The Design Observer Group

Posted 07.06.10

Jerry Herron

Borderland/Borderama/Detroit: Part 1

View from pedestrian bridge, Cochrane Street. [Photograph: Corine Vermeulen]

Detroit Looks Just Like a City...
... Especially at night, from my apartment downtown, with its floor-to-ceiling glass: that’s when Detroit really does look like a city; friends have come over to dinner, 28 floors up, sitting around my table, and inevitably someone turns toward a window and remarks, as if arriving at an original insight, which of course it is for the person making the observation, who has just now noticed the altogether astonishing fact that despite what you might expect, what people know about this place, and what the person about to be delivered of the insight also thought up until this very instant: “Detroit looks just like a city!” The conversation stops, maybe, for a few seconds, while the other guests glance toward the windows, the vast grid of lights arrayed across the night-time landscape out toward the dark, invisible horizon. And it’s not the first time you’ve been witness to such a discovery, not if you have lived here any time at all. The other guests nod polite agreement: Yes, Detroit does look just like a city. And then they go back to eating their dessert.

But it’s not a city, not when the sun comes up and you can see the place. It was a city once, that’s clear, or at least Detroit seems to have been a city, given the physical evidence left behind in maybe the most moved-out-of metropolis ever settled and then evacuated by Americans — houses and factories, theaters and schools, streets and whole neighborhoods now walked away from on so spectacular a scale that you can’t fault other people when they register amazement. “It is a remarkable city,” Rebeca Solnit wrote in Harper’s, “one in which the clock seems to be running backward as its buildings disappear and its population and economy decline.” Her wonderment is precisely rendered, if not precisely news:

This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild.... Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. [1] 

Detroit looks just like a city, except it’s not one any more. But instead of vanishing, like those Mayan cities of Mesoamerica, it persists in a death-in-life existence, and that is what lends the place an uncanny relevance and makes it so persistent an object for journalistic last words, none of them, of course, ever being the last word. Detroit may be emptied out, but it is hardly over, nor will it be any time soon, precisely because of the questions that this city/not raises. What could have happened here? Does it have anything to do with the rest of America? Such questions are particularly pressing just now, as the world’s population — at some point in 2008 — crossed a border never yet traversed by humans, with the majority of us becoming urban for the first time in history.

Medusa Cement. [Photograph: David Clements]

And that is just where Detroit’s relevance lies. It is not only the busiest border crossing in the United States — literally — thanks to the volume of Canadian–American trade that passes through by water and rail and highway, but the busiest border in another, perhaps more crucial sense. Detroit sits precisely at the border of city and not-city; its condition renders the conflict between the natural world and the built environment in a specially forceful way, as Solnit points out. Here, the fearful energy released by a city in decay raises questions not only about the economic and governmental systems that produced Detroit (and America), but also about the humanity of citizens so transformed by urbanism that they can visit upon each other all the miseries and cruelty locally deployed. It’s enough to make a person wonder, and especially to make Americans wonder, and maybe the rest of the world wonder too, as we all verge on a global urbanism and the city/not opposition achieves universal relevance. We wonder how so much that is valuable, in both material and human terms, could be so quickly and violently squandered. And we wonder at the cost — the waste and cruelty, and what the city has to do with it all, and what this place might portend.

Border and Borderama
So the dispatches keep arriving from the border of city and not-city. But unlike the Mesoamerican parallel that Solnit points to, Detroit’s vanishing is not some distant historic event; it is an ongoing condition, compounded in its spectacular oddity by the simultaneous rebirth of certain parts of town. Here, the border is always shifting and redefining itself. On one side, the entropy and violence that un-build the city and return it to some pre-urban state — the ruined neighborhoods and inner-city prairie that writers and tourists never fail to be struck by, “an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco” as Solnit puts it. [2] And on the other side, the energy and capital investment that define the parts of town that never went away, and what is more baffling still, the parts of the city that are growing and redeveloping.

“It’s remarkable, really,” according to Mary Kramer, publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business. “Despite the political turmoil in Detroit and the economic turmoil throughout Southeast Michigan, our reporters found new angles for this third annual ‘Living and Investing in the D’ supplement.” Kramer goes on to enumerate the good-news items — urban gardens, revitalized neighborhoods, downtown comeback, plans for light rail, etc. — all played out against the backdrop of corruption and political bungling. [3] Her piece is aptly titled “Optimism amid Turmoil,” and that is surely the story of “the D,” and the two cities that occupy this historically conflicted real estate. That the two — city and not-city, life and death — should be so obviously linked is a discomfiting prospect, with the resulting metropolis being apparently like no other, although maybe the border between Detroit and everything else is not so fixed as it is made to appear in popular representations.

Urban Prosperity
A legacy of 1890s prosperity. [Photograph: David Clements]

And here is a truly chilling possibility: that Detroit is linked causally somehow to the rest of America, that this mix of rot and revival, violence and reinvigoration, is a condition inherent to ourselves that the city only exacerbates. Maybe Detroit is the cost Americans pay for being who we are. Consider the facts, which is what the Wall Street Journal invited:

Detroit is 81% black and, according to the Census Bureau, one-third of its residents live below the poverty line. The nuclear family is all but non-existent in the city. In 1960, 25% of black residents were born to single mothers. By 1980, that number had climbed to 48%. Today, over 80% of Detroit’s black children are born to single-parent households. Just one
in nine black boys is raised with a father.

