Detroit – a place to be on its last days?

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Detroit - last days 271I’ve just read Mark Binelli’s superb book about the decline and fall – and perhaps rebirth – of Detroit. Mark has written for Rolling Stone and indeed this reads like a Rolling Stone page turner, a tale of alternate shock and awe. There’s a great line about using Detroit as a movie set, because it was ‘after all, not merely a set designed to resemble a ruined American city but an actual ruined American city.’

Mark grew up in Detroit, so he’s not a quick-glance visitor grooving on the city’s ‘ruins porn.’ His book traces the rise and fall of the industry that created Detroit – this is where Henry Ford created the assembly line and mass production, Detroit was the Motor City well before it had its Motown music heyday and later on its period as a pioneer of punk and a birthplace of techno.

He covers the other aspects of Detroit’s crash and burn, the racial divide, the departure of the white population and the city’s shift to an overwhelming black majority, the crazy politics, the lousy schools, the crime statistics and, of course, the tumbling population. The population figures tell it all:

1950 1.85 million
1980 1.2 million
1990 1 million
2000 950,000
Today probably below 700,000

You can see that decline on Google Earth or with Google Street View. I ‘walked’ down some of the streets he writes about, where almost all the buildings have disappeared so today the city is once again becoming rural, houses dotted amongst the fields and trees. The book covers the ‘urban farming’ movement, the Detroit arts movement and the first signs of a returning younger white population.

A disclaimer – I didn’t grow up in Detroit like Mr Binelli, but I did spend four years there, from when I was 10 to 14, old enough to remember the city well. When I tell people I lived in Detroit I always have to continue that it was at a time when Detroit was booming, the population may have been a bit lower than its 1950 peak (I was in Detroit from 1957 to 1961) but the tail fins were certainly at their peak. If the Motor City was built on bling this was the chrome-plated pinnacle of automotive bling.

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▲ I’ve returned to Detroit a couple of times over the years, once in the mid-80s and again in the mid-90s. I arrived in appropriate fashion in 1994, I was driving across the USA in a 1959 Cadillac. The car which marked the peak of Detroit’s spell of automotive exuberance. That’s me with the car on Route 66, its natural habitat.

My childhood spell in Detroit was also a time when dramatic demographic changes were about to take place, they’re featured in the terrific play Clybourne Park – which is set in Chicago, but could equally well have been Detroit. The play moved from Chicago to New York, but before it got to Broadway I’d already seen it in London and Melbourne. I wrote after my London session:

  • Excellent play, with links to a play I’m unfamiliar with titled A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family moving into an all-white neighbourhood. Clybourne Park, brand new this year, frames that earlier play by looking at the arguments prior to the arrival of that first black family in act one. Act two jumps forward 50 years, the neighbourhood has gone totally black and, from the look of the house, totally downhill. Now a young white couple are moving in with big renovation plans as the neighbourhood is clearly on the way up. And the local black neighbourhood organisation is upset.
  • It’s unsettling, with a number of occasions you’d like to give someone a good smack, plenty of occasions when nobody is listening to anybody and some moments of shocked, hysterical laughter. Which Afua Hirsh, in a column in The Guardian today, gets totally wrong, the laughter – ‘white people laughing hysterically at crude racist jokes’ according to her – is not at the jokes (which are not funny), but at the sheer outrage of telling such tasteless jokes. And the biggest laugh is provoked by the black woman’s racist joke about white women.
  • Curiously the play also seems to get something ‘wrong.’ The assumption, from the battered look of the house, is that the neighbourhood has gone black and gone dramatically downhill. Is that connection necessarily inevitable? I lived in the late ‘50s in Inkster, Michigan. A very straightforward new suburb of ‘tract housing’ with a dividing line – Michigan Ave – between black and white. Towards the end of my time in Inkster the first blacks were moving across Michigan Ave and although I was too young to appreciate the impact this was having I’m sure some of the arguments I must have overheard would have been very similar to the ones espoused in act one of the play. But 35 years later, in our Caddy-across-America trip, I drove down my streets – Betty Lane Drive and Steinhauer St – again. Did I expect to find some shambolic disaster zone, like the set for act two of Clybourne Park illustrated? In fact I was surprised how absolutely suburban-normal the streets looked and how much greener and lusher it looked than in my days. Trees grow a lot in 35 years.
  • Plus I’ve lived through another gentrification process, we moved into predominantly Greek Richmond in Melbourne, Australia in 1976 and saw the immigrant population switch from Mediterranean European to Vietnamese while at the same time the property values rocketed upwards and yuppies moved in and restored and renovated the old Victorian homes. The house we bought in Richmond in the late ‘70s for $20,000 is worth over half a million today.

Detroit - place to be 271◄ I read Mark’s book as The Last Days of Detroit, that’s the English edition. In the USA it’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be. The US title is probably more accurate, Detroit may have gone through spectacular decline, but it’s not on its last days. On the other hand the English cover design is way better. What is it about book publishers always wanting to change cover designs and titles, often for the worst? Check the Australian design cover of The Rosie Project (I’m part owner of Text Publishing, the original Australian publisher) and its much less interesting, less catchy (ie generally inferior) English edition.

The final chapter of Detroit is on the ruins and ‘ruins porn.’ In Rome and Athens the ruins of Roman and Greek civilisation are a major part of the tourist attraction. Why shouldn’t Detroit have its tourist ruins as well? After all that’s a major pull for the European tourists who come to Detroit specifically to see industrial-era ruins. For great images of ruined Detroit check Andrew Moore’s photographs in Detroit Disassembled. Supposedly Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians have a particular fascination with Detroit. And the French, after all détroit is French for ‘strait’ and the first European visitors were French-Canadian fur trappers who came across the narrow strait that today separates the USA from Canada.