Sunday, November 14, 2010

Deserting Detroit

i have a whole new outlook on the life & death of American cities now, after spending 4 days in downtown Detroit. so much has been written about the ruined core of this once-great city, and i knew i would be impressed by the grand, though largely abandoned, architecture.

i didn't realize HOW deserted Detroit really is...notice the empty street...this is a normal weekday morning downtown! i expected the vast empty buildings to be colonized by squats, by artists, by anyone needing room to breathe and work.
but strangely, in Detroit, that isn't the case. nearly half a century after the worst riots occurred, long after the manufacturing & auto jobs were packed up and shipped overseas, the city of Detroit remains a ghost-town, seemingly incapable of a new start. maybe it's the violence (but New Orleans is violent, yet its soul somehow survives tragedy after tragedy.) maybe Detroit's soul left sometime in the 70s, leaving beautiful empty skyscrapers behind, like this one below, where one mysterious light glowed in a room beneath the roof, night after night...

i spoke with some great people in Detroit. bartenders and arts workers and academics who are fighting the good fight to make Detroit honour its heritage. they told me stories of two heritage skyscrapers--one now demolished, the other well on its way to collapse--where the landlords consciously forced out their successful tenants by refusing to heat & maintain their buildings. an empty lot is worth more in this city--or at least, the empty lot might be worth something in the future, and the real estate mavens are simply going to dig in their heels and wait. meanwhile, the streets seem empty even of ghosts, most nights.

where other cities have found that artists are a powerful positive force in urban renewal, Detroit's powers-that-be don't seem to be interested in that route.

But there is a bit of good news, slim but shining. Detroit has forward-looking people, inspired by its intense history, with a peculiar potential to reimagine what a city should look like. one of the most interesting thinkers on this prospect is John Gallagher, who quotes the Japanese poet Masahide: "Barn's burnt down / now / I can see the moon."

the time is long overdue for politicians & planners to see that moon, and put their backs to the wheel in Detroit. they should spend some time at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, in front of Diego Rivera's inspiring mural about labour: Detroit Industry.