Exemplary Frailty: James Griffioen’s Feral Houses
by Aaron Schuman

November 2010

This essay was originally published in FOAM #25, Winter 2010.

     In the summer of 2006, at the age of twenty-nine, James Griffioen moved to Detroit with his wife and one-year-old daughter, abandoning a successful career as a securities lawyer in San Francisco in favour of a life as devoted and unapologetic stay-at-home dad – or a ‘Gentleman of Elegant Leisure’ as his business card reads. A year earlier, Griffioen had begun a blog – www.sweet-juniper.com - on which he has since chronicled, in both pictures and words, his experiences of personal transition, the new city he’d moved to, and full-time fatherhood. ‘Twenty-somethings must tremble at the possibility of ending up like me,’ he reflected in one post. ‘A man who abandoned everything he spent his twenties working towards because he became a father, and was suddenly seized with the delusion that everything he thought was important when he was twenty-three actually didn't mean shit to him anymore. I went through that same journey of fear and dread, knowing that creating new life brings unpreventable changes and new responsibilities. Of course, what I hadn't been prepared for was how much love it would stir up inside me; this primal, riotous love… When I realized that continuing to live how I was living meant that I would barely get to watch my kids grow up, something snapped. I walked away.’
     Over the course of the last five years, Sweet-Juniper.com has developed a strong reputation as one of the web’s most brave, thoughtful and heartfelt blogs about the trials and joys of parenting, particularly from a father’s perspective. But Griffioen himself admits that nothing he has ever produced has resonated as much as a series of photographs that he posted in July 2009, which he called Feral Houses. Introducing the images, he wrote, ‘Our word feral comes from the Latin root fera, or wild beast, but it also has a connection to another Latin word, feralis, literally: belonging to the dead. I've seen "feral" used to describe dogs, cats, even goats. But I have wondered if it couldn't also be used to describe certain houses in Detroit. Abandoned houses are really no big deal here.’
     Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the city of Detroit – once the heart of the American automobile industry, thus the nickname Motor City (or Motown) – was one of America’s most promising and prosperous urban centres. But over the course of the last fifty years, Detroit has been in steady decline; its population has halved, most factories have closed or significantly downsized, one in fifty of its inhabitants are homeless, and it has earned a reputation as one of the most desolate and dangerous cities in the country. Most recently, with the onset of the current economic crisis, Detroit has become the mainstream media’s go-to icon for the failure of the American dream, with journalists flocking to the city’s streets in search of the most graphic and obvious representations of contemporary urban decay and the fall of the American empire. Last year, in an article for Vice Magazine entitled ‘Something, Something, Something Detroit: Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff’, Thomas Morton wrote, ‘Detroit is being descended on by a plague of reporters […] You can’t toss a chunk of Fordite without hitting some schmuck with a camera worth more than your house.’ At the same time, Griffioen himself was receiving up to five phone calls a week from outside journalists, asking him to give them ‘insider’ tours of the city’s crumbling neighborhoods. In his article, Morton quotes Griffioen as saying, ‘You get worn down trying to show them all the different sides of the city, then watching them go back and write the same story as everyone else. The photographers are the worst. Basically the only thing they’re interested in shooting is ruin porn.’
     By contrast, Feral Houses is anything but ruin porn. Rather than exaggerating their subjects in order to illustrate fashionable social, political, and economic generalities, or exploiting such sites in order to conjure up explicit and lurid post-apocalyptic visions that are solely intended to titillate rather than inform the viewer, Griffioen’s photographs depict these structures dead-on, under flat light, with seriousness but without sentimentality. His strategy succeeds in that it aesthetically reflects his own approach to such scenes, as expressed in his own words: ‘no big deal’. At the same time, the images – landscapes as much as architecture; with an emphasis on the natural world, at its height in summer, invading and then subsuming the man-made one – invariably invoke a long-standing metaphoric tradition within Western art, philosophy, religion, literature and poetry, which has been with us since the Renaissance: the ruin as memento mori. As the architectural historian, Christopher Woodward, points out in his book, In Ruins (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), ‘In Christianity the decay of the individual was a necessary prelude to resurrection. Ruins were a perfect metaphor for this process, for the skull beneath the skin…When Pope Pius II introduced the very first law to protect the classical monuments from destruction, one of his reasons for doing so was to preserve the sight of their ‘exemplary frailty’.’
