Decline and Fall
The classic text on ruins is Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completed during the last decades of the 18th century, when the English were cultivating a special interest in historical empires that their own advancing empire might yet surpass — a compensatory preoccupation brought on by the recent loss of the American colonies. Toward the end of his massive opus, Gibbon contemplates what it would have been like to “discover” Rome in that late medieval moment when the great metropolis was first appreciated as a ruin. Here, in a passage of vicarious self-reflection, he imagines the 14th-century poet Petrarch encountering the city:
When Petrarch first gratified his eyes with a view of those monuments whose scattered fragments so far surpass the most eloquent descriptions, he was astonished at the supine indifference of the Romans themselves; he was humbled rather than elated by the discovery that … a stranger of the Rhône [i.e., Petrarch himself] was more conversant with these antiquities than the nobles and natives of the metropolis. 1
It might seem self-aggrandizing to say that the post-industrial and post-millennial metropolis of Detroit works in much the same way; but it does. I can think of no other American city that feels at once familiar historically, and also alien. Familiar because this is the place where the life we all live — cars, strip malls, shopping centers, freeways, exurbia — was invented; alien because nobody here seems bothered that so many recognizable signs of wealth and culture — things that really matter elsewhere — have been so thoroughly abandoned, as if they had suddenly lost all meaning.
I feel like Gibbon’s Petrarch, then: astonished at the seeming indifference of the local citizenry to Detroit’s monumental fragments, humbled at the discovery that after 30 years in the city I seem to know more about its crumbling relics than the natives do — many of them, at least. But these are not ruins from some distant age; they are distinctly mine; and I find it hard to recover Gibbon’s hearty self-satisfaction at the “supine indifference” of Roman natives. Here in Detroit, the city has been ruined by the same people who still inhabit it. So the question is, who understands better what the place really means: the person who tries to remember it, or the one who lets it go?
Capital of the 20th Century
There is no culture — for lack of a better word — no context of public memory and social expectation that would bind together all that the city contains. What does it add up to, all this abandonment of lives and buildings, neighborhoods and property? It doesn’t seem to add up to anything, other than the decontextualized spectacle itself and the demographic souvenir-hunting opportunities it provides. This city is never coming back; whatever happens next will be without urban precedent because the context of city no longer applies in this place where history has finally run out. And so the reason we come to Detroit — immigrants, tourists, artists, journalists alike — is to engage a fantasy about how we can always walk away from the past, from the now blown promise of an erstwhile prosperity that was once made real for generations of Americans. There’s probably not a better place in this country, maybe in the world, for this kind of work.
Consider a recent issue of Harper’s, which features an image and excerpt, titled “Eulogy: Nobody’s Detroit,” from one of the latest limited-edition exercises in dystopia, Detroit Disassembled, a collection of photographs by Andrew Moore with an introduction by the Detroit-born Philip Levine, now poet laureate of these United States. I find myself thinking of Marx on Hegel, his famous statement that “all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” 2 A tragedy of world-historical proportions has occurred here in Detroit; and now it is being reproduced, in personal anecdotes and news stories, in books and films, and above all in those now clichéd photographs of rot, dereliction and decay. All of which is perhaps not exactly farce (although there is surely something farcical about the putative bravery of all those on-site observers and their sententious discoveries: I’m so bad, I party in Detroit! the images seem to say, just like the slogan from one of my favorite t-shirts). Instead of farce, our historic tragedy is being turned into art; which is precisely why the ex-pat poet has been coaxed into talking about photographs of a city he hasn’t lived in for more than half a century. But I’ll give him this much; in his introduction to Detroit Disassembled, Levine gets one thing exactly right:
What we see taking place in [these] photographs is no doubt happening everywhere, but it would appear that in Detroit the process has such extraordinary velocity it seems to have stepped out of time to become the sole condition of being.
Images stepped out of time, that’s what turns tragedy into art. The poet continues:
These photographs are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen: their calm in the face of the ravages of man and nature confer an unexpected dignity upon the subjects of his camera, the very dignity I had assumed daily life had robbed them of. 3
So things once tragic become beautiful — images for artistic appreciation — with the ravages of daily life being redeemed by photographic dignity. That’s what art can do: it transforms this Everyman’s catastrophe into “Nobody’s Detroit,” as the Harper’s subtitle puts it — an object for aesthetic contemplation, like the Grand Canyon or a summer sunset.
