For the past two or so years, I have been fascinated by Detroit. The most visceral case of the American rise and fall. Once the French-owned Détroit, deemed the “Paris of the West,” is now seen as the country’s dirty backside that no one wants to talk about. Detroit. Detritus. Detriment. Decay. Desperation. But now we can begin to say “thrive” where we used to say “die.”
I am very much an outsider to this world, I will admit, but recently it seems like my views of the city might be painfully one-sided. (I am no expert, and you should not consider my writing on this subject to be in any way authoritative.) Coilhouse and Vice both have great pieces on the pervasiveness of “ruin porn” and how we seem to ignore the strong, hardworking badasses who are slowly reviving the city.
We all know that Detroit is the city of the automobile, the place where America’s motorized glory was first built and then later protected by munitions produced in the very same factories. Beautiful and sad. We know that now Detroit is not a place you would like to go. It is falling apart, dangerous.Or at least this is what we are told.
But it seems that Detroit, like anywhere else, is not monolithic.
There are good things coming out of this city. Artists, musicians, people working to make it work. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t still massive problems (see the May 2010 murder of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones by Detroit police). Massive poverty, high illiteracy, crime, etc.
It’s important to recognize all aspects of the city, good, bad, and otherwise. Having never spent time there, I cannot speak for the intimate human side of the city (go to DetroitBlog for that), only what I hear second hand. Still, we shouldn’t pretend that Detroit is all decayed and abandoned houses or all artists’ collectives and urban gardens.
Detroit was founded in 1701 by a M. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as a colonial city, and was acquired by the United States under the Jay Treaty of 1796. Most of the buildings burned in an 1805 fire, but Detroit was rebuilt and stood as the shining capital of Michigan until 1847. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad before and during the U.S. Civil War (right next to Canada, you know, and later a major rum-running route during Prohibition). This was when the city was still an infant. Yes, the real wealth came later.
As you might already know, the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in America were known as the Gilded Age. Detroit was at the top of this, the best example, the most luxurious, beautiful, and ostentatious city there ever was. Golden. They built glorious things made of gold and filigree. Cadillac Place in 1923. Wayne County Building in 1897. This city looked like Europe, regal and timeless. Edison electrified Washington Boulevard in the 1890s. Ford started building automobiles on Mack Avenue in 1896. Detroit: Golden City.
I first became interested in Detroit and its history after a few forays into the world of urban exploration – the practice of visiting vacant or abandoned buildings and seeing a new part of the world. My friends and I found great beauty in the ways in which nature reclaims human structures: rust, plant growth, animal inhabitation, total collapse. We photographed all of it on antique cameras and film. There are only a few examples of true decay in my city, one totally blocked off by a high-profile demolition project, but I had to see more. It seems that the young urban explorer will always end up thinking of Detroit. I wanted to see it, stared at pictures online and learned all I could, but am still afraid to visit. A friend who grew up there told me that, “in Detroit, you can’t even trust your fellow gang members not to shoot you.” Hyperbole, sure, but still striking. So I remain an outsider, learning from afar.
There are some twenty or so abandoned skyscrapers in Downtown Detroit’s skyline. At night, the city doesn’t glow as much as other metropolises of the same size — many of the buildings are empty, dark. The 2000 census was the first since 1910 to mark the downtown population as less than one million.
But the past decade has seen a revival of sorts. This documentary does a pretty good job of presenting it (even if they are still pushing a product). People are investing in the city by the square inch, reimagining urban revival in the most basic sense. Other significant projects include Detroit Lives!, I am Young Detroit, OmniCorpDetroit, and Handmade Detroit.
Like everyone else, I am still forever fascinated by ruin porn, and will be the first to admit that I am rubbernecking in a decades-long disaster. But there’s always more to the story, and we would do well to acknowledge those who are working to improve conditions rather than just gawking open-mouthed at the dramatic rise and fall of America’s greatest city.