According to academic research, over 50% of black men in Detroit are high-school dropouts. In 2004, 72% of those dropouts were jobless. By their mid-30s, 60% have done prison time. Among black dropouts in their late 20s, according to a University of California, Berkeley, study, more are in prison (34%) than are working (30%).

The article refers — inevitably — to violence and murder as well, noting that a Congressional Quarterly report (based on FBI statistics) rates Detroit “America’s most dangerous city.” “Some have said that Detroit is in the throes of committing cultural suicide,” the writer, Henry Payne, concludes. “It may be more accurate to call it a cultural homicide.” Not that any of this isn’t true about the city, and there is no reason to doubt the facts being reported. The question is how those facts are being applied to construct a border that will separate Detroit from everything else in this country. Is this really a singular case — the case of a city committing cultural suicide or homicide? Or is it a case of something broader and more generally shared — a city being done in by the racialization of poverty and crime in America, with this place only making more visible things that exist — homicidally — across our culture? In this context, it’s not the actual border that counts, but the way the border gets represented, as a means of separating things we want to believe from things we want to believe aren’t relevant because they apply to somebody else.

Think of it this way, then. Detroit is not so much a border as it is a “borderama,” a spectacle contrived to perform culturally relevant work. I am poaching here on the performance-art term of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and his staged interventions, the point of which are to make conscious the otherwise unconscious functioning of the borders we construct. And Detroit is surely like that — not the place, but the things done with the place, in the name of entertainment or news, or both, from broadcast television to Hollywood films to the Wall Street Journal. The borderama spectacle of America’s city/not is never far from the public consciousness.

New casino, Pine Street. [Photograph: Corine Vermeulen]

I am using the term spectacle, of course, in the sense suggested by Guy Debord, who remains an unimpeachable guide when it comes to borderama:

Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process. [5]

The spectacle buys us into where and who we already are. The actual borders here are ones potentially dangerous to cross, as the statistics make clear — borders between “good” and “bad” parts of town, neighborhoods that are safe, and those where things go violently wrong. And those borders implicate problems that Americans may generally share, or at least share the fear of, problems that result from “choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production,” as Debord says. So if Detroit represents choices we have already made, then how to live with the results? How to understand ourselves in relation to real and troubling things which are unavoidable? We spectacularize our visits to the city/not site of our anxieties, which is the reason Detroit is so consistently in the news, which is not really news at all. Who needs to be told that this place is old and poor, black and dangerous, depopulated and scary? Nobody. But who needs reassurance? All the rest of us, of course, who make periodic borderama excursions, the point of which is to afford us the comforting assurance that Detroit is what the rest of America is in recovery from, and that such recovery is available as elective choice. We want to believe that where you are is all a matter of choice, and that everybody is free to choose, so that stupid and destructive choices are all the fault of the person doing the choosing. This may be a lie, but it is no less powerful for that.

The Paris of Southeastern Lower Michigan
I have a t-shirt with that phrase imprinted on it: “Detroit, the Paris of Southeastern Lower Michigan.” It was a gift from a friend, who left town several years ago, fed up with his most recent home invasion — after the alarm went off in the middle of the night, the police arriving, checking things out, with nothing taken but a TV set, and the post-traumatic family gone back to bed, when they hear something downstairs because the burglar has come back to finish the job, figuring correctly that the alarms would now be disabled and the family duly chastened so they’d keep out of the way. So the thief finished his work, the police returned, and next morning my friend decided it was time to go, leaving me the t-shirt as a kind of legacy. It’s like other shirts that people here wear occasionally, imprinted with various city/not slogans advertising a certain stubborn pride in our various negative claims to fame, such as being the sometime murder capital of the United States. We indemnify our catastrophes with an in-your-face self-captioning. “Beware,” goes the admonition, per a recent t-shirt sighting, “I have friends in Detroit.” We’re already partying at the borderama even before the news crews and reporters arrive to “discover” our most recent calamity.

Fisher Plant. [Photograph: David Clements]

But we were not always that way, which is important to keep in mind. For a long time, Detroit really was America’s great success story, as an article in Fortune magazine explained in 1956: "The community’s great $4.5-billion auto industry makes and sells a product that every American loves; the industry’s 400,000 workers are among the highest paid in the world; and all in all, U.S. capitalism seems to stand out in its finest colors and in its greatest genius in the manufacturing area around Detroit. [6] 

“It is a company that helped lift hundreds of thousands of American workers into the middle class,” the New York Times wrote, 53 years later, on the day GM declared bankruptcy. “It transformed Detroit into the Silicon Valley of its day, a symbol of America’s talent for innovation.” [7] That transformation was spectacular in its dimensions. In 1890, Detroit was the 14th largest city in the United States, with a population of 205,876 and an area of 22.19 square miles. It was a prosperous if modest place, with a diversified economy based on timber and railroad cars, cigar manufacturing and stoves, locomotives, pharmaceuticals, and marine engines. By the 1920 census, following the birth of the assembly line and the Model T, Detroit had become the fourth largest city in the country, with a one-industry economy and a population of 993,675 — over four times what it had been only 30 years before — and an area of 79.62 square miles. The city population peaked around the 1950 census, at just under two million, almost twice what it had been in 1920, by which point Detroit had achieved its present size of 140 square miles. And then, just as the city reached its historic high of population and prosperity, people began to leave, as the rush to suburbia began, with the population today estimated at less than 900,000, the lowest it’s been for almost 100 years.

