Unclassified Scenery

Early Morning Drive through Babylon

Somewhere along Jefferson Avenue.

Pictures of busted Detroit buildings have become lazy shorthand for the complex collision of urban decay, manufacturing loss, crazed violence, and negligent bureaucracies that darken the American landscape. Whenever I see a new article about Detroit, I flinch. The storyline is so predictable that it’s ripe for parody — and the relentless stream of photographs like the one above recently culminated in Something Something Something Detroit, a surprisingly thoughtful and resonant piece in Vice, of all places.

My feelings about Detroit are complicated. I grew up in the area and then I left it. Sometimes I think about moving back. Other times I read stories about, say, the mayor being in jail and I want to move even further away. Through the years, I’ve listened to people all over the world say crazy things like, “They should just let Detroit return to the earth.” Although this conjures some intriguing agri-utopian Mad Max visions, I remind them that the 900,000 people who live there might not like this scorched-earth idea very much.

What does it say about our society when an image like the one above becomes a cliché?

And there’s the flip-side: fetishizing Detroit. I am amazed by the number of people (particularly overseas) who identify Detroit as the epicenter of American techno-cool and believe that attaching ‘Detroit’ to a flyer or a record label confers some kind of legitimacy. In many ways, they’re right to feel this way (see here here here here and here) and it’s certainly a welcome relief from the apologetic looks that you receive from most Americans when you mention Detroit. But then I come back and drive through a scary place like Highland Park and I think no, there’s nothing cool about this. There’s nothing to celebrate here.

But it’s a city full of potential. You hear this a lot because it’s true. The housing stock is gorgeous and the downtown core is packed with jaw-dropping Art Deco and Beaux Arts buildings. Detroit shares an international border on a major waterway and it houses some of the world’s most interesting musicians, artists, and designers — the ones who can actually show you the bleeding edge before New York and Los Angeles get wind of it.

You may have also heard that Detroit is just about to turn the corner. It must be a mighty big corner because we’ve been hearing this for twenty years now. Enough already. How do we move forward? We can start by considering what it says about our society when an image like the one above becomes a cliché. For my part, I’m not going to post any more photographs of dead buildings without attempting to provide something constructive. It’s time to begin exploring solutions rather than wallowing in synonyms for ‘decrepit’.

First off, there’s the Urbanophile’s provocative Detroit: Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier, which offers a fantastic overview of several recent projects undertaken by the people rather than the city:

In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them . . . As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age.

It’s a compelling premise that speaks as much to the negligent government as it does to the inventive spirit of many of its constituents (and why aren’t they in office?) — however, I’m not quite ready to look at Detroit as a frontier town. BurnLab’s Michael Doyle offers a convincing argument for stitching together those wild borders by combining Detroit and its suburbs into a proper borough system:

Imagine five million people sharing the responsibility for 3,913 square miles, rather than their individual enclaves. Before you say this sounds like a communist plot, this is exactly how many real, vibrant cities in the North America work. As one city, many of the social divides that tear us apart would be rendered irrelevant.

It’s an elegant proposal: connecting Detroit with its satellite cities à la New York or even Los Angeles would provide Detroit with a richer tax base for capital improvements and, in return, a functioning urban core would raise the value of its surrounding neighborhoods, many of which have been hemorrhaging money for years.

I flinched when I saw Time magazine’s recent cover story, The Tragedy of Detroit. I expected to find the same article that’s been on the file for thirty years, the one with all of the single moms and would-be factory workers along with the accompanying photo-essay that gets trotted out whenever the nation is facing tough economic times. And to a large extent, that’s exactly what Daniel Okrent’s story covered because, yes, this neglect has been going on for decades and Detroit is a crystallization of many key American forces. But there’s a new twist:

As a story, Detroit has been misunderstood, underreported, stereotyped, avoided and exploited for decades. To get it right, we decided to become stakeholders.

Time, Inc. purchased a house in the city in September and installed several reporters to report on Detroit for one year. Here’s the blog. Although it is too soon to determine whether this will be a publicity stunt or effective journalism, one of the unique strengths of this project is that Time‘s enormous backlog of content offers an opportunity to make new connections (e.g., this report from 1958).

And in case anybody is listening, here are my humble suggestions. They’re not as exciting or new as razing the city to the ground or raising cattle, but they’re relatively cheap and straightforward:

  1. Go to Home Depot, buy some light bulbs, and turn on all of the street lights. Every single one. This should go without saying, but for too long Detroit has been preoccupied with stadiums and casinos at the the expense of common sense. Imagine the horrible message this sends to the citizens who are waiting for the bus or walking to the store in the pitch dark: We don’t care about you. You’re on your own.
  2. Put a median with grass and trees down the center of the major boulevards. Some greenery goes a long way.
  3. Reduce the speed limit on Woodward, Grand Boulevard, and the other main arteries to 30mph. You’ve already got a ton of highways into (and out of) the city — now start creating spaces for people, not the car.
  4. Follow the lead of Cleveland and dedicate one lane of Woodward to Bus Rapid Transit. And make sure the buses actually show up.
  5. Offer deep tax cuts to businesses that relocate to Detroit. As it stands today, Michigan is getting creamed by states like Mississippi, Nebraska, and the Dakotas — all of which are aggressively courting new businesses via tax incentives.
  6. Tear down the fancy new stadium and goofy casinos and use all of that steel, concrete, and manpower to build a commuter rail spike from Hart Plaza to Pontiac.

Detroit has a city council election on November 3. And TED’s coming to Detroit, too.

* * *
[audio:Babylon.mp3|artist=Model 500|titles=Night Drive Thru Babylon]
Model 500 – Night Drive (Thru Babylon)
from Night Drive 12″. Metroplex, 1985 | buy mp3s
Roughly five years ago, I launched this humble blog with a few awkward words about this track — and Juan Atkins and 3070’s dystopian anthem remains one of the most powerful moments in music for me. From its opening bars, you can practically see the steam rising off the street. Listen closely and you’ll understand Detroit. You’ll hear the collision between technology, Motown soul, the Electrifying Mojo, and the demands of the automobile colliding with a strange and nervous midnight energy. Metro Times, Face Magazine. Time. Space. Transmat. How can she walk in those shoes? Nearly 25 years old and it still conjures visions of the future.

And here’s a dirty mix of all-Detroit techno that I put together last year.