Motor City Breakdown

Detroit in literature and film.

Julia Reyes Taubman, “Benjamin Siegel house. Albert Kahn, 1914,” from Detroit: 138 Square Miles (2011).

“It’s this nomad people which the rivers and lakes do not stop, before which the forests fall and the prairies are covered with shade, and which, after having reached the Pacific ocean, will reverse its steps to trouble and destroy the societies which it will have formed behind it.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville, from a journal kept on a trip to Detroit, 1831 1

Detroit is the city of problems. If they exist, we’ve probably got them. We may not have them exclusively, that’s for sure. But we probably had them first. … The city has become a living laboratory for the most comprehensive study possible of the American urban condition.”
— Lawrence M. Carino, Chairman, Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, 1972 2

“OZ: The yellow brick road began in Michigan”
— front-page headline, Detroit Free Press, 2013 3

Why can’t we just get over Detroit — by common agreement, the most bankrupt, abandoned, misbegotten enterprise ever designed by Americans, at least so far as cities go — “the country’s most startling example of modern urban collapse,” as the New York Times put it? 4 Maybe it’s the sheer scale of the catastrophe being perpetrated here. The Times was reporting on the latest census of 700,000 souls, down from 1 million a decade ago and 1.8 million in 1950. Hardly a week goes by without national headlines about the murder rate or economic meltdown or impending civic bankruptcy (the biggest in U.S. history), or the Big Three automaker bailout, the corruption of public officials, the dumbfounding ineptitude of the electorate. Then there are the ruins that cast Detroit as a post-industrial Acropolis or Pompeii (except our ruins are larger), and the caravans of filmmakers and journalists and gawkers who want to get one last look, say one last word before the whole thing finally collapses. With all those end-of-everything narratives, you’d think by now we would have really reached the end — of conceivable stories, or patience — the end of Detroit as the “set for some movie about the last hours of the Planet Earth.” 5 That crack, by James Howard Kunstler, came 20 years ago, yet the end-of-time tourists keep returning to the set, locals too, which leads to my question: Why can’t we just let go?

Our preoccupation with Detroit is no accident. Americans are a designer people, a society of immigrants whose only common experience on this continent is the experience of coming from someplace else, willingly or otherwise. We have no shared origin, whether natives or newcomers. Instead we were born of ideas memorialized in the Declaration and Constitution. 6 So we come naturally by our obsession with design, Detroit being probably the most important design project ever undertaken by Americans (after the Founding itself) — “the Silicon Valley of the Jazz Age,” as Mark Binelli so aptly describes it, “a capitalist dream town of unrivaled innovation and bountiful reward.” 7 But here’s the tricky part. Is the spectacular — and spectacularly represented — failure of Detroit indicative of some larger design fault inherent in the very nature of American ideas, or is it simply a local one-off, an exception without deeper meaning?

This unresolved question keeps Detroit in the news and makes it a hard place to forget. Our grudging preoccupation with the city is what I aim to discuss — our blindness and insight, and the difficulty of representing Detroit in film and television, in academic studies and journalistic accounts, in fiction and poetry and advertising. This story is as much about the means of our collective remembering (and forgetting) as it is about the actual place. The un-city of Detroit distinctively embodies who we are, as Americans. That’s my thesis. The question is whether we have the wit and the skill to see it — and then whether we have the nerve to embrace what we see there, what we’ve made of ourselves and each other.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be (2012); Detropia (2012); Detroit: A Young Guide to the City (1973); The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996); Stalking Detroit (2001); Driving Detroit (2012); The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit (2012); Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit (1990).

Start with the facts, the hiding-in-plain-sight secret of Detroit, which historian Thomas Sugrue methodically reveals in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996): “The bleak landscapes and unremitting poverty of Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s are the legacies of the transformation of the city’s economy in the wake of World War II, and of the politics and culture of race that have their origins in the persistent housing and workplace discrimination of the postwar decades.” 8 Detroit is the end result of decisions we made, laws we passed, economic policies and cultural attitudes we supported, on our way to the suburbanized, mall-bound, racially and economically segregated world we live in today. Reading Sugrue is like watching a dramatic reenactment of the Titanic sinking. You sense the grim inevitability of Detroit, which only seems like an avoidable disaster; the more you understand, the more you know otherwise.

Of course the ship is going to sink; but let’s assume it’s not the finale that matters, but how our feelings are arranged in relation to that end. This distinction becomes clear — and clearly problematic — in the Sundance Festival hit Detropia (2012), directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. 9 The New Yorker critic David Denby called it a “lyrical film about the destruction of a great American city … the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years.” 10 Is he serious, in years? There is a sense of obligatory piousness here, as befits a funeral, where propriety demands that much remain unsaid. “In Detropia,” Denby writes, “we’re looking at American ruins — an impromptu graveyard of industrial ambition — and we feel awe, but here it’s mixed with disbelief and shock. This city didn’t fall victim to warfare or weather. It was abandoned.” But what do we do with shock and awe and disbelief? Where do we assign responsibility? Ewing, who grew up in suburban Detroit, explained to the local press:

Our intention is not that somebody point the finger and say, “Man, Detroit’s really got problems.” If that’s what happens, then we’ve failed at our job. … We want people to say, “Man, that’s happening in my city, too. How did we let it go this far? What is our American identity when we’ve allowed a city to come to this point?” … Really, we want the story of Detroit to boomerang back to the viewer and reflect upon what’s going on around them and their part of the country. 11

That ambition is in every way admirable, to have the design failure of Detroit “boomerang” out across America — to raise questions about who we are, and how we could allow this to happen — but the film grasps at more than it can comprehend.

