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When I first headed north, back to Saginaw, I had an agenda. One of the things I’d planned was to dispassionately document the decline of an American industrial city in the 21st century. The only problem here is that when I finally rolled into town after a decade-long absence, I was no longer able to dispassionately document anything. My first reaction was shock. The second was anger. I have now settled on heartbreak. I think I’ll be here for awhile.

Saginaw was my home for most of the first 30 years of my life. I was born in Detroit and when people ask me where I’m from, I say Detroit so I don’t have to explain where Saginaw is, but the truth of the matter is that we left Detroit before I turned 3. The stories are pretty much the same anyway. The place peaked about thirty years ago and has lost about 40% of it’s population since then. It’s surrounded by suburbs (including the one where I lived) where people are still managing to survive in a tough economy and some are managing to thrive, but to me it looked like the only ones thriving were the liquor stores and tattoo parlors. The heart’s been ripped out of the place. The same story can be told about industrial communities, large and small, across the Midwest.

"Cute Little Handyman's Special. Price Reduced" (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

Having had my plans to create penetrating and insightful photojournalism thwarted by harsh reality, I started looking around for the place I remembered. Some of it is still there. Much of it is gone. By way of example, General Motors’ Malleable Iron Plant was right down the street from the charming little house above. It was places like this where my neighbors earned their living for 90 years, paid their mortgages and sent their kids to college. A lot of them have vanished. The Malleable site looks like a grassy field in Kansas now. I’d love to invite some Wall Street banker or Fortune 500 CEO to stand in front of the padlocked gate at the end of this street and discuss the benefits of globalization for awhile.

Steel Rail and Flowers (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

I thought I had prepared myself for what I would find. I hadn’t. This was a journey of healing and reconciliation, about which I have written elsewhere, but every blade cuts both ways. I left with much of what I had been seeking, but also with a profound sense of loss. You’re only ever “from” one place no matter how hard you might try to reinvent yourself. You remember that place as a snapshot taken at a point in time and it remains in your memory that way. You’re surprised when that snapshot gets faded and ratty around the edges.

Casualty (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

I probably would not have noticed these things if I’d stayed, or at least wouldn’t have been so moved by it all. I feel a need to go back and try this again, only next time I won’t be planning on any dispassionate photojournalism on the decline of industrial America. I couldn’t do that if I wanted to and I’d be a little disappointed in my own sense of humanity if I could. I’ve grown weary of how we treat human lives as statistics and pat ourselves on the back for the “progress” we’ve made without a thought to the price that’s paid for it, usually by someone else. Ten thousand people lose their jobs and another stockbroker buys a new Mercedes Benz.

Hamilton Street Storefront (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

No, I can’t force myself to be objective and analytical about anything that I found on my journey home. A lot of people got rich off this misery, but they don’t live around here.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] a series of four posts (here, here, here, and here), I wrote about how this journey home has changed me. What I’ve written here […]

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    […] this post I earned the praise of one Lisa J. Allen, not merely a former editor but a treasured friend, one of […]

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