of their blast furnace images, or typology, in the new wing at the St. Louis Art Museum in December 2013.

I felt a deep kinship with their interest in industrical landscapes, perhaps because I grew up in St. Louis and was surrounded by similar forms in a city that was dying as an industrial center during my years there. I also felt a connection because I sensed something profoundly post-World War II about their work.

Their work is distinctly German to me, and their images are imbued with the personal experiences of two people who were in their adolescence during the Nazis’ brutal reign in Germany, when the world turned upside down, where the Holocaust and slave labor on a mass scale were engineered, and where killing and death were woven into the DNA of every German as a result of the country’s destruction that followed the country’s efforts to conquer Europe and beyond. (Bernd was born in 1931 and Hilla in 1934.)

Like it or not, they were a product of that experience, and I can feel it having also traveled widely in Germany on several trips and having studied this period of history intensely.

What is strikingly odd to me is I do not believe I was influenced by either of them. Yet the way I chose to explore my photographic project documenting concentration and death camps in five European countries closely mirrored the style of the Bechers. Even the way I chose to layout my photographs of crematoria, where murdered prisoners bodies were burned, bears an eerily familiar resemblance to the Bechers’ amazing work.

I don’t know what more to make of this except to say that I feel satisfied that my presentation style and methods are not singular. I also feel that the effect of combining similar images of strikingly mundane but complex objects can have greater weight in the format of a typology.

With that heavy photographic pontification complete, I present a screen snapshot of my crematoria series on my web site, followed by two screen snapshots of the Bechers’ typologies that I found online and also captured as a screen snapshot.

Rudy Owens' series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.
Rudy Owens’ series on crematoria at Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks.
Screen snapshot of the Bechers' many typologies and series, taken from Google's "image" tool.
Screen snapshot of the Bechers’ many typologies and series, taken from Google’s “image” tool.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide

A long-abandonned Armenian church can be seen in the Karkoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.
A long-abandoned Armenian church can be seen in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey, on one of the busiest streets of the largest city in the country.

In September and October 2001, I traveled throughout Turkey for more than three weeks. It was one of my greatest trips ever. I loved the country and really enjoyed my experiences getting to know the Turkish people. I recommend the country to anyone. During that trip, I worked on a photo-documentary project, visiting historic locations of the Armenians. I also visited many other places too, from ancient monasteries, to Greek and Roman ruins, to the wonders of the Ottoman Empire, to Kurdish regions that were experiencing disturbances that have not fully settled to this day.

I did a lot of research before this trip, and received a lot of assistance from some Armenian colleagues I befriended as a result of my interest in photographing remnants of the Anatolian Armenians, who experienced the first clearly documented case of genocide of the 20th century. I do not wish to get into a larger discussion of that topic. I am republishing a story, with photographs, that I published first in 2002. It recounts my travels to historic locations linked to the genocide and Armenian history in present-day Turkey.

I finally got around to publishing this story again, after finding some materials I had forgotten about–the story told through numbers. Since I work in public health these days, I find myself steeped in data and perhaps a bit beholden to it. So with that frame of view, I present a “by the numbers” perspective on my travels in Turkey, this significant crime against humanity, and a point of view that I try to keep in focus when I get lost in the small stuff and forgot the important stuff.

My story, An Armenian Journey, is in PDF format, and because of its large file size at 25 mb, it may take a  while to download. Please be patient, as it well worth your time. A very useful map of the tragic events is published by the Armenian National Institute. A fine collection of historic prints and illustrations of now vanished Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey can be found on the Houshamadyan web site. That site shows pictures of many of the places I visited, and you can compare historic pictures with the pictures I show in my story.

Reflecting on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1922, by the numbers:

1  Number of Armenian Villages remaining in Turkey

1.5  Approximate number of persons, in millions, estimated to have been murdered during the genocide against Armenian citizens of the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.

.6  Approximate number of Armenians, in millions, that the Turkish government today claims died during World War I during what the government called a military uprising.

35  Number of Armenian churches still active in Istanbul, according to a custodian at the Kilisesi Vakfik in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul.

100,000  Approximate number of ethnic Armenians residing in Istanbul today, according to members of the Holy Mother-of-God Armenian Patriarchal Church, in the Kumkapi neighborhood of Istanbul.

30 Approximate distance, in meters, from the Kumkapi police station to the Armenian Patriarchate (main church for Armenian Christians in Turkey).

5  Number of recognizable historic Armenian religious structures in Erzerum that are either labeled Selcuk or unknown origin.

2,549  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Ottoman Empire (churches, monasteries, parish structures), according to a survey by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1914, on the eve of the genocide (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

464  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings in the Republic of Turkey that had disappeared from the total of only 913 structures with known whereabouts in 1974, according to a survey done of the buildings that year (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

252  Number of Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in ruins, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

197  Armenian ecclesiastical buildings of the 913 buildings with known whereabouts that were in sound shape, according to a survey done in 1974 (source, William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain).

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenians” at Ani, the historic cultural capital of the Bagratid Armenian kingdom in eastern Anatolia on the border of modern-day Armenia and inside Turkey.