The latest big books on Detroit — not just Moore’s Detroit Disassembled but also Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s The Ruins of Detroit — are pricey ($50 and $125 respectively, with Moore’s book available in its special limited edition for $750); they are also the products of collaborations with art institutions, which is perhaps more indicative of the transformation now underway. The photographs from The Ruins of Detroit were exhibited at the Gun Gallery in Stockholm, among other venues; Detroit Disassembled was the subject of an exhibition at the Akron Art Museum. I saw the Akron show, and it was truly amazing, transformative even. Moore’s images were blown up to old masters’ scale, mounted and lit as if we were being presented with the canvases of Rembrandt or Velasquez. Moore uses a large-format camera, and he stalks the usual “ruin porn” 4 sites — abandoned theaters and churches and schools, derelict houses, collapsed industrial buildings — but never have I seen work quite like this, whether in his book, or on the museum walls. “I’m not just photographing derelict buildings,” Moore told an interviewer from the Detroit News, “I’m looking for beauty and their poetic, or metaphorical, meaning.” 5 I’d say that just about sums things up.
And that’s where the crucial transformation happens, with the museum conferring the status of art upon work that might otherwise be construed as photo-journalistic documentary. John Berger has referred to this process as “mystification.”
Fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. Cultural mystification of the past entails a double loss. Works of art are made unnecessarily remote. And the past offers us fewer conclusions to complete in action. 6
That is precisely the point of Moore’s work — to mystify into “poetic” inconsequence and remoteness the past that is represented by Detroit, and along with it the conclusions we might draw as a result. Those otherwise troubling conclusions, and the actions that might follow from them — actions undertaken in the name of shared responsibility — are now translated into matters of taste and technique. A sense of “bogus religiosity,” to use another of Berger’s terms, pervades the images; action is foreclosed, except for the connoisseur-like contemplations of the solitary spectator, who is freed to look at the worst, without any necessity of further exertion. The “naked” facts of Detroit, in all their frightening and accusatory detail, are turned into museum-piece “nudes,” spot-lit on the gallery walls; they’re titillating perhaps, but also unreal, just like a centerfold image is unreal; and the more gorgeous, the better. 7
The same can be said for The Ruins of Detroit, a compilation of large-format photographs taken by Marchand and Meffre, who were associated with the team of reporters from Time magazine that spent a well-publicized year in Detroit. 8 This is a heavy piece of work, in every sense, weighing in at almost seven pounds — at least according to my bathroom scale — and containing enough gloomy images to turn the most ebullient booster into a post-apocalyptic nihilist. There’s an appropriate introduction by historian Thomas Sugrue — author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis 9 — outlining the relevant facts about the city’s industrial decline. As Marchand and Meffre write: “True ‘capital of the twentieth century,’ Detroit has literally created, produced and manufactured our modern world, creating a logic that has eventually annihilated, destroyed the city itself.” These guys get it, I thought.
But then I started looking at the photographs, which so completely contradict the insight of that opening statement. The images fail to capture the complex logic that links creation and destruction necessarily together — in Detroit and in America. Marchand and Meffre reduce everything they encounter to a dead zone of already-seen sights; they deploy a visual idiom that has all the wit and insight of a post-mortem Polaroid, with the same dismal color palette, and the now-to-be expected prohibition against any human being ever entering the frame. Why have these photographers settled for so much less than their own introductory statement might lead you to expect? Perhaps the cliché-propagating idiom of ruin porn is so powerful that it simply takes over, duping otherwise intelligent artists into a tedious banality that not even the volume’s pretentious scale and price can conceal.
“We don’t sell ink here anymore”
At so many now-familiar ruins — the Michigan Central Station, the Packard Motors Plant and Fisher Body Plant No. 21, the jazz-age United Artists Theater, the American Hotel, the Grande Ballroom, the Lee Plaza Hotel, the Vanity Ballroom, the Metropolitan Building, the libraries and schools and churches, etc. etc. — the photogenic decline and fall of the Michigan Empire has been captured by countless observers. Less well known — perhaps because less represented in the archives of ruin porn — but no less monumental in scale and consequence, is the now-demolished headquarters of the J. L. Hudson Company. Joseph Lowthian Hudson was an immigrant from Newcastle-upon-Tyne who became Detroit’s premier upscale retailer in the early 20th century. Hudson’s flagship department store, located at the center of Detroit, on Woodward Avenue, was among the largest in the country — 28 stories, plus four basements, comprising 2.2 million square feet of interior floor space. Completed in stages between 1924 and 1929 under the architectural supervision of Smith, Hinchman and Grylls, the store had 5,000 windows, 700 dressing rooms and 50 passenger elevators, each with its own white-gloved attendant. At its height in the 1950s, Hudson’s employed a staff of 12,000. Only Macy’s in New York City was bigger.
