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A PORTRAIT OF DECAY

11:00 PM, Feb 25, 1996 • By FRED SIEGEL
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ome time in the last 30 years, liberals and conservatives switched places in the poverty debate. It is conservatives -- market Republicans and new Democrats -- who are now most optimistic about incorporating the poor into main-stream America. Meanwhile, traditional liberals -- like Herbert Gans, Michael Katz, Benjamin DeMott, and Peter Davis in recent books -- have taken up the fatalistic view of poverty as retribution for sin.


Granted, that sin is "white racism" and its associated iniquity, "middle class values." Gans acknowledges "culturally divergent behavior" but insists there's no such thing as an underclass; the very term, he argues, reflects a conservative conspiracy to defame and degrade the poor. Katz can't decide whether the underclass is an old problem or a new one, but he's certain that the very poor bear no responsibility whatsoever for their plight. DeMott is beside himself that an African-American mother of seven could be held accountable for leaving her children alone in a house that caught fire, killing six of them. All three authors, like conservative fatalists of decades past, are filled with pity for the poor. They are less interested in instructing readers than in warming them with the fellowship of shared moral indignation. After announcing that "the poor have replaced the Communists as our principal enemies," Davis strikes the note common to all these books when he asserts that the reason we "persecute" the underclass is that it represents the "tendencies we fear in ourselves." What remains unchanged across the years is that the party that sees the poor through the lens of pity has the least to contribute to the debate.


It's worth noting, then, that one writer on the Left has recently produced a worthy book, if somewhat unwittingly. Camilo Jose Vergara's The New American Ghetto (Rutgers University Press, 200 pages, $ 49.95) is a compendium of inner-city photographs he's taken over the past 20 years that displays none of the voyeurism that has come to be the hallmark of photo books on the underclass. (Eugene Richards's acclaimed photo-essays, for example, are replete with images of fellatio and drug injections.) By returning to the same locations and repeatedly photographing, Vergara gives a sense of how inner-city settings have changed for the worse, much as family photographs viewed in sequence can underline aging and decay. Here are poignant shots of stately banks converted into porno theaters; decaying Detroit mansions surrounded by prairie; stray dogs wandering through the shack4ined streets of North Camden, New Jersey.


The photographs are largely from New York, Newark, Camden, and Gary. But it is the "charred hulks and rubble strewn lots" of Detroit that are the emotional center of the book, with its 15,000 vacant buildings and 20 square miles of vacant land. In this other-worldly city, "supposedly immutable structures of reinforced concrete [fall] into decay, occasionally breaking their silence by shedding a gargoyle." This occasions a weird slum archeology, where "trees growing on a building roof indicate by their height and density how long it has been abandoned."


In an extended essay, Vergara tries to justify his photographs in policy terms, refers to the limitations of statistical evidence, and says that "the country needs an accurate image of the ghetto with which to devise national policies." But his purposes are also more personal: Having grown up in Chile and seen his alcoholic father drink away the family's wealth, he was drawn to similar scenes of decay in the United States.


Justifiably, he agrees with housing reformers who insist that "the physical evidence of trash, poor plumbing and the stink that goes with it . . . deepen feelings of being moral outcasts." But then Vergara proposes, in all seriousness, that the shell of what was once Detroit -- particularly the abandoned skyscrapers, "our most sublime ruins" -- be preserved as a penitential park, a monument to the moral failings of the white American middle class that callously abandoned Detroit in the name of progress.


There's little point in arguing with such a vision, except to point out that vast stretches of Detroit's recent history go unmentioned in Vergara's accounting. The turning point was the race riot of 1967, a "rebellion" of such frightening intensity that federal troops had to be called in to halt it. All that remained 20 years later was what the Detroit News would describe as "inscrutable megaliths in a wilderness of rubble so desolate that you can stand in the middle of Woodward Ave., the heart of the riot, at midday and not see a single auto for miles in any direction." Nor does Vergara ever mention the extraordinary annual auto-da-fof Devil's Night, the night before Halloween, when bands of young Detroit men fan out to try to burn down their own neighborhoods. In Detroit, the riot not only never ended - - it has been institutionalized. By 1987, twice as many buildings were being lost each year to arson as were burned in the riot.


Vergara has been touted as a latter-day Jacob Riis, whose 1890 How the Other Half Lives helped awaken American elites to the parlous condition of the urban poor. But he has none of Riis's important concern for acculturating and Americanizing those racked by poverty. His true predecessor was the French Romantic the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, a famous critic of progress emotionally overwhelmed by the ruins of medieval churches.


"Man himself," said Chateaubriand, "is but a decayed edifice, a wreck of sin and death." The ruins of Detroit are our own monument to the pieties of a faith gone awry.



Fred Siegel is a professor at Cooper Union and is writing a book on American cities.