Learning from Detroit
So what is there to learn from Detroit?
- Everything we have forgotten as Americans, including things forgotten by the people still stranded here, whose predicament is no less puzzling to themselves, perhaps, than the luck of those who have managed to escape. To quote another popular local t-shirt: last person to leave, turn out the lights. And we did leave Detroit, both literally and figuratively, even the people who remain behind. That’s the one thing everybody in this conflicted and self-absorbed country of ours has in common: we all don’t live in Detroit.
- This single fact defines us by virtue of our being so collectively and willfully wrong to think that we can ever leave Detroit. The city/not is by no means a thing of the past. On the contrary, it is the city where all of us still live, no matter how far from downtown — or Detroit — our residence might be.
- Our history, then, is a history of forgetting how to remember what brought us to where we are, with the city still calling the shots — the place where perhaps “nobody” lives, but everybody lives in relation to.
So, that’s what there is to learn from Detroit, and the general abandonment that this place inspires. But it’s not as if we didn’t leave a trail behind, on our way out of town. The urban landscape is cluttered with dereliction — modern equivalents of those vine-covered Mesoamerican temples that nobody remembers the sacred meaning of. But with this important difference: those forgotten sites were no longer inhabited at the point of discovery; our cities, on the other hand, are. Not that we all still believe in the city, quite the contrary, but we can’t seem to abandon the habit of belief, the wanting to understand what this all means, even if it turns out to mean nothing, which defines our agnostic predicament and gives rise to the spectacular anodynes of borderama.
The situation is a lot like the one Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown described when they set out to learn from Las Vegas, another of America’s great misread and written-off places:
… The order of the Strip includes; it includes at all levels, from the mixture of seemingly incongruous land uses to the mixture of seemingly incongruous advertising media. … It is not an order dominated by the expert and made easy for the eye. The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing, juxtaposed orders… 1
Venturi and Scott Brown conclude this thought with a quotation from August Heckscher’s The Public Happiness: “Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives … force.” 2 And the same might be said about Detroit — a place distant in many ways from Las Vegas, but not so far away in the terms Venturi is suggesting. The confrontation of city and city/not defines a condition where seemingly incongruous elements converge; it is surely not a sight made easy for the eye, which is where the quotation from Heckscher seems particularly apt. In Detroit, “chaos is very near,” and that is what keeps bringing visitors back; “its nearness, but its avoidance” (for people elsewhere) is what defines the special power of this place. By being so visibly and chaotically not a city, Detroit makes real the possibility that people might agree on what “the city” is, and how it might still be relevant both as ideal and way of life. The border of city/not is where necessary work is getting done; it defines an order both materially and symbolically; this is where the contradictions inherent in capitalism emerge in a particularly vivid way, just as Schumpeter imagined.
As to what we can learn from Detroit, it comes back to the caution that Tocqueville registered when confronted with democracy on a national scale — something democracy brought out among Americans, that he feared might afflict his own countrymen: again, that “individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtues; but in the long term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally be absorbed in selfishness.” 3 It is possible to learn from Detroit a paradigmatic lesson about individual responses to the chaotic conditions of our cities, and the “avoidance” that allows us to believe in our essential goodness, even if that belief is purchased by the confinement Tocqueville feared, each man a prisoner, “wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”
Not that he was the only one to posit such a result. “It is in the city,” Lewis Mumford wrote, “the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culmination.” 4, Take away that collective “theater,” and man’s more purposive activities are imperiled. Jane Jacobs feared just such a loss when confronted with the willful destruction of neighborhoods and the loss of “associations,” as Tocqueville would have put it, which she saw represented by the urban sidewalk, with the vast design projects of Robert Moses, and their emphasis on the private automobile, posing an immediate threat. “It is questionable,” Jacobs wrote, “how much of the destruction wrought by automobiles on cities is really a response to transportation and traffic needs, and how much of it is owing to sheer disrespect for other city needs.” 5 That disrespect is evidence that the forgetting machines have done their work, exhausting any belief in the importance of things shared, preparing the ground for the creatively destructive working-out of capital as exemplified in the automobile — an engine not of necessity, but “selfishness,” to use Tocqueville’s word.