1/2  Number of surviving Armenian structures in present-day Kozan, called Sis by the Armenians, and the capital of their kingdom in Cilicia in the 13th and 14th centuries and formerly seat of the Armenia Catholicasate.

0  Number of references to Armenia on signs next to these structures.

350  Approximate number of mosques (including the great Suleymaniye and Selimiye mosques), bridges, and buildings credited to the Armenian architect Sinan.

1  Number of Armenian religious buildings remaining in Harput, the center of the graphic, first-hand account of the genocide by American diplomat Leslie Davis called The Slaughterhouse Province.

4  Number of monument structures at Liberty Hill in Istanbul to honor Talaat Pasha and the Young Turks, the principal architects of the first genocide of the 20th century.

0  Number of signs outside the now locked and gated memorial indicating the contents inside the weed-covered area originally built in 1943 to honor the former Turkish leader, who was gunned down in Berlin in 1921 by an exiled Armenian, Soghomon Tehlirian (in 2001).

2  Number of Armenian spires visible at Isak Pasa Palace, near Mt. Ararat, a complex that contemporary sources say was built by a Kurdish chief in 1685. [Structure is called a Turbet in Let’s Go.]

2  Number of military points passed prior to entering the Ani complex.

3  Number of government and police offices required to complete an Ani application process (taking a quick one hour of time, in 2001).

25  Approximate cost, in U.S. dollars (as of October 2001), to visit the historic Ani ruins.

Number of road crossings open to commerce and road travelers between Turkey and present-day Armenia (in 2001).

6  Number of Armenian churches I visited in Istanbul that are now permanently closed.

0  Number of references to “Armenia” or “Armenian” at Akdamar Church, an Armenian church outside Van on an island in Lake Van.

53  Number of days more than 4,000 Armenian villagers in the Hatay Province south of Antakya, on Musa Dagh (“Mountain of Moses”), resisted Ottoman forces in 1915 before they were rescued by Allied warships.

18  Number of languages that Franz Werfel’s best-selling account of the famous siege and rescue–Forty Days of Musa Dagh–has been translated into since its first publication in 1933.

24  The day every April that Armenians the world over mark as their genocide anniversary day, commemorating the date in 1915 that 600 leading Armenians and another 5,000 Armenians in Istanbul were rounded up, and almost all killed.

The crowded, congested, contested road: unsafe at nearly every speed

Seattle traffic
Seattle traffic is among the worst in the nation, and it can be downright deadly, according to those who track road-related fatalities.

Every day that I drive to work, I am literally putting my life on the line. I commute roughly 80 miles daily, round trip, from Seattle to Tacoma, navigating one of the most harrowing urban traffic corridors in the Untied States, on Interstate 5 and two state highways. (My story why I am commuting this way will be for another day, but there are good reasons.)

Routinely, erratic drivers dangerously pass me, putting our lives at risk, in order to gain a few extra minutes by speeding. I have seen many accidents, some fatal, on this route over the years, and I am glad that I have my will and living will in proper order in case a truck jack-knifes near me in the rain—and yes I’ve seen that happen twice before on the freeway system around Seattle.

Seattle Road Kill 2001-2009
How deadly are roads in the Puget Sound–take a look at the roadkill on this data map showing types of mortality by form of transportation for 2001-2009.

Judging by this map, we get a fair share of road kill in the metro area I call home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put the number of road deaths annually in my home state at nearly 500 (2009). Nationally, in 2012, the United States reported that 34,080 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012, a 5.3% jump over 2011. This ranks as 10th leading cause of death in the United States, if one pulls this form of death from all accidental deaths, in which it is grouped by the CDC epidemiologists.

So by all counts, getting in one’s car (or on one’s bike or in a bus or other form of transportation) and hitting the road can be deadly business in my country, especially given the proliferation of mobile-device users and drunk drivers.

In 2011, cell phone use in the good ole’ U.S.A. was a contributing factor in more than 3,300 deaths and for the previous year, in 387,000 motor vehicle injuries. These are very sobering numbers, and I actually expected there would be more given that I have seen far too many texters during peak travel times in vehicles moving 70 mph. Normally I move over a lane or lay on my horn to snap them out of it.

But this is nothing compared to the perils that passengers and drivers experience globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), road accidents claimed 1.2 million lives globally in 2011, ranking as the No. 10 cause of death, on a list that has some pretty nasty company, including respiratory infections (3.5 million), tuberculosis (1.3 million), and the big killer of children ages 0-5 years, diarrhea (2.5 million).

The Institute for Health Metrics produced this data table showing how road deaths globally compared to other causes of death (it's No. 10); go to: http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org/gbd/visualizations/gbd-heatmap
The Institute for Health Metrics produced this data table showing how road injury globally compares to other burdens of disease (it is No. 10); go to: http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org/gbd/visualizations/gbd-heatmap

A typical story that one sees with mind-numbing frequency overseas are bus collisions with motorcycles and motor scooters. This November 2012 story, 19-yr-olds crushed to death by bus, notes two aspiring young men were run over by an errant bus driver and dragged 40 feet in Chandigarh, India; the driver then fled the scene. Both of the men’s heads were crushed by the bus’s wheels.

