Introduction to Some American Cities

I grew up in Chicago, and from an early age I was absolutely in love with the downtown area. As a young kid, I would take the subway downtown on Saturdays. The Loop would be packed with people on the sidewalks, going in and out of unique shops, movie and live theaters, restaurants, and places like the public library and Art Institute. Throughout my career as a photographer, the Chicago landscape has been the core subject of my work. Like many other observers of the urban landscape, my thoughts on cities have been shaped by Jane Jacobs’ seminal book: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She wrote that lively, complex urban environments have a mix of building types, public and commercial opportunities at the street level, and, importantly, a high density of diverse people active on the sidewalks throughout the day and into the evening. Despite changes and challenges, Chicago and quite a few other American cities are good examples of this, with downtown areas that are exciting, vigorous, and enriching landscapes.

But in some American cities, part or all of the downtown areas are terribly disheartening places. Some of these cities have experienced severe economic and population declines, resulting in empty sidewalks and a worn and uneven urban fabric in the central city. Street level parking lots mark the sites of demolished structures, and it’s startling to see large office buildings empty and boarded up. These distressed and struggling cities are a widely recognized concern. Other cities, doing better economically, have developed downtown areas that resemble corporate/governmental office parks. In these cities, good traffic flow, security and parking are the priorities. Especially parking. For those of us who love cities, these badly designed, institutionalized, and tightly controlled city centers are also discouraging landscapes.

In this project, I’m interested in photographing American cities that seem to be missing some or all of the vitality of complex and self-sustaining urban landscapes. These American cities have lost something valuable. It’s easy to drive through these desolate downtowns without noticing much. Places like this are hard to examine and photograph, but I think that we should make the effort.

Each city that I have photographed has its particular history, economic circumstances, challenges, and geography. And the state of urban America is more complicated now than when Jane Jacobs railed against misguided urban planning and destructive urban renewal in 1961. Even during the years that I made these photographs, some cities, such as Cleveland and Detroit, have changed in positive and exciting ways. My highly selective views of some American cities cannot provide a definitive view of each city, nor do they offer an analysis of each city’s problems and opportunities. As I try to photograph these American cities, I’m very aware of the limits of Photography, and especially aware of my own limitations.

Jane Jacobs included no illustrations in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She wrote that her readers should provide their own views by going out and looking carefully at cities. That’s what I’ve attempted to do.