Motown to Notown: An Elegy for Detroit

Examine the postcard below, which depicts Detroit in 1950:
Despite its slightly idealized detail, this representation is essentially accurate: At the time, Detroit was the sixth-largest city in the United States and the seventh-richest city on the planet. It was clean, flourishing, and confident about its future.
Detroit today:

And again:

A book recommendation: “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape,” by James Howard Kunstler. The author traces the development of an almost cartoonish sense of public space in America, and measures the economic and spiritual costs of living in a suburban sprawl rather than in a coherent community. Want to know why we hate our cities? “The Geography of Nowhere” is a good place to start.
This book will make readers better understand the ironies that attend scenes like this one:

A second book recommendation: “Dead Cities,” by Mike Davis. Filled with wit, intelligence, and an incredible wealth of detail, this book is almost a primer on how greed, partisan poltroonery, and urban neglect have compromised so much that is good in and about America. Davis is especially adept at revealing the political chicanery that has brought Los Angeles to the brink of fiscal and social chaos, and though the names of the villains might have changed, their disreputable and self-serving policies have not.

Any reader who seriously engages this remarkable book will find that scenes like this one have become painfully comprehensible:

Remember the Chrysler commercial shown during this year’s Super Bowl – the one with Eminem staring determinedly into the camera and saying, “This is the Motor City – and this is what we do”?

Well, the car in that commercial, the Chrysler 200, the one that the advertisement implies is “Imported from Detroit,” was built in Sterling Heights, an affluent suburb more than twenty miles north of Detroit.

Here’s an aerial photograph that might interest Eminem:

It shows a once-thriving Detroit neighborhood now conspicuous by what is absent from it: Houses. Most of them have either been destroyed or simply fallen into ruin. There are currently many such “neighborhoods” in Detroit. Is this “what we do”?

Of course, Detroit is not the first great city to experience a catastrophic reversal of fortune. Here is a painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) called “Landscape of Mount Palatine in Rome.”

So much for the glory of the Caesars. Actually, just a few centuries before Rubens painted this canvass, Rome was even more deserted, with shepherds tending their herds throughout the city. Rubens has captured nature in the process of reclaiming Rome – in the same manner that it is taking back some parts of Detroit today.

And yet, the Renaissance happened, and Rome “came back,” and while optimism is nearly always fatuous in affairs involving groups of human beings, we are always permitted hope. Perhaps Detroit, too, can “come back,” albeit, like Rome, in a more modest form that is not driven by delusions of eternal splendor.
A final book recommendation, this time by “the archivist of decline,” Camilo Jose Vergara: “American Ruins.” Vergara combines short essays with astonishing photographs of urban decay in the United States. If you decide to read “American Ruins,” please do not just look at the photographs – actually see them for what they are: Windows on our national failures, glimpses into lives blighted by broken promises and crushed hopes, human potential wasted beyond calculation. Throughout history, the city has always been the center of civilization. What does it say about American civilization – and American ethical character – when so many of our formerly great cities are now little different from third-world countries that happen to be situated within our national borders – and we don’t care?
Whatever else “American Ruins” does for its readers, the book will make them better appreciate the human catastrophe and national shame inherent in scenes like this one:

Reading the books that I have recommended would be merely a first step in rectifying the plight that now attends many urban – and non-urban – environments in the United States. However, simply reading about this national disaster is not enough. Americans are going to have to think about these matters and discuss them in rational ways that can eventually be translated into enlightened action. Many of the assumptions currently shaping our collective polity are deeply flawed; they cannot be improved by repeating the mistakes based on them on an ever-larger scale. Read, think, discuss, enact: That should be our national mantra. Then we must hope that the creative geniuses among us will stop prostituting their talents to greedy corporations and instead lend them to the cause of human happiness. These are not, of course, the sorts of lessons commonly taught in American schools, including those in Detroit, but they had better be – and soon.

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One Response to Motown to Notown: An Elegy for Detroit

  1. Jenn says:

    I was just having a conversation about this very subject the other day. I was recounting how in the course of 7 months, I lived in two mid-sized cities: Norfolk, VA and Montpellier, France. Despite both having a population of about 250,000 people, the amount and quality of public amenities couldn’t have been more different. Norfolk, VA was a run-down, naval base with decaying neighborhoods similar to the pictures of Detroit you posted. Montpellier, on the other hand, boasted a comprehensive tram and bus system, several well-kept public parks and plazas, and its famous medieval central plaza, la Place de la Comedie, the cornerstone of which was an opera house. Even given the fact that Montpellier is much older and has a richer history than Norfolk, Montpellier’s new developments still put Norfolk to shame. The neighborhood in which I lived was called the Antigone (after Sophocles’ tragedy) and was marked by Greek-inspired architecture, water fountains, and restaurants and coffee shops with patios that opened up onto the main walkways. An aerial view of the development had the shape of a key, a reference to the fact that the development stopped at a river that flowed into the Mediterranean Sea and that the development thus represented “the key to the sea.” The contrast between the cities of Norfolk and Montpellier is the perfect metaphor for the differences of America and Europe. Americans invest in their private spaces, while Europeans invest in their public spaces.

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