I had the occasion to visit Detroit over the weekend, and was utterly fascinated by what I saw. There’s no doubt that the city has long occupied its own place in the American Myth, from automobiles to Motown. Music is a huge part of Detroit’s identity, with dozens, if not hundreds, of name-checks in popular song. (Of those that I’ve heard, David Bowie‘s “Panic in Detroit” best captures the freaky vibe of the modern Motor City; Christian Death‘s cover perhaps more so.)
Detroit is a study in contradictions: part urban wasteland, part entrepreneurial experiment. I was there to give a talk on technology and creative communities to an audience of artist fellows of a well-known philanthropic organization. So many of the people I interacted with had very strong feelings about what it means to survive — and perhaps even thrive — in a city left behind. Everywhere I looked, there was evidence of DIY enterprise and risk-taking. There was also blight on a scale that’s hard to reconcile with notions of American exceptionalism and opportunity.
How could a U.S. city decay to such an alarming degree? Parts of Detroit look like Sarajevo without the bullet scars (and I’m sure there’s some of those, too). Looming over the city are hulking testaments to industrial and domestic catastrophe. Empty factories, warehouses and domiciles pepper the landscape, which is eerily vast and devoid of people. From what I’ve been told, the city of Detroit is big enough to hold the entirety of San Francisco, New York and Boston, but it is home to a mere 713,777 humans. The population fell 25 percent between the years 2000 and 2010. And it doesn’t look like most of them will be returning anytime soon.
Yet some do go to Detroit to make a life. Maybe it’s the fact that in some cases, you can buy a house for less than a grand. But I like to think that it’s about the chance to build. To do something perhaps small, but lasting. To participate in the most uncertain experiment in urban renewal since New Orleans got creamed by Katrina. Maybe ever.
It’s gonna take a lot of work. Even to an outsider, the challenges seem insurmountable. Detroit has some amazing architecture, remnants of a great industrial and cultural past. Unfortunately, much of it is in a state of advanced deterioration. And no one is building anything to the previous scale, which means any new construction is guaranteed to be dwarfed by epic atrophy. There is no greater testament to this than Michigan Central, which looms mightily in decomposing grandeur. Its crumbling edifice utterly dominates the nearby Michigan Visitors’ Center, and is flanked by lesser — but still impressive — examples of civic ruination. They film apocalyptic movies here, many of which take place in some dystopian future.
For Detroit, it is an inescapable present.
You’d expect to see this kind of thing in certain former Iron Curtain villages, but not in one of the America’s most storied cities. Even the pockets of life and light — and there are some — only add to the feeling of monumental calamity. It’s like a Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis comic came to life, minus the cheery bits. Yet even amidst the deserted domiciles and too-wide-to-be-empty streets, there is hope. Development shoots up wily-nilly from the pockmarked landscape like brightly-colored flowers poking up from cracked concrete. Cautious optimism is reflected by those making their lives among the ruins of the 21st century.
Detroit, I pity you. I fear you. And I admire you.