There’s a sequence in Detropia where a group of almost comically incompetent illegal scrappers are pulling apart an old building, whose materials they will re-sell for pennies a pound. The weather is cold, so the men huddle around a fire they’ve built — hunter-gatherers in a new old stone age. Except there is nothing atavistic about what they’re doing, nor is it an isolated activity. And that is where the scale of this intensely local film and its piecemeal understanding prove inadequate to the job at hand. What’s going on in Detroit is a great devolutionary release of energy that occurs when a city is submitted to methodical un-making — from the scrappers, to the police who don’t interfere, to the underground economy that provides a market, to economic and political forces that render so much physical wealth valueless, except as it is literally melted down for export. We are not simply riding out cyclical waves of demolition and conversion. What is happening now is much more massive. Detroit is being consumed by acts that will render it permanently non-negotiable, whether as a real place or as category for organizing experience. And for the most part, this epistemic change remains beyond the parochial understanding of Detropia.

Scene from Detropia (2012).

Andrew Herscher sets out to measure that transformation in his provocative intervention, The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit (2012), parts of which were published on Places last fall: “To explore unreal estate, rather than undeveloped real estate, is to confront the complex (un)reality of property that has been extruded from the free-market economy. It is to see the margins of that economy as a site of invention and creativity as well as of suffering and oppression, a perspective that may very well be ‘so remarkable as to elicit disbelief.’” 12 Herscher’s project is a richly illustrated catalogue of individual and collective actions, but it is ultimately more performance art than genuine “guide,” adopting a meta-perspective that may be necessary to register a condition that is finally so remarkable as to elicit disbelief.

It’s not just the estate that matters, real or unreal; it’s the whole condition of the un-city as ongoing production. “The media, cultural commentators, academics, social workers, evangelists, venture capitalists, real estate speculators, political interests, and design professionals are variously poised to save, to solve, or to spin Detroit.” 13 That is how the editors of Stalking Detroit (2001) characterized the terrain, and the necessary complexity of their undertaking:

Our position has been to stalk Detroit: to lavish it with unwanted attention. This activity required equal parts persistence and ambivalence. It manifest[s] itself as an obsessive, self-indulgent, yet ultimately indifferent interest in recording the conditions of urbanism in Detroit in lieu of providing engineering solutions, putting forth nostalgic lament, or providing snap judgments.

One crucial aim of the book (to which I contributed an essay) was to avoid the rabbit hole of ruins theorizing, which has consumed too much time and attention. Here I take a stand for American exceptionalism. Whatever we have ruined in this country, we have ruined according to our own, exceptional designs, which are better understood on their native ground than in relation to other nation’s models, whether ancient or modern. It’s fugitive work, “stalking” the un-city, which reveals itself in transitory moments captured in this 12-year-old anthology, now out of print and listed for as much as $700 online, which suggests a nice little moral about Americans and souvenirs, our love of things after they are gone — to the point where we hasten their final departure in anticipation of the pleasure of mourning their loss.

I recall a treasured souvenir of my own, a locally produced guide to Detroit published in 1973, which might best be described as “funky,” using that term in a technical, period-specific sense. The cover sports a naked dude with a bushy ‘Fro, his body painted green, to mimic Marshall Fredericks’s bronze monument The Spirit of Detroit. On the back, there’s this savvy observation: “Detroit is a city that happens behind locked and unlocked doors. People hereabouts are always inside something — cars, offices, homes … It takes time and temerity to step through each and every portal and discover what Detroit has to offer.” 14 Historically correct: This is a city where the dream came true for more people than anywhere else on Planet Earth, and the principal fulfillment of that dream was a private home and a secure front door behind which to enjoy the life that is every American’s god-given due. 15 And when those homes come tumbling down, the release of energy is something terrible to witness, a Dresden of dreams incinerated in an existential fire-bombing of hope. The spectacle can be overpowering for anyone with the “temerity” to try accounting for Detroit, or for America.

Corine Vermeulen, “View from Pedestrian Bridge, Cochrane Street,” from Your Town Tomorrow (2007).