     Yet, what sets Griffioen’s ruins apart from those that Woodward cites, and Pope Pius II preserved, is that they are not ancient monuments, temples, amphitheatres, forums or palaces – they are houses, structures that rarely preserved even when ancient. Such buildings do not inspire grand imaginings of great societies or symbolize the wonders of bygone civilizations (thus their rarity as ruins), but instead speak of modest families, and the subtle fragility of their fleeting memories. Elsewhere, Woodward writes, ‘When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future. To the statesman, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of mortal man’s aspirations. To a poet, the decay of a monument represents the dissolution of the individual ego in the flow of Time; to a painter or architect, the fragments of stupendous antiquity call into question the purpose of their art.’ Yet again, Griffioen does not suit this mold - he is not a statesman, a philosopher, a poet or a painter, nor does he feel comfortable with being regarded as a lawyer, a photographer, a journalist or even a blogger. As he has declared time and time again, in both his actions and his words, he is first and foremost a father, a family man. And it is this – the family – whose frailty and future are contemplated in the Feral Houses. Such ruins are not representations of something imperial, philosophical, poetic, political, economic or artistic, but instead, that which is most deeply and profoundly personal.
     So, let’s get personal. In 1939, my own grandparents – newly married, in their early twenties, and pregnant with my mother – moved to Detroit and stayed for nearly sixty years. My mother generally talks fondly of her childhood, yet the mere mention of Detroit, as a city, abruptly bring tears to her eyes; then she goes quiet for a while.
     I have very little experience of the city myself. I was born in 1977, and by the mid-1980s my grandparent’s neighbourhood had gone severely downhill – the house across the street had become a crack-den, burglary was a common occurrence, and gangs clashed regularly on their block. Although they came to see us on the East Coast at least twice a year, I only visited my grandparents at their home in Detroit once, for a day; before it got dark, my parents and I drove out of town, and stayed with my aunt and uncle in the suburbs. Nevertheless, my grandfather – an incredibly proud and impossibly stubborn man – insisted that he would never sell the house he had worked so hard for all his life. But by the 1990s, both bricks and bullets started coming through their living-room window (a brick landed on my grandfather as he sat on the sofa and broke his foot; the bullets missed them), and – with the passing of both their eightieth birthdays and dementia beginning to seriously effect my grandfather – my mother and her siblings insisted that it was time for my grandparents to move. Despite my grandfather’s increasingly angry protests, they sold their house for hardly more than they’d bought it for, and moved to Colorado; my grandfather died three years later, still proud, but bitter and confused as well.
     After studying Griffioen’s photographs for hours, and in the midst of writing this article, I decided that it was time that I learn more about my mother, and particularly, about her family, her house, her neighbourhood; her Detroit. So I asked her to send me some childhood memories of the city – this is what she wrote:
     ‘When Mom and Dad first came to Detroit they rented a small apartment, and saved their earnings. Dad was a factory-worker all his life. At first, he worked in a cardboard-box factory and she worked in an automobile factory, sewing seat covers. He studied at night, and passed the test to become a tool and die man. Then he worked at various factories, and eventually got a job at Chrysler making the molds that were used to cast various automobile parts.
     After three years, they bought a house on Moran Street for cash; they always paid cash, no credit. It was a two-story wood-frame house. Dad used a blowtorch to get off all of the old paint, and then painted the house light-yellow. It was on a narrow lot, and in front there was a miniscule bit of grass and a few sumac trees – in the fall the narrow little leaves were very pretty, red and yellow, and we used them as pretend money, banking our “money" through the thin slot in the wooden mailbox that was nailed beside the front door.
     Alongside the house, there was a narrow sidewalk that went between our house and the next one. It was a great place for playing ‘bounce the ball’ during hot summer days. We spent hours at this game: you threw a tennis ball hard against one house and it would ricochet back and forth between the two houses, making a staccato echoey sort of sound. We would also use this long, narrow space to play ‘kick the can’, or ‘throw the dice’, or ‘pinch the pennies’, or hop-scotch. The bleeding hearts and irises that were planted there sometimes took a real beating.
