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.

Welcome to Kent: Washington state’s melting pot

First, scroll straight to the bottom to see the photos (I really like these) if you don’t want to read this long-winded introduction, but I think this background gives these photos context.

In February, I worked on a community health assessment project in Kent, Wash., one of the most diverse cities in the state, if not the United States. Located in South King County, the suburb community of 92,400 residents is a lot like other suburban cities that are now the melting pots for immigrants and recently arrived residents to the United States. During my visit to Kent a day ago, I saw Sikhs, Somalis, Latinos, Ukrainians, Burmese, a diverse mix of South Asians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and more, and that was just at a local lake where I was photographing a swim race.

Today, more than 130 languages—from Afrikaans to Yoruba—are spoken in the Kent School District, the 4th largest in Washington State. Kent has become a prototypical “melting pot suburb.” Nationally, minorities now represent 35% of all U.S. suburban residents. And many new suburbanites come from abroad. According to a 2010 report by King County, a full fifth of King County residents identify as “foreign born,” and many are choosing to locate in South King County communities like Kent. Today, only 56 percent of residents are white, the rest all other minorities, the largest being Latinos/hispanics.

In terms of urban design, Kent is like many other exurb or suburb towns—entirely and slavishly devoted the internal-combustion engine. Decades of development in Kent have created pockets of  cul de sac streets and multifamily units, as well as a pattern of major thoroughfares 4-6 lanes wide, literally preventing people from moving safely across the street or getting out by foot or bike. It’s incredibly hostile to anyone who isn’t in a vehicle, and unsafe (lots of deadly crashes here). A prevalent design feature is the strip mall, which caters to the car. One is Benson Plaza, at a main intersection in the city’s East Hill on SE 104th Ave, which reflects the city’s true diversity. Punjab Sweets, owned by local leader Harpreet Gill, is de facto hub on East Hill for many south Asian residents and many other residents. Harpreet also helped launched Kent’s annual International Festival. If you visit Kent’s East Hill, be sure to stop in her shop and buy some Indian sweets. (They also serve dinner.)

The photographs were taken at Benson Plaza on Aug. 17, 2012. I’ve never eaten Indian pizza. I may have to go back and try one.

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Being SMART about feel-good social media sensations

Like many people, I have very mixed feelings about the media phenomenon that is the super viral video known as Kony 2012. It has a sexy opening line: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea”–something that is a two-edged sword.  This can be terribly awful if applied by those promoting “evil agendas” (explained below). The video is produced by a group called Invisible Children, itself a major recipient of corporate giving (JP Chase Morgan Bank is a huge supporter of this group, according to the company’s web site). This itself gives one pause.

The moment I saw it, I was screaming out loud: “manipulative,” “scam,” “cliche,” “heroic white saviors,” “powerless Africans with only one name,” “exploitative.” I actually have followed this story for more than a decade, and I have been to northern Uganda in 1997, where the Lord’s Resistance Army wrought havoc on innocent Ugandans. This is a long, complex story involving several African nations, ethnic groups, geopolitics, and more. This video, while bringing a horrible human rights offender to the attention of the public, disregarded many historic realities that I found deeply troubling as a former journalist. For instance, the main villain, Joseph Kony, is no longer in Uganda committing crimes; he reportedly was last seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So what are we to do when we see how emotionally manipulative media products can gain one instant notoriety and fame, itself a goal of many scraping to make it in media production, photography, and storytelling.  (Recall “performance artist,” but definitely not a journalist, Mike Daisy and the factually inaccurate story he pushed about Apple’s suppliers in China that compromised his career and brought disgrace to the radio show This American Life.)

I can never disassociate the message from the person. Remember Leni Riefenstahl and her hypnotically seductive Triumph of the Will, a  scary masterpiece of fascist propaganda released in 1935 (when concentration camps were not quite operationalized) that helped the cause of one of the greatest murdering madmen of human history, Adolf Hitler? Riefenstahl latter downplayed her Nazi sympathies and attempted to justify her work as merely the output of an artist doing a job, without moral consideration for the outcome. And she was a brilliant photographer and filmmaker, who even after being associated with a genocidal regime, revitalized her career with images of Sudan (The Last of the Nuba) that many would think of today as “progressive” in its orientation. (See the stunning photo below.)

Leni Riefenstahl’s photos of the Nuba, seen here, are brilliant images in their own right, but should they be viewed as distinct from her ties to a genocidal regime from her more youthful days?

I just stumbled on a promotional page for a group called International League of Conservation Photographers. I immediately smelled the conflict between huge egos involved in their media/photographic work and their worthwhile “cause.” The video creates an image of heroic warriors, backed by their own orchestral score. Or, are they just talented photographers trying to make a living too as photographers. What do you all think?

I am always going to suspect self-promotion if I do not see a clearly defined goal that accompanies the promotion. This organization states what many would believe to be a worthy goal: “The ILCP seeks to empower conservation photographers by creating an organizational structure that allows them to focus on the creative aspects of their work while at the same time finding venues that allow their images to make a significant contribution to the understanding and caring of the environment.” But is this truly a clear roadmap?

In public health, they teach us that the best interventions have SMART objectives because they provide the clearest guidelines for developing measurable, achievable actions. SMART stands for:
-Specific
-Measurable
-Attainable
-Relevant
-Time Bound

Whether SMART objectives actually lead to change, or themselves become watered down by their clever wording, is another topic. But in general, I believe this is a relevant way for looking at groups who promote social change. Is what they are offering SMART, or is something more akin to Triumph of the Will, dressed in clever social media marketing. That really is the job of the viewer, but also those who can also use social media to call attention to Triumph of the Will’s and Kony 2012’s viral step-children.