Who is up to the job of owning this place and all that has gone on here — heroic and otherwise? It has to be both or else the story is only partial and hence untrue. Ultimately, this is a question about the ways and means of storytelling itself. In Driving Detroit (2012), economist George Galster concedes, implicitly, that a singular story would be insufficient to the task. 16 He offers a knowing, scholarly pastiche seemingly inspired by David Shields’s Reality Hunger manifesto: “What actually happened is only raw material. What the writer makes of what happened is all that matters. … Never again will a single story be told as though it were only one.” 17 Galster provides a sampling of personal narrative and academic data, along with poetry and song lyrics and professorial analysis and official and unofficial texts of various registers, each testifying on the “reality” of Detroit, with the reader challenged to sift for meaning:

Thus, the region drove a Faustian bargain [with the automobile], and the devil now awaits payment. That’s OK, because Motown knows how to deal with the devil.

— Michigan license plate spotted on a car in Detroit, May 2010 18

Go figure is the conclusion apparently offered here, and maybe that is the point. Go figure.

It’s a tricky business, in other words, trying to tell the truth about this infuriating place. The waste of wealth and lives. How could we be so stupid?

        What commandment
was broken to bring God’s
wrath down on these streets,
what did we wrong, going
about our daily lives,
to work at all hours until
the work dried up,
then sitting home until home
became a curse
with the yellow light
of afternoon falling
with all the weight of final
judgment, I can’t say.

Lines by Philip Levine, former Detroiter and auto worker and last year’s poet laureate of these United States, from “A Walk With Thomas Jefferson,” which he has called his favorite poem, about a conversation with an imaginary African American, Thomas Jefferson, and the Detroit neighborhood where he lives:

        . … No one
owns any of this.
It’s condemned,
but the money for the execution
ran out years ago.

It’s a wondrous evocation of the un-city, and what it feels like to live inside this wrecked dream where so many are “condemned” to remain. But Levine’s point — a crucial insight — is that this is no simple wreck; it is a system working, cruelly and wastefully, and hopefully too, but a system nevertheless, carrying the city back into a past before there was a city, or into the future:

        sailing us all back
into the 16th century
or into the present age’s
final discovery. … 19

Levine achieves what great writing is capable of: he sees life steadily and he sees it whole. 20 But that was a quarter century ago; feelings lately have become more raw.

Made in Detroit (2005); Punching Out (2011); Detroit (A Biography) (2012); Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (2000); Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013); Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999); The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (2012); Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004).

What is being “imported from Detroit” — as the Chrysler commercials put it — is not just automobiles, but also a kind of witnessing that seems especially relevant now. Start with Paul Clemens’s memoir of growing up here, Made in Detroit (2005), and continue with his “eyewitness report” of “one year in a closing auto plant,” Punching Out (2011). 21 Clemens is a thoughtful writer, and his books share with other recent accounts a profound sense of betrayal. “This is what the abject collapse of an industrial society looks like,” Scott Martel writes, in Detroit (A Biography) (2012). 22 That abject spectacle is hard to take, and hard not to take personally, especially if you’re from here. Personal and immoderate is probably how best to describe Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013). There’s LeDuff on the front cover, a gangly not-so-new journalist, shades in place, head down, face frozen in a scowl (or maybe a lament), cigarette between his fingers, stars-and-stripes boots completing the look. A man with a story to tell, lots of stories in fact, the teller being the main character in all of them. And that becomes a solution to the problem of seeing Detroit, especially the abject parts, which are LeDuff’s beat:

Circling back to Detroit was instinct, like a salmon needing to swim upstream because he is genetically encoded to do so. Detroit might be the epicenter, a funhouse mirror and future projection of America. An incredibly depressed city in its death swoon. But it also could be a Candy Land from a reporter’s perspective. Decay. Mile after mile of rotten buildings, murder, leftover people. One fucking depressing, dysfunctional big glowing ball of color. One unbelievable story after another. 23

He’s dead right: this is “America’s city,” and I wouldn’t fault him for the vivid, pullulating hurt that courses through the book, or the native’s sense of insult. But I keep wanting to quote that line from The Godfather; it’s business, not personal. It’s all part of the greater design of the un-city working itself out.

But whatever happens here now, we’re all operating on the other side of a great divide — when the business of America made it necessary to write Detroit off. The great write-off began — where else? — on TV, in a 1990 episode of Primetime Live. 24 “Our first story is not a story about a city,” Diane Sawyer says, staring intently into the camera, “It’s a story about some Americans who may be sending a kind of warning to the rest of us.” She refers to the “bitter polarization” of race and class, compounded by violence and drugs: “We’re talking about Detroit. Once a symbol of U.S. competitive vitality. And some say still a symbol. A symbol of the future. The first urban domino to fall.” The rest of the program works to negotiate that domino theory of Detroit, off-loading the failure of the city to causes sufficiently local that they need not reflect on the rest of America as a general critique of our designer ideas and our divided society. In any case, by now it has become obvious, two decades on, that the warning of Detroit went largely unheeded. “We are only just beginning to grasp how far our country has deviated from our aspirations,” the economist and Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality (2012): “As the reality sinks in that we are no longer a country of opportunity and that even our long-vaunted rule of law and system of justice have been compromised, even our sense of national identity may be put into jeopardy.” 25 People in Detroit saw this coming a quarter century ago.