Jacobs and Mumford provide two classic examples, among many others, of what might be called our history of forgetting; for them what we have forgotten is the theater of associations that once made cities and city life seem worth preserving. But we followed another path, a distinctively American path, out of the city and out of the kinds of associations the city stood for. And that has made all the difference, with the experiences we have encountered along the way being variously recorded and analyzed, from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1995), each responding to the cost of our collective acts of forgetting what came before. And that might be where the story ends, rather hopelessly, if it were not for Detroit.
Our spectacular history of forgetting how to remember the past really is our history, and that history makes us exceptionally who we are. But that is not all we are, or might aspire to being, which brings me to an equally spectacular, almost operatic final example — one made possible only because of the potential for vernacular learning that exists in America’s greatest city/not. I’m talking about Eminem’s film, 8 Mile (2002, directed by Curtis Hanson). 6 The film takes its title from the ultimate city/not border, 8 Mile Road, which separates Detroit from its affluent northern suburbs. It’s the borderland defined by this paradigmatic separation, where differences of race and class in particular are acted out with special force.
The film stages, literally, the urban theater where those differences will either get resolved, or else render city life impossible, with violence and drugs always the ready alternative. There is one scene that makes this point with great vividness and intelligence. It follows an earlier sequence in which Eminem’s character, Rabbit, chokes in a rappers’ stand-off: he can’t get the words out. Subsequently, he must reclaim his voice performatively, and the place he chooses to do this is one of the most overproduced sites in Detroit — the ruined auditorium of the Michigan Theater, designed by C.W. and George L. Rapp of Chicago, and completed in 1925, for years one of downtown’s premier movie palaces. “It is beyond the human dreams of loveliness,” as the Detroit Free Press exclaimed at the opening. 7 By the 1970s, creative destruction had had its way, with audiences abandoning downtown movie palaces for the supposed superiority of the suburban multiplex. Then an inventive real-estate developer saw an opportunity to turn this derelict theater to use and hacked into the by-then decaying interior to create a parking garage, leaving decorative elements intact, including the shredded curtain on the stage. The whole place has an eerie aspect, like images from the sunken Titanic, except unlike that wreck, the Michigan Theater — just as Detroit — is a wreck that is daily re-inhabited by commuters. But this rendering of the city/not loses its power through familiarity, at least for those who live here, and the uncanny prospect of the city/not begins to seem “natural.”
And therein lies the genius of Eminem’s operatic incursion. He reclaims the space of borderama spectacle for the purpose of personal testimony and critique; he populates the cliché of the Michigan Theater garage with “real” people and real confrontation that pits white against black, suburban against urban. And he dramatizes brilliantly and complexly the questions of association and ownership and responsibility that make the borderland of city/not such a perilous and potentially deadly place to live, and also the place where we will either reclaim our history — as Rabbit reclaims his voice — or else lose it forever. As the crucial sequence begins, he and his friends drive up the ramp and into the Michigan Theater garage, where Rabbit will triumph over stage-fright to deliver a smart and raunchy rap. “You better recognize me like I look familiar,” he demands. And that’s the challenge — the demand for recognition, and the warning that he only looks familiar. But he’s not, any more than the city he lives in — a place that gets treated like it looks familiar thanks to the forgetting machines and the apparatus of spectacle, which of course includes the Michigan Theater itself. But in the now-familiar photographs of the theater — unlike in the movie — the set is empty, or else populated only by cars. Like the city it stands in for, no people are present, since nobody really lives there any more. And that is Rabbit’s point: people do live here and they have plenty to say, but not what you might expect, and surely not what you’d like to hear, and one thing is for sure, you better listen: you better recognize me like I look familiar; you better recognize me in spite of my looking familiar.