The building was no architectural masterwork; it expanded piecemeal over the years, annexing adjacent structures into an ungainly agglomeration clad in dull red brick. When it comes to commercial signifying, Hudson’s lacked the grandeur and pretension of early 20th-century retail palaces like Marshall Field’s or John Wanamakers or B. Altman and Co. For all its attempts at elegance, the classical flourishes and Beaux Arts details, Hudson’s was an efficient and practical undertaking — much like Detroit itself — a machine for making money, which it did, for over half a century, with sales peaking in 1954 at $155 million ($1.26 billion in 2011 dollars). At which point the J.L. Hudson Company, like other retailers, began developing suburban alternatives to its emporium on Woodward Avenue.
In the first decades of the new millennium it seems clear that the best years of our American lives were precisely when the mechanisms for abandoning our cities were being put in place. The boom years that followed World War II saw the construction of the Interstate highway system, the promotion of suburban single-family housing construction by the Federal Housing Administration, the dispersal of services, commerce, entertainment and eventually jobs to the ever-expanding exurban ring. And it all seemed to happen so rapidly, the result of convergent forces operating so efficiently you’d think there was some kind of deep design at the bottom of things. After a half-century of cultural and economic dominance, Hudson’s, and downtown Detroit along with it, plunged into sharp decline. By the time the flagship store was closed, in January 1983, the company had been reduced to a chain of suburban mall clones, owned since the late ’60s by the Dayton Company, of Minneapolis, all traces of local origin to be erased by corporate ersatz.
People in Detroit still talk about Hudson’s as a retail institution, but they give little thought to the actual old building, which became a gutted, vandalized wreck, and no less irrelevant than Michigan Central Station. Both are rightly understood as monuments for a disappeared history: the train station because nobody here seems to bother much about the ruin that still remains; Hudson’s because everybody claims to remember so fondly the building that’s no longer there. But what people remember is not exactly historical reality; instead, the memory of Hudson’s has become a kind of screen upon which we can replay an idealized past — a past without any of the problems that made the utopian promise of suburbia seem worth abandoning the city to fulfill. Consider one of the customer reviews, on Amazon, for a recent photo collection, Hudson’s: Detroit’s Legendary Department Store:
Anyone who shopped in Detroit’s once bustling downtown Woodward corridor should have this book. Starting in the 1930s my grandmother would take the bus downtown at least once a week to shop at Hudson’s and the surrounding stores. As a young girl in the mid 1960s, I occasionally traveled with her and some of my earliest and fondest memories are of wandering around the upper 12 floors and two basement levels of merchandise. You would drop your coats off on the forth [sic] floor, have lunch on the mezzanine or perhaps the basement cafeteria, shop all afternoon, catch an early dinner at the Riverview room on the 13th floor and then head home with your purchases shipped to your home within a day or two. It was truly an experience that no mall today can come close to. … I cried the day the store was demolished and I am sure that Grandma was rolling in her grave. 10
The review is titled “Memories of a true shopping experience!” Nostalgia, of course, is just a higher form of forgetting. Hudson’s failed because it ceased to attract shoppers; Grandma notwithstanding, the customers were at the mall.
My first visit to Hudson’s was in 1982, soon after I’d accepted a job in Detroit. I arrived by plane from New York City, rented a car at Metro Airport, and drove downtown to look for a place to live. I settled on an apartment on Washington Boulevard, and the building manager informed me enthusiastically that we were just around the corner from Hudson’s! So I walked over to take a look. I found a forlorn place that could have been the stage set for a period movie, all the elements of commercial presumption intact, though threadbare. What was missing was the cast; on the higher floors, I seemed to be walking through the aisles alone. In the stationery department, I looked at fountain pens, some costing hundreds of dollars. I thought I would buy a bottle of ink, my own pen having gone dry. “We don’t sell ink here any more,” the exquisitely polite clerk explained.