“Detroit’s Agony,” Primetime Live (1990).

The Primetime episode featured journalist Ze’ev Chafets, whose Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit (1990) deployed as narrative hook an annual outbreak of arson — Devil’s Night — on Halloween Eve. But how to account for that eruption of destructive energy? Chafets turns for explanation to Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor (1974-94): “Under him, Detroit has become not merely an American city that happens to have a black majority, but a black metropolis, the first major Third World city in the United States.” 26 Never mind whether Chafets’s conclusion is fair or not, or how he equates black with third world; I’m interested in his use of Coleman Young to localize a story about race and economics — to make it only about Detroit. And Primetime worked the same withering strategy, showing the mayor blustering profanely, bleeping obligingly into the camera, as if on cue. “In this country,” the mayor says, “Black people are victims of racism. It’s not accidental that the cities around the nation that have the largest percentage of blacks have the largest percentage of poverty and the largest percentage of crime and the largest percentage of unemployment.” But Young’s point goes lost on Primetime, in the rush to save “the rest of America” from the fate of the falling domino of Detroit.

The unsolved problem of race remains damningly apparent in America, but we pretend it’s something from the daguerreotype past; to do otherwise would mean owning up to the interrelation of race and capitalism and inequality that doesn’t accord with our treasured belief in the “better angels of our nature.” American studies scholar Suzanne E. Smith argues this point compellingly in Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (2000): “Ironically … it is the very appeal of [Motown] music and its continued marketability as a profitable commodity that creates the distance in the public’s mind between the music and the people, on the one hand, and circumstances that created it, on the other.” 27

The vexed and often misunderstood connections of class and race — and labor — are the subject of Beth Tomkins Bates’s The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (2012): “The road taken in Detroit helped point the way toward utilizing a labor-oriented civil rights agenda to challenge racism within the union movement as well as in the larger community.” 28 But the road pointed is not necessarily the one traveled all the way. Here, Sugrue is incisive: “Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality.” 29 That has long been the story of Detroit, and America. Still is.

Which is why historian Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004) resonates so powerfully. Boyle recounts the case of Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American physician who bought a house in an all-white neighborhood of Detroit in 1925. Sweet’s home was attacked, then shots were fired from inside the house, one white man was killed, another wounded, which led to a series of sensational trials, with Clarence Darrow leading the defense. It’s a compelling read. In the end, Dr. Sweet and the others were exonerated, but the story is nothing short of tragic. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of restrictive real estate covenants of the sort that impeded neighborhood integration, while Dr. Sweet’s wife and daughter died of tuberculosis they likely contracted in jail, along with his brother, Henry. Dr. Sweet’s own life fell apart; his declining fortunes compelled him to give up his house, and he ended his days back in the ghetto, in a walk-up apartment above a pharmacy, where he committed suicide, in 1960 — as Boyle reminds us, “just as the civil rights movement was about to sweep through the South.” 30

Julia Reyes Taubman, from Detroit: 138 Square Miles (2011).

How far have we come in the last century? In some ways, far indeed. We have elected an African American as President. But here in Detroit, I see the almost 60 percent of children who live in poverty, 31 and I want to shout, along with Charlie LeDuff: “[I]t is awful here, there is no other way to say it. But I believe that Detroit is America’s city.” 32 So I search for consolation and for understanding, and above all for method. How to see and not be undone by either the magnitude of the task, or by the difficulty of what is here to be seen? To anyone similarly afflicted, I recommend the work of anthropologist and race historian John Hartigan, whose Racial Situations (1999) is about the other minority of Detroit — white people — who now account for just over 10 percent of the population. 33 Hartigan lived among poor white folks and “hillbillies” to produce a study notable for its thoughtfulness and humanity, and invaluable for its insights into all that usually goes missing in academic considerations: “I have not marshaled the specificities of peoples’ daily lives to support a series of theoretical generalizations on race, but rather to develop the reader’s ear for how ‘race’ sounds in different sites.” Hartigan has a fine ear, and on behalf of what he hears, he urges a crucial point:

It is altogether too easy to move into generalizations about race; it is already hard enough to grasp the very particular circumstances and elements through which race continues to be culturally significant in this country. … What remains surprisingly hard to accept or remember is that there is very little abstract about [race] in the end, on the ground, in people’s lives. 34

We’re always abstracting this place, on behalf of one idea or another, or on behalf of the wish to believe in designer solutions as somehow exempt from historical cause and effect, as if it were all just a matter of seeing, of an angle of vision, and subject to correction.

Correcting our vision is what that old Primetime episode was about; looking back, it seems a clear point of origin for the cultural and artistic phenomenon of “ruin porn.” The term itself, possibly the creation of James Griffioen, 35 didn’t become current until recently, but the phenomenon was there, in 1990, when the forces responsible for ruin porn converged to produce what the writer George W. S. Trow has called “the context of no context,” which he ascribes to the advent of television: “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.” 36 That seems to me precisely the project of Primetime Live, and of ruin porn generally — to decontextualize the historical forces at work, so that Detroit’s collapse can be apprehended as a singular event.

