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From the ashes: Pompeii and Detroit

May. 2, 2018
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I’ve always had somewhat of a fascination with the Roman city of Pompeii. I remember learning about it for the first time back in first or second grade and wanting so badly to understand how it was that a city could be entirely destroyed and forgotten about and then reborn through modern science, technology, and the ability to find something beautiful in a place where tragedy had struck.

It’s hard to imagine something like Pompeii being anything more than a tragedy. Thousands of people lost their lives when Mount Vesuvius erupted over the city, covering citizens in smoldering ash and pumice stone. 

In the aftermath of a tragedy, one can usually assume that the fate of a place fallen to the wayside of death and destruction is simply the addition to a list of tragedies that have accumulated over the course of history.

Nobody ever expects a rebirth to follow.

Especially in a city like Pompeii, or furthermore, a city like Detroit. 

I know what you’re thinking, how could an ancient European city destroyed by a volcano have any relationship with a post-industrial American city crippled by wealth and crime?

The answer is perhaps much more complicated than what originally meets the eye.

I was unaware of Detroit’s relationship with Pompeii until I first visited Detroit, specifically the Detroit Institute of Arts, more often referred to as the DIA. I was a tourist in the state of Michigan, completing a single semester of college in the state before transferring to Penn State. I’d always heard that something I should do before I moved out of Michigan was to visit Detroit and the DIA, but I was partially apprehensive.

Detroit, like its Roman counterpart, often gets a bad rap for being dangerous and lost to the past. The city went bankrupt in 2013 due to a long battle with economic downfall, misuse of government funds, and a shift in American industry. As of 2013, it was reported by The Washington Examiner that Detroit had over 78,000 abandoned buildings, police were unable to respond to the rising amount of crime and the crumbling industry, and corrupt government officials lacked other formal means to respond.

Yet things were not always this way in Motor City, just as Pompeii was not always known as the Roman City preserved in time. Detroit was America's fourth largest city in 1950, when it had 1.8 million people. The economy was booming from the automotive industry, and in the early years after World War II, Detroit had become a major hub for employment and prosperity among middle-class Americans. 

On the other hand, at the time just before Pompeii’s destruction, the city boasted a population of 11,000 people, and the city had a complex water system, an amphitheatre, a gymnasium, and a port.

Neither of these cities would have once been regarded with mourning in the sense we hear so much of today, but even hundreds of years after Pompeii’s destruction and five years after Detroit's fall to bankruptcy, the two hold even more in common than anyone could’ve ever thought possible, with the key being the DIA. 

In October of 1927, the DIA first opened its doors to patrons, offering an amount of art and culture in North America that was completely unparalleled at the time.  The DIA is home to the first painting by Vincent van Gogh ever hosted in the United States; his own self-portrait still resides in its galleries to this day.

The museum itself is artfully designed, every room and floor expertly crafted by museum architect Paul Philippe Cret in association with Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary.

The museum itself withstands the test of time, its layout and overall composition different from other museums of the same caliber. The DIA’s design was carefully calculated and expertly planned, featuring a layout style that was uncharacteristic of sister museums at the time. 

Perhaps the most spectacular of the structures inside the DIA is the Walter B. Ford Great Hall, which also happens to be the very space where Pompeii and Detroit are most intertwined. 

When I first entered Great Hall, I was awestruck by its beauty. The long room is draped in light and color, encased by marble furnishings and vaulted painted ceilings with a beautiful chandelier as a centerpiece. Though I did not realize during my first visit, after studying the frescoes and art movements in the city of Pompeii, I soon recognized the intricate detailing of Roman scenes stretched across the ceilings and walls. I later discovered the rounded entryway to be similar in structure to that of a Roman bath. I remember standing there nd looking up in awe, unaware of the museum volunteer coming up behind me.

“You know, it was inspired by Pompeii.”

 I turned to her, almost taken aback. 

“I’m hoping someday someone writes a book about it.”

For someone that had never previously visited the city of Detroit and had never traveled to Pompeii herself, I had never reflected so much and so quickly on what it could mean to have something like that featured in a city like Detroit, and I immediately contacted the DIA’s library and archives department, and was offered an appointment to come back and read through some of the records about the museum’s conception, design, and relationship with Pompeii.

There is a document in the archives box at the DIA regarding the history and construction of the building that has stuck with me ever since I began the journey to unravel the secrets of Pompeii’s strange relationship with Motor City, and it reads as follows:

“As has been said, the purpose that was sought in the design of the institute was that of increasing the enjoyment of objects of art by presenting them in such a way that the visitor would form clear impressions not only of their intrinsic beauty, but also of their relationship to the life of the civilizations that produced them.”

This quote stood out to me for a variety of reasons, specifically regarding the history and evolution of how society views both Pompeii and Detroit. Pompeii, though destroyed, now remains one of the most accurate and important depictions of what life truly looked like in the time of Ancient Rome. Through the artifacts, buildings, and even the people themselves, we are able to tell a story that would have otherwise been built strictly on written history rather than structures that stand to this day. Pompeii’s rebirth occurred in its rediscovery and its continued use as a scientific site and tourist haven to this day.

Detroit is going through a rebirth of its own. Society currently perceives Motor City as dangerous, crime-ridden, and only representative of an America that has passed on. Detroit is perceived to be made up strictly of minorities, stuck in old ways, and too corrupt to ever be truly healed from its 2013 bankruptcy.

But this idea is false.

Detroit is growing. Detroit is building its way back up from the ashes, fighting tooth and nail to show each and every person that it can come back from adversity and economic hardship. Detroit is working each and every day to return to the place of advancement and technology in which it once resided. Detroit is home to powerhouse sports teams, a lively historic district, and yes, one of the most significant art museums to call the United States home.

It’s impossible not to see the relationship between the production of a city centerpiece like Great Hall being modeled after Pompeii and Detroit's personal rebirth. 

I’m sure that in the thick of the ash and fire, the people of Pompeii were convinced that their story was over. I’m sure that in the wake of bankruptcy and the plague of crime, the people of Detroit believe theirs was, too.

Who’s to say that it has to be?