Rabbit will triumph in the end, although not in the way that romantic stereotypes would suggest; he wins the climactic rappers’ contest, but not the girl. And when victory is his, he doesn’t sign a big recording contract or even go out on the town with his pals; instead, he just returns to work at the factory. Which is as it should be, because that victory over stereotype is enough; it un-does the work of the forgetting machines, and makes real in the urban theater of association the testimony of an individual about the inadequacies of borderama spectacle. And what is probably most important, and hopeful, he does this with art. Violence is always circling around the plot and breaks out periodically, but in the end it’s not violence that wins, but song. It’s a romantic proposition, but one that Marshall Mathers’s own life makes seem real enough.
Cities for Everybody
Now that the majority of the world’s population is urban, we might ask: what will this mean, and will it make a difference? Maybe it will mean nothing. That, arguably, is the “flat world” prospect advanced to much effect by Thomas L. Friedman, on the assumption that globalization makes residence insignificant. “Place, according to this increasingly popular view, is irrelevant,” as Richard Florida writes. But he also suggests, “It’s a compelling notion, but it’s wrong.” Florida has his own version of the future to sell:
Today’s key economic factors — talent, innovation, and creativity — are not distributed evenly across the global economy. … In today’s creative economy, the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people. … Because of the clustering force, cities and regions have become the true engines of economic growth. … And cities and their surrounding metropolitan corridors are morphing into massive mega-regions, home to tens of millions of people producing hundreds of billions and in some cases trillions of dollars in economic output. Place remains the central axis of our time — more important to the world economy and our individual lives than ever before. 8
If he is right, then the city — now morphed into mega proportions — defines the once and future border between the past and what is yet to come, between limitation and limitless prosperity. Which leads to the question: what this will mean to the people living inside these places. How will urbanism meaningfully assert itself, or will it, can it?
Anticipating this moment, Rem Koolhaas wrote, in S,M,L,XL, about the economy of scale at stake here, and the challenges imposed by the sheer scope of the task of representing:
Pervasive urbanization has modified the urban condition itself beyond recognition. “The” city no longer exists. As the concept of city is distorted and stretched beyond precedent, each insistence on its primordial condition — in terms of images, rules, fabrication —irrevocably leads via nostalgia to irrelevance. 9
But this is an old story, as anybody from Detroit knows — an old story that has now become new again. How to apply “city” in relation to unprecedented conditions? That’s the question. Where to look historically for sources of meaning and intelligence, when the essence of Detroit’s success and also undoing — from Henry Ford’s five-dollar day to the wartime “arsenal of democracy” to post-urban dystopia — has been the successive outmoding of precedents, or the very expectation that there should be any, at least when this place is involved. “‘Model city? Bah!’” Henry Ford said to a reporter from the New York Times in 1915. There were no models, according to Ford: “‘I say pay the workingman what he is entitled to and the model city will come as a matter of course.’” 10
The scale and the speed at which the Fordist experiment succeeded in Detroit (like its inverse when the city seemed almost overnight to collapse) pose exactly the dilemma described by Koolhaas, where memory leads only to nostalgia and irrelevance, because there is — apparently — no precedent: there is only the present. The world’s population now seems headed toward this condition. We will live in cities/not — vast “mega-regions” where, as Koolhaas says, “the concept of city is distorted and stretched beyond precedent.” Just like home — a place where lots of people may dwell close together, but where it’s arguable whether any of them is a “citizen,” in the old-fashioned sense of belonging that Mumford thought essential to the city as “theater.”
So, if we’re all going to end up living in Detroit, what will that mean? Perhaps the borderland of city/not will define new openings for knowledge and inquiry. I can imagine an archaeology of abandoned forgetting machines becoming specially relevant, with history being written not so much narratively as photographically and in a site-specific way. That possibility already exists on the web, with such sites as The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, and in the remarkable work of the photographers Corine Vermeulen and David Clements (whose images accompany this essay online). Our place in the world, as citizens, becomes defined by our responses to images, rather than by the kind of belonging dependent on actual residency, which is the proposition that Vermeulen is urging in her photographs — just as Eminem does in 8 Mile. But this belonging will not be defined by nostalgia — by feeling sorry for ourselves that we feel sad about a history that we have forgotten. Instead, I can imagine a kind of knowing, operatic response to the past with that active, sight-specific ensemble of feeling supplanting the narrative record. We are humanized by a resulting aesthetics of loss, and loss is more.