“The Tragedy of Detroit,”Time (2009); The Ruins of Detroit (2011); Detroit Disassembled (2010).

Decontextualized gawking is the very essence of ruin porn, most notably in some recent BIG BOOKS which elevate the genre to a whole new level of coffee-table weightiness, literally. There is The Ruins of Detroit (2011), by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, two photographers associated with Time Magazine, which spent a much self-ballyhooed year chronicling, in the headline of one cover, “The Tragedy of Detroit.” 37 There is also Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled (2010), another large format collection, almost half a yard across, that adds up to … what? To a sublimity of self-importance that banishes whatever doesn’t submit to dis-assembly. In the depopulated images on its pages, episodic fragments are treated as the whole story, as if outmoded factories and abandoned houses required no further explanation. 38 In the Primetime interview, Mayor Young gave a straightforward explanation for the failure of his city: “Neighborhoods collapsed because half the goddam population left.” But the exurbanization of Detroit was in fact the overdetermined result of complex social and economic causes — again, and not least, unresolved structural racism — and it takes time to understand such things. In the overheated domain of ruin porn, visual urgency passes for insight, and the pornopticon is always demanding new sights to feed the decontextualizing machine.

And that is the point, finally: to place the wreck of Detroit within the context of no context so that design-driven acts of destruction are translated into matters of art appreciation and self-satisfied tut-tutting. (The photographic work is often gorgeous, if repetitive to the point of self-inflicting cliché.) It’s no accident that both BIG BOOKS are affiliated with art museums, and with what John Berger has referred to as institutional “mystification.” Ruin porn trades on Berger’s distinction between naked and nude. “To be naked is to be oneself,” he writes. “To be nude is to be seen as naked by others and yet not recognized as oneself.” 39 The naked complexity of America’s greatest design failure is translated into decontextualized nudes, suitable for museum walls and guilt-free ogling, unrelated to larger questions of historical consequence or shared responsibility.

There are exceptions, of course, notably Detroit: 138 Square Miles (2011), Julia Reyes Taubman’s photographic survey (for which I provided an introductory essay). 40 Here is the now-familiar devastation, but with a more suggestive mise-en-scène. For one thing, there are people in this world, and for another, Taubman is always pulling her camera back, to restore context, to show ruination as part of a larger, ongoing system. Beyond the ruin-porn frame, she reveals a whole metropolis in operation as it produces the un-city, from shining commercial towers to urban devastation. And any discussion of ruin porn would be incomplete without mention of Camilo José Vergara, godfather of the genre, although in fairness, his project has always been more about documenting than exploiting the ruin of America’s cities — not just Detroit — starting with The New American Ghetto (1995). 41 His sequenced photographs show an urban world in steady, seemingly planned ruination. To this end, his black-and-white images are especially powerful. They register — more precisely than any voluptuous color-saturated photograph — the feeling of first encounter with America’s ruined cities. For devastation on this scale, the only context we have, really, is war — think of Dresden or Hiroshima. And those horrors come back to us always in black-and-white because that is how they have been preserved on film, and thus in collective memory.

Julia Reyes Taubman, from Detroit: 138 Square Miles (2011).

Which brings us back home to Detropia, and its filmmakers’ ambition to make a statement about America. For all its respectful sensitivity and infill attempts at globalism, the film never finds a point of view sufficient to make from its disparate parts a genuine whole; the effect is like watching somebody else’s (beautifully photographed) home movie. Nice enough, but hard to care about, because the concerns of the people in the movie — the blogger, the performance artist, the union guy, the teacher/bar owner — are inextricably located in this now already too-familiar ruined-place. They are wholly owned parts of the set that is contemporary Detroit. A generation ago, Michael Moore’s Roger & Me (1989) could cover similar terrain — the economic devastation of a community, in this case Flint, Michigan — but also tell a larger story about the media-industrial complex and the depredations of global capital. Today the visual idiom of ruin porn has grown so powerful that it becomes the story, despite the efforts of Detropia’s creators to transcend the limitations. And now along comes Searching for Sugar Man (2012), the Academy Award-winning documentary about a local musician, Sixto Rodriguez, who unknowingly became a cultural hero in South Africa during the apartheid era. 42 Luckily for the filmmakers, the guy came from Detroit, with its now-established brand-authenticity, and the Cinderella narrative garners street cred simply by being set here. 43 But feel-good sympathy is not the same as hard-won understanding.

