Everyone’s in love with Detroit. Why is that? It’s the Bangladesh of 2013. Where’s George Harrison when we need him?
To talk about Detroit, one has to first offer evidence of street cred. I never lived in Detroit, I lived in Southfield, what was then a white working class suburb and now is home to Detroit’s former Black middle class. My father owned a Ben Franklin store on 7 Mile Road, just down the road from the Eminem’s famous 8 Mile Road. When times were tough at the store, he sold Muntz TV’s out of the trunk of his car to poor Black families in what he called downtown. Years later, he would regret having sold them on buying the model with the special silverized picture tube because it was standard on all models anyway. He had to make a buck, don’t you know.
Last month someone sent me a text message with a photo of the Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts and it struck me as more familiar than anything I could remember from the house I grew up in except the ceramic praying hands hung on the wall over the counter in our kitchen. Visceral it was, a lot like driving up Woodward Avenue from downtown to the suburbs like I did just a few years ago to revisit the street that played so large in my teenage life. My sister met her future husband at a stoplight on Woodward Avenue fifty years ago. I cruised Woodward in my father’s 1962 white Ford station wagon but didn’t have the same luck. But I can still feel the summer night heat and taste those Big Boy onion rings. To be 17 and on Woodward Avenue was to be cool. You can see, Detroit stuck on me even though I lived ‘outside Detroit’ for only ten years – from the time I was 8 to 18.
So with this street cred, such as it is, can I just say this? Detroit’s gone.
Except for the fiction that is people’s memories, the fiction of Motown and Diego Rivera, Briggs Stadium, and the Pontchartrain Hotel, Detroit has fallen in on itself. This wasn’t sudden. It wasn’t as if a terrible epidemic cleared out all the people overnight. No, this has been happening for decades. Anyone who could leave did leave. Detroit’s loss of population was the result of a contagious exodus in which people who stayed wondered why they weren’t following the example of the friends and neighbors. If everyone else is leaving, shouldn’t we leave, too?
And so they went. Anyone who could run, walk or hitch a ride boogied. And when people leave, when the majority of a city’s population leaves, it ceases being a city and starts being ruins. And that’s where Detroit is right now – at the beginning of its career as America’s first urban ruins, a destination for people fascinated by economic and architectural evisceration and entranced by the stories of the last people standing. Beyond Detropia, there are articles and analyses galore. It’s as if Detroit is the Lost City of Atlantis, just discovered. Oh my gosh, you mean Detroit has been declining for forty years? I had no idea. Yes, a city whose mayor actively advances the idea of consolidating the remaining population into small serviceable areas so vast swatches of the city can be turned to urban agriculture is not just in decline, it is near dead. Believe it.
So why are people in love with a dead thing? Because it’s cool. It’s romantic. It’s easy. A dead thing doesn’t ask for much in a relationship. It can be represented any way the living like, take on multiple personalities, serve our purposes. For individuals, Detroit is the consummate lost cause, a city on Death Row with a bad lawyer and no appeals left. Who wouldn’t watch that movie? For the analysts and political folk, Detroit is a fantastic buffet of urban theory and blame. Was it the auto companies’ departure or the wicked public employee pensions that did the town in? Racism, classism or the proliferation of freeways?
What fine fun we can all have.
Meanwhile, the people who live in Detroit, the dozen or so who are left, the ones trying to hold on to their homes, and find their way home on streets with no streetlights, who know there’s no point in calling the police if they’re mugged, and are tired of being in documentaries and answering the questions of the suddenly interested national press, those people, those Detroiters? they’re waiting for the concert.