I saw no less than three similar road maulings on the island of Java in 2009, when I visited Indonesia. That island, one of the most densely populated locations in the world, is overwhelmed with low-income and middle-income residents on  scooters competing for space with trucks and army of loosely and unregulated van taxis and buses.

Indonesians who use these highly efficient and inexpensive 100-125cc motor scooters are frequently killed on the island nation's infamously unsafe and crowded roads.
Indonesians who use these highly efficient and inexpensive 100-125cc motor scooters are frequently killed on the island nation’s infamously unsafe and crowded roads.

Road accidents alone in Indonesia account for more than 48,000 deaths annually, the 9th leading cause of death in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The United States Department of State offers this stern warning to would-be American visitors to Indonesia–a country I really loved by the way: “Air, ferry, and road accidents resulting in fatalities, injuries, and significant damage are common. … While all forms of transportation are ostensibly regulated in Indonesia, oversight is spotty, equipment tends to be less well maintained than that operated in the United States, amenities do not typically meet Western standards, and rescue/emergency response is notably lacking.”

During my two-week visit in 2009 to the island nation, I rode about a dozen different buses and equally as many microbuses, not to mention the country’s crash-prone domestic air carriers once, their local train service (also unsafe at times), and the far less safe inter-island ferry services. I saw about a half dozen crashes from my bus window, most fatal and usually with motor cycle riders as victims, and from my hotel room I heard one multi-vehicle crash in the middle of the night that clearly claimed many lives. I learned the next day it was between a bus and truck. The bus was totaled.

Roads can really kill you overseas, and so can planes, boats, and trains too

Buses like these are cheap in Indonesia, but your life can be as some locals would say, insha-Allah, or at the mercy of God.
Buses like these are cheap in Indonesia, but your life can be as some locals would say, insha-Allah, or at the mercy of God.

The writer Carl Hoffman, author of the book The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World… via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, documents the horrendous conditions of ferries, public transportation, trains, planes, and other forms of transport. The book’s online promotion notes that it offers a “harrowing and insightful look at the world as it is, a planet full of hundreds of millions of people, mostly poor, on the move and seeking their fortunes.”

Anyone who has travelled in developing or “middle-income” countries (like, say, Chile or Turkey) knows their life is literally in the hands of drivers who may have no proper training, in busses with no proper maintenance or even reliable brakes. Worse, the drivers of buses and microbuses in countries from Uganda to India to Mexico may trust their fate to Allah, Saint Christopher, the Virgin Mary, or Krishna. Those who have travelled in such places know this to be true, by the many religious deities dangling at the front of public transportation by the drivers’ seats.

Worse, the drivers will often play chicken with their competitors by speeding into oncoming traffic at high speeds while passing other vehicles or simply to “have fun.” I swear I thought I would die on many occasions in: Mexico, Guatemala, Nepal, Peru, Uganda, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, India, and other places that I’d rather forget just now.

accident or more by Birn
When is an accident really an accident, or when it is linked to larger systems issues? This analysis is provided by Anne-Emmanuelle Birn in her description of the social determinants of health (SDOH).

Three separate times, after I lived through the near mishap, I swore I would never, ever take a bus again in a developing nation. Yet I threw caution to the wind, as I needed to get around, and I could not afford to get around any other way. Not seeing the country I was visiting was not an option.

Is it really  “just an accident” or something more?

Anne-Emmanuelle Birn, international health professor at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the widely used global health tome called Textbook of International Health, points out the deeper connections that road-related deaths have to poverty and social inequity in undeveloped and middle-income countries. Birn writes that road traffic accidents are the second-leading cause of death for children between 5 and 14 years of age globally, and that poor and working classes are disproportionately affected in most countries. In high- income countries, most of those killed are drivers and passengers, whereas in low- and middle-income countries pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport passengers make up nine out of every 10 road-related deaths.

In Haiti, for instance, the word for local transport is molue (“moving morgue”) and in southern Nigeria locals say danfo (“flying coffins”).

Duncan Green, an Oxfam policy adviser and development blogger, recently wrote an article asking when road traffic injuries would finally be recognized as a priority by the international development community.

In fact a major report released in June 2013 by the Overseas Development Institute, the United Kingdom’s leading development think tank, notes that transportation is not recognized as a human right like access to water, yet it still is a fundamental factor for many to achieve basic human rights. Well-run transportation systems, for people and for goods and services, promote benefits, while unsafe and weak transportation systems harm the most vulnerable citizens.

Given the debate emerging now for future sustainable development post-2015, the deadline set for the Millennium Development Goals, road safety may finally find a way into the broader public health, development, and environment agenda, as a way to tackle this clearly documented major global killer. Perhaps the threat may finally be treated as the international epidemic that is is, globally or closer to home in the United Sates. For me, this includes the roads in the Puget Sound where I spend more than two hours daily to and from my public health job.