We see a more powerful use of Detroit in Curtis Hanson’s operatic 8 Mile (2002), starring Marshall Mathers, a.k.a. Eminem. 44 It’s a reverse romance: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, but along the way — thanks to Detroit — gains a purchase on his true voice. Finding an authentic voice for our experience is perhaps the most pressing problem we have now, in our media-saturated culture, and 8 Mile works to understand, as the best history does, who its characters are and where they come from and why they feel the way they do. One memorable sequence takes place in a premier venue on Detroit’s ruin-porn grand tour — the auditorium of the former Michigan Theater, a 1920s movie palace now converted to a parking garage, with the theater walls hacked away so haphazardly that shards of plaster ornaments litter the floor, yielding a scene that invites post-apocalyptic clichés. Hanson acknowledges the cliché only to defeat it, populating his ruin with the real cultural work that goes on here, in this case a rap stand-off between Eminem’s blue-collar Everyman and a corporate posse of race-baiting opportunists. What you get is neither the dead space of the ruin, nor some pristine restoration; instead, it’s a third space, an un-city, where destruction and creation are mutually dependent, the one producing the other.

Some of the very best work on Detroit shares this vision of the un-city as ongoing production. Scott Hocking’s assemblages re-purpose the detritus of urban ruination as raw materials for a new architecture — a towering ziggurat of wooden floor blocks assembled inside an abandoned auto factory; an outdoor pyramid of old tires; an enormous, sculptural egg made of marble shards left by scrappers, installed by Hocking in a derelict office tower hallway. Design failure feeds opportunity. And in Corine Vermeulen’s deeply humane photography, the city appears as a peripheral though still necessary character, its withdrawal creating the spaces where people now embark on the great urban un-making. In one photo a mother and child are shown in a high-summer field of tall grass, while at the edge of the frame we see the remains of a factory, its failure producing the agrarian tableaux in the foreground. Not that the un-city is always so benign. “Grow up in Detroit,” Jeffrey Eugenides writes in Middlesex (2002), “and you understand the way of all things. Early on, you are put on close relations with entropy.” 45 His novel is one of misrecognitions, of blindness and insight, knowing and otherwise, with Detroit as a character no less confused than the rest of the cast. It’s about the energy that leaks out of a place when dreams go there to die.

8 Mile (2002).

For a more realistic picture of what Detroiters deal with day to day, I recommend Mark Binelli’s account of people and places and history, Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis (2012). Now that the rest of America is catching up with the city, the time seems right for this exemplary anthology of witnessing:

Rather than relitigate the sins of the past, I hoped to discover something new about the city — specifically, what happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded. Who sticks around and tries to make things work again? And what sorts of newcomers are drawn to the place for similar reasons? These questions seemed particularly pertinent now that Detroit was no longer such a freakish outlier. 46

Binelli is a hometown guy and a fine writer, with a journalist’s keen eye for stories that get at the truth, not as abstract matters of data or sensationalized “true tales,” but as stories about people — himself included — living in the grip of forces that they understand and yet find unbelievable. He covers all the requisite topics. One chapter, for example, is titled “Murder City: Or, Just an Everyday Activity in Detroit.” What you get is not decontextualized sensation, but the kind of carefully constructed narrative that locates a terrible crime within a context both historical and personal, connecting individual horror (a murder and dismemberment) to a system — from streets to courts to history — that is terrible precisely because it is intelligible, as “everyday” part of the city:

As evidentiary detail accrued, the circumstances leading up to the murder and its subsequent unraveling acquired both a depressing banality and a sense of doom as foreordained as Greek tragedy — here taking the form of an urban pathology so deep-rooted and inescapable it came to feel conspiratorial, a form of predestination. 47

What distinguishes Binelli’s writing is his ability to make that story real, in human terms, and to restore to acts that seem the product of some preordained design those moments of individual choice, when things might have gone otherwise, all of which gives this story immediacy and tragic power.

Corine Vermeulen, “Skyline with Renaissance Center,” from Your Town Tomorrow (2007).

Perhaps the most important question posed by Detroit, finally, is the question of access. Because the rest of the country has spent so much time viewing this city, and reading and writing about it, people looking in feel they’ve earned certain rights. The city ought to be transparent — much like so many of the buildings here have become literally transparent, ruins no longer capable of defending their interiors from weather or scrappers or camera crews. It’s easy to snatch off a piece, and think you’ve got the whole of it. But that would be a mistake. When America happens to a place, Detroit is the result, all of it, hard-scrabble urban core and suburban millionaire enclaves and everything in between. No piecemeal souveniring will suffice, although the temptation to grab something and go is understandable, just like the urge to disown whatever is inside each of us that makes Detroit so irresistible, and so frightfully recognizable:

                        — it’ll scare the fuck out of you, is what it’ll do,
anthropomorphically scaled down by the ferocity of its own
obsolescence. Which of an infinity of reasons explain it?
Which of an infinity of conflagrations implode its destruction? 48

That’s Lawrence Joseph, from his poem, “Here in a State of Tectonic Tension” (2012), and that is the dilemma, finally. How to deny the easy access route, into and back out of Detroit, because that’s no way to understand what it all means. It will scare the fuck out of you, because it’s who we are.