And the story was pretty much the same in all the last-vestige establishments I would visit in my early years in Detroit: restaurants and movie palaces, clubs and exclusive men’s stores. The apparatus of city life was there, but none of it was fully operational — like those expensive fountain pens that nobody was expected to buy, so that ink had become superfluous. What had once been a viable, commercial downtown — “bustling,” as the Amazon customer remembered — had tuned into something else entirely, something spectral and forlorn.
“A city within itself” is how many of the early 20th-century department stores were described, and the comparison is apt. Hudson’s, at its height in the mid-1950s, served 100,000 customers per day; the store boasted its own telephone exchange, with the third largest switchboard in the United States, exceeded in size only by the Pentagon and the Bell System. 11 And like the city, Hudson’s had a necessary purpose — to teach people how to live in society. J. L. Hudson ascribed to a calling higher than mere commerce, and he communicated this in “The Hudson’s Creed,” which his employees were expected to espouse:
My faith is not alone a faith in the store, the organization — it’s a faith in the ideals of men, those who are responsible for this great house of industry. And so I stand, inspired with the blazing truth that I am taking an active part in building, through honest effort, one of the greatest institutions in this broad country — Hudson’s Detroit. 12
The great department stores, and their owners, came naturally by the evangelizing mission. The making of shoppers, like the making of citizens, was an essential function of both store and city, especially the city of middle-class arrivals made possible by the flourishing of modern industry. In Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, Jan Whitaker observes:
No longer primarily a purveyor of basic necessities, and by now a venerable and trusted establishment in a rapidly changing society, [the department store] took on a larger role as arbiter of middle-class taste and lifestyles. From the 1920s into the 1960s, stores exercised an almost moral authority to define in material terms what it was to live as a middle-class American. They poured creative energy into encouraging Americans to “trade up,” to demand a higher standard of living. Marshaling their enormous promotional resources, they expanded their entertainment and educative roles. They broadened services, upgraded buildings. They emphasized style as never before. In short, department stores deployed their skills in interpreting and managing the symbolic significance of the goods they sold. 13
The mission of the department stores, with their encyclopedic arrays of “departments” (Hudson’s had 200), was city-like: their goal was to teach people how to be together in an unprecedented condition of plenty and upward striving. The well-articulated “stories” of the great emporia told a compelling narrative of desire, with an infrastructure that mirrored the cities they proudly represented. But the pedagogy of these grand establishments had a perhaps unanticipated outcome. In Detroit, J.L. Hudson’s taught its lessons so effectively that citizen-shoppers quickly graduated and were ready to set out for the suburban malls, effectively forgetting how to remember that they had ever needed the department store — or the city — to send them on their way.
In 1996, a newly elected city government identified as one of its first objectives the demolition of the abandoned and vandalized Hudson’s on Woodward Avenue. If anything different was ever to happen downtown, the feeling was, that place had to go. As soon as the decision was announced, the nostalgia industry shifted into overdrive. The Detroit Historical Museum mounted a semi-permanent display of Hudson’s memorabilia; a documentary aired repeatedly on local public television. The city newspapers created special series dedicated to reminiscences about Hudson’s (they were already running weekly columns focused on recollections of bygone neighborhoods and vintage cars). And in a surprising twist, the company hired to demolish Hudson’s pioneered a new and distinctively American form of urban archaeology. Because of the building’s age, and because no accurate architectural plans existed of the five structures and thirteen construction types incorporated in Hudson’s expansion over the decades, the demolition team determined that a thorough excavation was required — not to preserve the past, but to destroy it completely, in the most rational and efficient way possible. So one evening in October 1998, the mayor of Detroit pushed the button that set off the explosive charges, and Hudson’s, once the tallest department store in America, became the tallest building ever to be imploded. The enormous structure collapsed in a vast cloud of dust that enveloped the whole of downtown, darkening the sky in a Pompeiian gloom.
You can read the history of Detroit as a history of what philosophers have called the eternal return. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera created a masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he struggles to grasp this phenomenon; he speculates on the loss represented by an understanding of time that is content to abandon — to forget — the past.
Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia. … This … reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted. 14
In Detroit there is one place where the eternal return seems especially palpable, and also a little frightening, which is to be expected of a site where the past is undead, where it is neither thematized nostalgically nor banished outright. I’m thinking, of course, of the Michigan Theater, the great jazz age movie palace created by the architects C.W. and George L. Rapp, or what’s left of it these days: the theater was shut in the mid-1970s and partly demolished and gutted and converted into a parking garage. In an earlier essay published in Places, I quoted a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, who exclaimed upon the building’s opening in 1926: “It is beyond the human dreams of loveliness.” I left out the next part of the review: “Entering it, you pass into another world.” 15
Entering the Michigan Theater today, you do indeed feel as if you’re passing into another world, as if you’re drifting through the sunken Titanic, or the fanciful dungeons of Piranesi. After the downtown movie palaces went dark in the 1970s and began their inexorable slide into dereliction (which efforts to turn them into blaxploitation venues or X-rated cinemas did little to halt), the Michigan’s owners hacked away at the lobby and main auditorium, installing a parking garage under the proscenium arches in the space that once accommodated 4,000 moviegoers.
But the crude and hasty retrofit left many of the decorative elements intact, allowing the interior, “the heavily carved and ornamented walls,” to decay, along with the tattered velvet curtain that is still hanging, and disintegrating, behind the old proscenium. 16 Plaster fragments and withered carpet strips litter the floors, and daylight filters in through holes punched in the walls, bathing the interior in a half-lit gloom. It’s an extraordinary spectacle — as countless photographers, professionals and amateurs alike, have been quick to realize, and a few filmmakers too, notably the director Curtis Hanson, who set a crucial scene of 8 Mile, with Eminem, in the theater.
The old Michigan Theater is one of the most suggestive sights in the whole city of Detroit: neither an abandoned ruin nor a precious, restored fetish, but a working statement about making do with the past. The tenants of the offices adjacent to the theater threatened to move out unless they were provided with secure parking, so that’s what the landlord improvised out of the otherwise useless auditorium. And that is the genius of the place. One can only marvel at the dramatic parable being enacted by the current occupants — the returnees — who drive in and out of the vast space, past the former ticket booth, brought daily into conversation with the past, and what our desires have made of it: the desire to ride Henry Ford’s cars out of town, onward to a better life that lay, we imagined, beyond the city. But still the city is here, outmoded and abandoned but necessarily returned to, that contradictory fact of life rendered in an architectural colloquy so extraordinary it cannot help but be felt.
The truth I’m trying to present is one about site-specific forgetting. If our history is a history of forgetting how to remember the past, as I am arguing, then the city of Detroit is the engine of our conflicted deliverance. It’s the machinery we’ve used for particular acts of forgetting, each connected to the place and time where the forgetting got done.
This is a history created by serial default. Nobody really planned the ends — the ruins — of these buildings, any more than they planned Detroit, or America for that matter, despite our dedication to continental-scale projects, beginning with the Declaration of Independence and moving through Manifest Destiny and continuing with the Urban Renewal programs that destroyed America’s cities. We’ve all had a hand in our collective making, and now we’ll have to live with the consequences, not the least of which is our ignorance about the origin of things, so that we stand stupefied or angry or fascinated — camera at the ready —before the monuments to ruination.
But the improvisation of the Michigan Theater is powerful because it doesn’t remove people from the city; on the contrary, it involves them dramatically in the production of their own situation. The ruin of urban space becomes a participatory drama: memory versus forgetting, the city dead or the city alive. The trick is seeing both at once, and comprehending them as equally true and mutually implicated.
Adding a special resonance to the history of the old theater is the fact that it was on this very spot — then 58 Bagley Avenue — where Henry Ford lived when he was a hired workman at the Edison Illuminating Plant, two blocks over, on Washington Boulevard. In the 1890s Ford rented part of a house on the site, along with a shed out back, and right there, in the spring of 1896, he built his first horseless carriage — the “Quadricycle,” he called it. His gasoline-powered contraption turned out to be wider than the door he had to push it through to take a test drive, so to get the machine outside, he was forced to knock out part of a wall. And so you might say that for more than century automobiles have been repeating that originary gesture, returning to the act of demolition that attended their birth. Just look at what they’ve done to the Michigan Theater; and to the rest of Detroit. And what this realization yields — provided it is lived from the inside rather than gawked at from afar — is something much less creepy and off-putting than the aesthetic rot sold in large-format photography books. The Michigan Theater offers a way of thinking about the past that is historically inflected, human-scaled and sustainable and — most improbably — hopeful. What it offers is a new ecology of hope, with the city of Detroit as its monumental basis.