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Secret Histories | Dave Jordano – Detroit: Unbroken Down

A powerful and uplifting tribute to the people of Detroit, who persevere and triumph in the face of adversity.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Glemie Playing the Blues, Westside, Detroit, 2011

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1948, Dave Jordano began photographing his hometown in the early 1970s, as a student at the College for Creative Studies. He walked the streets capturing the city as it lived and breathed. We see a city built by the strength of the Great Migration, creating a vital and powerful workforce. But with its success, and the encroaching decline, came racial tensions that exploded the Twelfth Street riot in July 1967 ushering in a new era of protests.

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The NAACP led the charge against Michigan state officials, including Governor William Milliken, of de facto public school segregation, suggesting a direct relationship between unfair housing practices and educational segregation. The Supreme Court ultimately weighed in, upholding the status quo. This encouraged white flight to the suburbs at the very same time the city’s industry and infrastructure began to suffer from the effects of neglect and abandonment.

Lynn, Heidelberg Street, Eastside, Detroit, 2010

Lynn, Heidelberg Street, Eastside, Detroit, 2010

Jordano, who graduated with his BFA in 1974, also chose to leave. He observes, “At the time I was an aspiring young documentary photographer, eager to join the tanks of such notable heroes like Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, and Robert Frank, while sitting in my ivory tower, oblivious to my post-graduate responsibilities and entering the work force. Reality ensued and I became a commercial photographer, leaving behind my documentary aspirations.”

HighResCVR-583x700Jordano moved to Chicago and in 1977, he started a successful commercial photography business. Three decades later, he returned to his hometown, and in 2010, he started taking photographs in Detroit again. He observes, “It’s as if I stepped out of the door after a long hiatus and literally picked up where I left off in 1973.” The result of this new series of work has been collected in an incredible monograph, Detroit: Unbroken Down (powerHouse Books).


Micah, Eastside, Detroit, 2013

Micah, Eastside, Detroit, 2013

Jordano reveals, “As a child growing up, my dad, who worked all his life for General Motors, used to joke and say that we had motor oil in our veins. Even after all these years I still believe there is some small truth to what he said.” The automobile metaphor runs throughout the work, beginning with the very title itself. Jordan explains that Detroit is, “unbroken down—you know like how a car is broken down—Detroit is the opposite—unbroken.”

But make no mistake, it is bruised. It is injured. Detroit has suffered, and it has endured through decades of crime, corruption, and mismanagement. The result is a 40% poverty rate in a city with an 83% African-American population. These two figures are not unrelated by any means, as the state of Michigan is infamous for its systemic racist practices and policies.

Man Sitting at the Bar, Delray, Southwest Side, Detroit, 2010

Man Sitting at the Bar, Delray, Southwest Side, Detroit, 2010

Jordano’s photographs are a reconnection to his roots, and his reaction to the negative media images of Detroit. He reveals, “I began looking at the various neighborhoods within the city and the people who live within them. This human condition, while troubled, struggling, and coping with the harsh reality of living in a post-industrial city that has fallen on the hardest of times, does thrive, and demonstrates that Detroit is not the city of death and decay that everyone had been reporting in the media, but one that shows signs of human activity and movement. However, not withstanding the recent press about Detroit’s efforts to rebound from the depths of ruin, which is in all ways promising, my focus continues to rest on the current conditions that affect many of the poor and marginalized people whose fate will be drawn out in the ensuing months and years to come, and not in short capsulated 30 second news sound bites.”

Photographs by Dave Jordano, from Detroit: Unbroken Down, published by powerHouse Books.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.