“Ain’t nobody relaxed, seeing this place,” a hotel doorman advises the main character in a short story by Charles Baxter, “Buy some postcards, you want sights. This place ain’t built for tourists and amateurs.” It’s a marvelous story, funny and serious and aptly titled, “The Disappeared.” 49 In it, Baxter recounts the adventures of a Swedish engineer, Anders, an expert in rust, who has come to Detroit to pitch a consultancy that might end up making him a lot of money, “But the money meant little to him. It was America he was curious about, attracted by, especially its colorful disorderliness.” In this domain of disorder, Anders hopes to sleep with an American woman, and he gets his wish with a member of The Church of the Millennium, “Where they preach the Gospel of Last Things.” (So much of our identity here — in Detroit and in this country — is the result of religion, particularly its evangelical branches, yet so little of that experience shows up in our official accounts of ourselves and our un-city upon a hill.) The woman points to some abandoned buildings, “What face is moving behind all that?” she asks Anders, rhetorically. “Something is. I live and work here. I’m not blind. Anyone can see what’s taking place here. You’re not blind either.” The story is about a touristic Everyman owning up to what he finds here, and finally being owned by it. And that is the goal of the best work about Detroit — to discover what face is moving behind it all, to see it for what it is, and not to let fear turn us away or blindness reduce the enormity to opportunistic souvenirs. Thank goodness we can’t seem to let go. It’s a failure that just might save us.

50 Cent, “My Life” (2012).


“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” 
— William Gibson (probably) 50

Walter Benjamin had been at work on his arcades project, the Passagen-Werk, for about as long, when he died, as I’ve been working on my book about Detroit — 13 years, give or take. What started for him as a 50-page essay burgeoned into a never-finished manuscript over a thousand pages long by the time it finally saw publication. I’ve been burgeoning too, although I’m still a little shy of a thousand pages, and I think I know what Benjamin must have felt, believing he had discovered in the mundane equipment of commerce — the Paris arcades of the 19th century — a compendium for understanding everything. Susan Buck-Morss quotes Benjamin here: “The ‘ever more puzzling, more intrusive face’ of the project, ‘howling like some small beastie in my nights whenever I haven’t let it drink from the most remote sources during the day,’ did not let its author off so easily.” 51

I feel the same, about Detroit. The city is, like those arcades, a passage from what we were to what we have become. And the beast must be watered. No matter how remote the source, everything begins to be about Detroit, and therefore crucial. I feel compelled to get it all in because I won’t know what any of it means — being an American — until I can work it out here, in this most representative place of all.

And just when I think I’m done, something wonderful always happens, because that’s how Detroit works. I turn in my review, and my editor, Josh, sends suggestions for revision, along with this postscript:

And I have one more for you to consider: “My Life,” the new 50 Cent single, featuring Eminem and Adam Levine. You’ve got design and cars (Limited Edition Chrysler 300 by fashion designer John Varvatos, whose logotype is shown more than once). You’ve got 50 Cent driving in circles in Michigan Central Station (ruin porn). You’ve got the terrible Adam Levine refrain (“There’s no place to go”) which gives it a weirdly recursive, circular feel, played against Eminem’s dazzling verse about being trapped (“spaghetti, or should I say spa-get-even”). You’ve got 50 Cent literally boxing backwards as he says “I’m a fighter, entrepreneur.” You’ve got the prominent lyric about “recovery,” which is used in a personal sense, but carries obvious echoes of economic recovery. You’ve got the helicopter / spotlight of fame / disaster rescue vehicle / government bailout / symbol of omnipresent police state. It’s hard for me to see 50 Cent driving a custom Chrysler, rapping “sold like 40 million records; people forgot what I did,” and not think about the history of the automobile industry and Detroit and your thesis about returning to the city only to obsess about everything that went wrong.

See what I mean? Obviously, this has to go in. I’m a lucky guy, being from Detroit; the whole of America converges here.

Editors' Note

For related content on Places, see also Borderland/Borderama/DetroitThe Forgetting Machine, and The Last Pedestrians, by Jerry Herron; Living with Mies: The Towers at Lafayette Park, by Placement, and Lafayette Park: Living in Ordered Exhibition, by Melissa Dittmer; Detroit Re-Photography and Detroit, As Is, by Dave Jordano and Aaron Rothman; The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit, by Andrew Herscher; Writing on the Wall, by David Clements and Douglas Haller; and Detroit: Syncopating an Urban Landscape, by Dan Pitera.

