What Post-Industrial Cities Can Learn From Subatomic Particles

*An essay follows the photos

Mitra [view smaller]

Josh [view smaller
Aeran [view smaller]

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Linda [view smaller]

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"Work Spouses" Mitra and Leslie [View smaller]
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Sujeet [View smaller]

Quantum physics tells us the subatomic world is very different from the world we experience in our everyday lives. One of the most fascinating revelations of QP is that reality on the quantum level is changed simply by someone observing it(1).  Unfortunately, this effect does not scale-up to the everyday level. Observe your refrigerator all you want; you're still out of milk.

Even still, this revelation from the seemly disparate subatomic world prompts provocative questions about our everyday reality. For people like myself who are interested in the future of post-industrial American cities, it spurs me to ask how the reality of these cities might be changed by what about them we choose to observe.

This question lept to mind as I edited and organized portraits I was commissioned to make by Riviere 28 – a subcommittee of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. The Conservancy and its subcommittees are charged with the development, maintenance of, and programing for the public space along Detroit's riverfront and the adjoining Dequindre Cut.

The Dequindre Cut is a 80-plus-year-old anthropogenic gully carved into downtown Detroit's otherwise flat topography. At one time, it was serviced by the Grand Trunk Railroad. For the majority of my life, it had been serviced by incontinent vagrants. That was until 2009 when the Conservancy took hold of the 1.35 mile stretch of disused railway line and transformed it into a walkway, glass-smooth bike path, and public gallery for commissioned graffiti (for a look the cut before development, click here).

This summer, the Cut hosted Riviere 28's Soiree on the Greenway – the second in a series of three events aimed at encouraging use of these public spaces and increasing participation with the Conservancy.

As I reviewed the portraits, I noticed an intriguing demographic pattern: there was no demographic pattern. In a city renown for entrenched segregation, blacks reveled in a beautiful summer evening next to whites next to every non-dichotomic racial identity in between. In a state where gays can not marry, expressly gay people and expressively straight people joined together in merriment. In a city built by the automobile, dozens of participants arrived on bicycle.

The well-heeled partied alongside people of modest means alongside people of modest means on trajectory toward being well-heeled. 

Mitra is the daughter of first-generation Iranian immigrants. She was raised by a single mother whose fastidious budgetting allowed Mitra to attend Wayne State University for her undergrad degree. Thereafter, she studied law at Howard University on a full merit scholarship. This summer, Mitra accepted a coveted federal clerkship with the legendary United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit Judge Damon Keith. Previous Judge Keith clerks include Lani Guinier, the first black woman to gain tenure at Harvard Law School; and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. 

Mitra embodies the forward-moving cultural diversity that made the Soiree remarkable.

I set out to photograph a benefit. Instead, I photographed a sociological proof of concept. Amid all that is wrong with Detroit and cities like it, this event shows that by turning our attention to what is possible, we can convert what is possible into what is true.  Just as subatomic particles are changed by inspection, I believe that – in some small way – the reality of Detroit can be changed by what about it we choose to observe.

By turning our attention to events like the Soiree and progressive public/private projects like the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, post-industrial cities like Detroit will attract progressive people. Cities are nothing else but the sum of their citizenry. Attract enough progressively-minded people, and actual social progress becomes a physical inevitability.

If only it was as easy to attract a carton of milk.

- Noah - 

Noah Stephens  is a photographer, essayist and founder of  The People of Detroit Photodocumentary - a media project dedicated to dynamic, interesting  people in the storied birthplace of American auto manufacturing.  Since its inception in April 2010,  TPOD has received national and international attention. Portraits from the project have appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Fast Company and other national publications. 

In early 2011, a creative director saw the project on flickr.com and hired Noah to shoot an ad campaign for McDonald's Corporation in Shanghai, China. 

The People of Detroit Photodocumentary is funded in part by a grant from CEOS for Cities and the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation.


 For an in-depth discussion of quantum physics and its representation in pop culture, click here


1. Weizmann Institute Of Science. "Quantum Theory Demonstrated: Observation Affects Reality." ScienceDaily, 27 Feb. 1998. Web. 19 Jul. 2012. [http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/02/980227055013.htm]

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