Detroit Slums

Photograph shows Detroit slums with downtown skyscrapers in the background?

Claim:   Photograph shows Detroit slums with downtown skyscrapers in the background.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, August 2009]

Several website list this photograph as Detroit. The skyline looks likely, but the slum in front looks more like a composite of the edge of a Brazilian city with the modern Detroit skyline. Is this photo legitimate? I’ve only been to Detroit once, and while I wanted to kill myself after driving through, I don’t remember it being this bad.

Click to enlarge


Origins:   Just as the recent financial woes of the “Big Three” U.S. automobile manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) have been held up as exemplars of the decline of American industry, so has their home base — Detroit, Michigan — been offered as symbolic of the decay of the “rust belt” manufacturing-industrial cities of the northeastern United States.

Detroit was once the fourth-largest city in the U.S., a booming industrial metropolis that in 1950 boasted a population of 1.85 million. By 2009 it was home to less than half as many people (770,000), the median household income of its remaining residents was $28,370 (about half the national average), and the median home price was a minuscule $7,100. The news magazine The Week described Detroit’s modern status thusly in October 2009:

Outside the city’s downtown core of office buildings, Detroit looks like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The collapse of the auto industry, political dysfunction, and epidemics of crime, drugs, and arson have battered Detroit like a slow-motion hurricane,

leveling entire neighborhoods and causing a major chunk of the population to flee. Nearly 30 percent of the city, an area almost the size of San Francisco, has been abandoned to “urban prairie” — vast depopulated stretches of high grass and shattered asphalt. An Asian plant species sometimes called “ghetto palm” sprouts from the remains of abandoned buildings, where wild pheasants are occasionally sighted. The torched skeletons of homes are commonplace. In the 1980s and ’90s, demolition permits outnumbered building permits by more than 10-1. Nearly 30 percent of the city’s remaining housing stock — more than 100,000 units — lies vacant.

Although the above-displayed photograph of a shantytown juxtaposed against the background of a gleaming, skyscraper-filled downtown core might superficially match a description of modern Detroit, elements of the picture don’t match that location. (It’s unlikely, for example, that either residents of the thin wood and tin-sheet shacks or palm trees could survive the harshly low wintertime temperatures common to that area.)

This type of picture is one that, unfortunately, could have been snapped in any number of places around the world. Specifically, it’s a photograph of Makati, which is part of the greater metropolitan area of the Philippine capital city of Manila and is an international financial and commercial hub. It’s not uncommon for news stories to feature photographs of Makati as a way of illustrating growing economic disparities found within some rapidly developing countries and regions:

Shanty houses are cramped in the foreground while construction of new high rise buildings rise in the background at Manila’s financial district of Makati. Asia is broadly on track to reduce extreme poverty by half by 2015, reflecting the positive impact of its dynamic economy in the lives of its nearly four billion people, according to a joint report released by the Asian Development Bank and the UN Development Programme in Manila.

Another photograph of Makati taken from a similar vantage point can be seen in a 2006 BusinessWeek article about squatter cities.

Last updated:   8 September 2013


    Jana, Reena.   “Learning from Informal Urban Economies.”

    BusinessWeek.   25 September 2006.

    The Week.   “Detroit: A City on the Brink.”

    16 October 2009.