Detroit on the brink

Motor City's hopes for a recovery fade.

(Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre

(Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre)

Arbeit Macht Frei”: “Work will set you free.” The infamous, chilling words above the entrance to Auschwitz, the deadliest of the Nazi death camps, are the last to deserve any sort of revival. So when the haunting phrase found a conspicuous new home in Detroit, Mich., in February—in the form of gigantic red letters painted onto the slumping remains of a Detroit auto plant— it turned some heads.

The modern ruin in question, seen here, is the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant, a crumbling hulk that has become a favoured subject of dystopian-chic American photography as it collapses in on itself, and a blunt metaphor for the decline of the Motor City.

Was the graffiti (not shown) a tasteless but ironic comment on the hollowing out of Detroit’s car-manufacturing industry? A straight-up act of neo-Nazi territory-marking in the dead heart of American industry? Whatever it was, it was a low blow for a town that hardly needs it. On March 1, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared the city to be in a state of “financial emergency.” It is now in the throes of what emergency manager Kevyn Orr called “the Olympics of restructuring” to manage its $14 billion in long-term liabilities and now-routine cash shortages.

Hit hard by the flight of the manufacturing sector and the recession, the city has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, with a population of just 713,000 in 2010—less than half its high of two million. It has been working hard to reinvent itself as a hub for artists and the self-employed. Orr, a lawyer appointed by Michigan in mid-March, says he has high hopes Detroit won’t need to declare bankruptcy and will be able to make one of America’s “greatest turnarounds.” But time is running out, and for Detroit, the writing may be on the wall.