Epilogue: Detroit, June 1, 2009
I read the news today (not in the local papers because there aren’t any; the News and Free Press home delivery is all electronic, so when I opened the front door of my apartment, the only real paper waiting for me was the New York Times). “After Many Stumbles, the Fall of a Giant,” the headline proclaimed, with the story, of course, being about the bankruptcy filing of General Motors. 11 There’s a graph at the top of the page showing the decline in vehicle production, with various images punctuating the seemingly inevitable “fall.” And there, just above the fold, is an old black-and-white photograph that really got to me. It shows a woman, stylishly dressed, standing next to a new car, talking to her friend who is behind the wheel of the shiny automobile. “Sunnier Days,” the photo caption reads, “The 1941 Oldsmobile four-door sedan from G.M., a car that, among other G.M. models, embodied the spacious and expanding quality of American life at the time.”
My dad sold Oldsmobiles, not here in Detroit, but in the little West Texas town where I spent my childhood. My grandfather was a Packard dealer before that. I grew up hearing stories about “the boys from Detroit.” I imagined this place from afar, where giants walked the Earth. And they did. Those giants made us rich, relatively speaking, more than any working person ever thought possible; the cars that drove it all “embodied the spacious and expanding quality of American life,” just like the Times said. That spacious and expanding quality of life seems lost to us now, and not just here, but everywhere in America. We’ve been given hard lessons to learn, about the limits that history has finally imposed on our desires. We’re not who we imagined ourselves to be, only a few years ago, back when my wife’s father thought to look after his daughter by leaving her a portfolio heavy in GM stock, the value of which today is zero.
I read the paper, drink my tea and wonder what this all means. Through the plate-glass window in my living room, I can see GM World Headquarters, and the city around it, a city/not of contradictions so confounding, and also so distinctly American, that the impulse to look away, to go back to what I was doing, is compelling. But what was I doing? I can’t seem to remember. I can see abandoned housing projects and new condominiums, I look over the tree tops of Lafayette Park, where I live, with the largest collection of Mies Van Der Rohe buildings in the world; there’s Ford Field to the left, where the Detroit Lions play football, and Comerica Park, which is home to the Tigers (Comerica Bank having decamped for Texas, leaving their stadium behind); and church steeples — St. Josephat’s, St. Albertus, Sweetest Heart of Mary; and the old city market with its vast sheds. There are burned-out houses and downtown skyscrapers, one in particular with its see-through empty floors, the sunset poking through each evening, creating a kind of impromptu, urban Stonehenge; there are the freeways that paved the way to exurbia with edge-city clumps of mirrored-glass high-rises punctuating the horizon; and there are new casinos, four of them, offering the gullible a chance to spin flax into gold, 24/7.
Maybe it’s not so much a question of what this all means; maybe it’s more a question of how to make meaning here, how to take responsibility for seeing this spectacular place in a way that doesn’t trivialize or misrepresent the lessons to be learned. Not that I have the answer, because I don’t. I’ve made some suggestions, and maybe that’s the best any of us can do. One thing for sure, though, we can’t afford to look away. And that is the insight Vermeulen registers in her photographs and their way of seeing that is at once beautiful and confrontational. These panoramic images represent an understanding that demands response — “the mixture of seemingly incongruous land uses … the mixture of seemingly incongruous advertising media,” as Venturi put it. 12 Freed from the blight of nostalgia, these unsentimental pictures make clear all the work that memory must now do. Which reminds me of a possibly apocryphal story about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and an exchange that took place when the older man confronted the younger one about spending a night in jail for reasons of conscience. “Henry, why are you in there?” Emerson supposedly asked. “Waldo,” Thoreau may have answered, “why are you not?” I don’t care if the story is true. That’s what I feel like saying to people when they ask me why I am here in this place that only looks like a city. This is what I want to say to them, Why are you not?