     There was a small fenced-in backyard, which you entered through a metal gate that made a great clanking sound. It was a soft wire fence with big holes – good for bending, for climbing, for talking over with the neighbours, and for supporting blue morning glories; beanstalks, too. The yard was planted with scraggly grass on one side, and dirt on the other. Dad made a swing with pieces of wood and chain, and put it on the dirt side. It was great fun to kick up the dust, or slosh through the wet puddles underneath, as you were swinging back and forth. In the winter, the backyard became an ice rink – we would shovel the snow into mounds around the edges of the yard, bring out the hose, and fill it up. At the back of the yard there was an old barn, which smelled of wood and dirt. It had rickety stairs to a loft, which had a large window opening out onto the neighbour's pear tree. I often spend hours there, listening to the rain, smelling blossoms in spring, and climbing out onto the branches of the tree, where I could sit and eat juicy pears while spying on the neighbours. Beyond the barn was a dirt alley. It was like a little street with smelly garbage bins, feral cats and wild hollyhock flowers in all sorts of colours. I loved picking their blossoms, and pretending they were ladies in beautiful evening dresses.
     Once a week, a horse-drawn wagon came down the street in front of the house selling vegetables. In the summer the ice truck would come, and a man would carry in a block of ice for our icebox. And, once a week, we would walk over to Chene Street – to the big outdoor market – where we often bought a live chicken for Sunday dinner, and tons of fruits vegetables for mom to can. The canning cupboard was set at one side of our back porch, at the bottom of the back stairs; that's where the root-beer that Dad made every year was kept too. Sometimes it exploded.
     Down the street in one direction there was a grocery store and a beauty shop; on the next block was the fire station, and on the block after that was a bakery. In the other direction was my friend Rosalie's house – her grandmother only spoke Polish. Across the street on the next block was the tiny movie theatre where I saw Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs; next to that was a bar. Two blocks away was the Better-Maid potato-chip factory, with a big window where you could look in and see the chips moving down the rollers. We bought gallon-size tins of chips and spent many afternoons on our front steps, sipping Vernors ginger ale or orange pop and eating chips. And then there was the Wonder Bread factory – at Halloween they handed out miniature-sized loaves of bread.
     For many years we didn’t have a basement. When I was nine years old, Dad jacked the house up, dug underneath it, got some cinder blocks and concrete mix, and made a basement for a furnace. Before that, we heated the house with a kerosene stove in the living room. But after he dug the basement, it was my job to stoke the furnace when I got home from school, shovelling in coal and pushing it around over the still-glowing ashes with a long poker. After that, I would help Mom with the washing, ironing, cleaning, and baking, and do my homework. We always listened to the radio; Mom loved soap operas, I liked the comedy shows, and Dad liked the ball games and polka music. 
     The rhythm of Detroit traffic followed the automobile factory shifts. I've forgotten exactly, but I think that there were three shifts over a twenty-four hour period. We always went to the annual Auto Show to see all the new models of cars that were coming out. At Christmas we went out to Grosse Pointe to see the fancy houses, with all of their Christmas lights. On Sundays we went to church, visited family, and sometimes went for a Sunday drive to look at all at the new houses that were being built. Mom said that she wanted a white-brick house, on a corner lot, with a proper chain link fence. Dad wanted a garage.
     When I was fifteen, we moved to a house on Bloom Street (bought for cash, of course). I was very disappointed – I thought we were going to move to a larger house in the suburbs, with a big lawn and big trees, hopefully near the first shopping centre ever built in America. Instead, we moved to an area near Hamtramck. Now I understand why we moved there; it was a brick house in a nice neighbourhood. It had a basement. Mom got a new washing machine and a Frigidaire. And they could still afford to send my brother, my sister and me to Catholic school – which you had to pay for – and save some money to help us go to college.
     OK, it’s getting late. Got to go.
     Love, Mom.’
     Griffioen’s Feral Houses may not be imperial monuments of long-lasting historical importance; in fact, many of the houses themselves have since been demolished. Yet captured as photographs, these overrun structures still possess the weight of the ruin – in this case, one of love and family – and preserve its intense, emotive power. ‘Exemplary frailty’…indeed.


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