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, “Fortnight in the Wilderness,” from George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996), 244.
  2. Dan Goergakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, a Study in Urban Revolution (New York: St. Martins Press, 1975), 1.
  3. Detroit Free Press, 3 March 2013, 1A. The headline refers to the filming of Oz the Great and Powerful at Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac, a suburb north of Detroit. It makes a suggestive match with the headline above it — “It’s Not About Detroit’s Budget … It’s About Detroiters’ Lives” — a story about the life-endangering decline of city services and the governor’s appointment of an emergency financial manager for Detroit.
  4. Katharine Q. Seelye, “New Census Figures on Detroit Reveal a Grim Pattern of Flight,” New York Times, March 23, 2011 A 1.
  5. James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Touchstone, 1993), 196.
  6. See Philip Fisher, Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 33-55.
  7. Mark Binelli, Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012), 3.
  8. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 271.
  9. Detropia, directed and produced by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Loki Films, 2012.
  10. David Denby, “Good Fights,” The New Yorker, 10 Sept. 2012, 108.
  11. Julie Hinds, “’Detropia’ Offers Lessons for All U.S. Cities,” Detroit Free Press, 20 Jan. 2012, 10A. (1A, 10 A).
  12. Andrew Herscher, The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit (Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2012), 14.
  13. Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim and Jason Young, editors, Stalking Detroit (Barcelona: Actar, 2001), 11-12.
  14. Martin Fischhoff, editor, Detroit: A Young Guide to the City, fourth edition (Detroit: Speedball Publications, 1973), back cover.
  15. Stalking Detroit notes that in the 1990s, Detroit had the largest percentage of single-family homes of any city in the United States, 15.
  16. George Galster, Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City (Philadelphia: Univ of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 281.
  17. David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010), entries 615 and 617.
  18. Galster, 281.
  19. Philip Levine, “A Walk With Thomas Jefferson,” from A Walk With Thomas Jefferson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 50-51, 60.
  20. The phrase is Matthew Arnold’s, from “To a Friend,” 1849.
  21. Paul Clemens, Made In Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir (New York: Doubleday, 2005), and Punching Out (New York: Doubleday, 2011).
  22. Scott Martel, Detroit (A Biography) (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012), xii.
  23. Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), 19.
  24. “Detroit’s Agony,” Primetime Live, ABC News, 8 Nov. 1990.
  25. Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), xii, xxi.
  26. Ze’ev Chafets, Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit (New York: Random House, 1990), 177.
  27. Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 249.
  28. Beth Thompkins Bates, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2012), 10.
  29. Sugrue, 5.
  30. Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004), 346.
  31. State of the Detroit Child 2012,” Data Driven Detroit, January 2013.
  32. LeDuff, 4.
  33. 2010 U.S. Census.
  34. John Hartigan, Jr., Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999), 282.
  35. Thomas Morton, “Something, Something, Something, Detroit: Lazy Journalists Love Pictures of Abandoned Stuff,” Vice.
  36. George W. S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context (New Your: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1980), 82.
  37. Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, The Ruins of Detroit (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2010); Time Magazine, Oct. 5, 2009.
  38. Andrew Moore, Detroit Disassembled (Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum, 2010).
  39. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 11, 54.
  40. Julie Taubman, Detroit: 138 Square Miles (Detroit: Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, 2011.
  41. Camilo José Vergara, The New American Ghetto (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1995).
  42. Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, Sony Pictures, 2012
  43. See, for comparison, Mark Binelli, “’I Came to See the End of the World,’” The New York Times Magazine, 11 Nov. 2012, 58.
  44. 8 Mile, directed by Curtis Hanson, Universal Pictures, 2002.
  45. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002), 517.
  46. Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, 13.
  47. Binelli, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, 209-10.
  48. Lawrence Joseph, “Here in a State of Tectonic Tension,” London Review of Books, 34.22, 22 Nov. 2012, 38.
  49. Charles Baxter, “The Disappeared,” A Relative Stranger (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1990), 162, 164, 169.
  50. Pagan Kennedy, “Rewiring Reality,” New York Times, January 15, 2012, 8. (pp. 1, 8) Gibson is not sure he actually said this, but probably did. At least it seems as if he might have.
  51. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 5.
Jerry Herron, “Motor City Breakdown,” Places Journal, April 2013. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 04.24.2013 at 20:24

    dismantling Detroit's history

  • 04.27.2013 at 17:58

    Dear Professor Jerry Herron,

    Thank you for your insightful article. Yes, the design problem of Detroit is indicative of a larger disease that has now infected many areas of the world.

    Having been born in Detroit and have watched it grow and transform from the early fifties to the present I have witnessed its sad transformation.

    My great uncle who graduated from the University of Michigan in 1912 and worked as a structural engineer on many of the large building projects that made Detroit the Paris of the Midwest was an observer. His tales of the city rising, of the trips to Canada during Prohibition to purchase liquor, and of the exploits and adventures of the wealthy and notable were both entertaining and enlightening. He also lived across the street from the Manoogian Mansion, the home of the major. His accounts of the parties and the high life of the rein of Coleman Young and other raiders of the Detroit City coffers would fill another book of many pages.

    Detroit's problem was that everyone took. Very few ever gave back. The high paid auto executives moved out of the city to the leafy suburbs of Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield hills taking their tax dollars and discretionary income with them. The elected officials used the city's finances as a personal ATM machine. The unions used the autoworkers to build their own power, prominence, and mansions. It was excessive and pervasive. The city was raped and pillaged. Under such an onslaught the health of the city and that of its inhabitants was unsustainable. Man is the design problem. Greed, fraud, and corruption are the disease.