The interesting thing about this demographic rocket ride, with an ascent and descent perhaps more rapid than that of any other U.S. city, is that it suggests a kind of one-off urbanism inherent to this place, certainly, and perhaps to American city-making generally. The city — this city — was never meant to be like other cities, especially European cities, with a population achieving a certain size and density and then remaining there, for generations; Detroit was always on the way to becoming something else, with a population that no sooner peaked than it began immediately to shrink. The riot of 1967 was still almost two decades off when this ex-migration began, so that wasn’t the reason. Not that there’s a single or a simple explanation. But one thing is clear. The people who came here never intended to stay. And it is this prospect of improbable — but indicative — human behavior that has been making Detroit significant almost from the beginning.

County prison. [Photograph: David Clements]

We were one of the stops on the tour of Alexis de Tocqueville, the young French aristocrat, sent by his government in 1831, along with Gustave de Beaumont, to investigate the penitentiaries of the new United States, on the assumption that the French might learn something from our supposedly more rational and humane system of incarceration. There’s an easy irony here, in the fact that America is still the world’s leading jailor, with more of our citizens living behind bars than in any other country; but it’s an open question whether anybody would still consider us to be a model. It’s not the study of prisons that made Tocqueville’s fame, of course, but his two-volume investigation, Democracy in America (1835, 1840). He landed in this country at a rambunctious time, as Jacksonian democracy was in full sway, with its populist enfranchisements and expansionist bravado. We presented a good test case, in other words, for a cultivated European whose own country was in the midst of revolutionary transformation, and who found himself — like many others — wondering if a people could really govern themselves democratically.

To that end, Detroit presented an interesting case. The population when Tocqueville arrived was just over 2,000. The city at that point was more than 100 years old, having been founded in 1701 by a French entrepreneur, Antoine Laumet (1658–1730), who preferred the self-invented title, sieur Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac. Nothing much had been produced in Detroit during a century and more of existence, except for the periodically bloody conflicts between French and English troops and their Native American surrogates. But the place held a special significance for Tocqueville, much as it does for tourists today. “We were curious to see entirely savage country,” his partner Beaumont wrote, “to reach the farthest limits of civilization.” [8] What the men found, however, was more contradiction than pure manifestation. As they approached Detroit by river on the afternoon of July 22, 1831, they were greeted with a paradigmatic sight. On the Canadian side of the strait where Detroit is located, a Scottish Highlander in full uniform; on the American side, two Indians in a canoe, naked, with painted bodies and rings through their noses. [9] That symbolic opposition still rules, 200 years later, over the city and city/not spectacle of Detroit.

But it’s not metaphors I’m after. And here Tocqueville’s report has come honestly by its enduring interest to Americans. He recognized early on an exceptional feature of our national character — one that he thought bore the potential to become our undoing; that feature is individualism, a new word that Tocqueville did not invent, but applied skillfully, to describe us:

Individualism is a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and his friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.

Selfishness is born of a blind instinct; individualism proceeds from an erroneous judgment rather than a depraved sentiment. It has its source in the defects of the mind as much as in the vices of the heart.

Selfishness withers the seed of all the virtues; individualism at first dries up only the source of public virtues; but in the long term it attacks and destroys all the others and will finally be absorbed in selfishness.

Selfishness is a vice as old as the world. It scarcely belongs more to one form of society than to another.

Individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to develop as conditions become equal. [10]

Abandoned housing. [Photograph: David Clements]

Associations, Tocqueville thought — our collective belonging to other than individual causes — would save us from the dangers inherent in individualist democracy. Otherwise, there could be little hope for the American experiment:

Thus not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart. [11]

This dangerous tendency that Tocqueville noted, almost 180 years ago, is surely no less an explanation of Detroit and the bafflement that visitors register, when confronted with the catastrophic results of a people accustomed to dwelling in the solitude of our own hearts.

As to the urbanism that results, there’s a wonderful passage in a letter Beaumont wrote, following his visit to Detroit. In it, he recounts an experience he and Tocqueville had when they entered the shop of a Mme. de Moderl to buy some mosquito netting:

While she was giving us what we asked, my eyes happened to encounter a little print posted in her store. This print represents a very well dressed lady and at the bottom is written: Mode de Longchamps 1831. How do you find the inhabitants of Michigan who give themselves the styles of Paris? It’s a fact that in the last village of America the French mode is followed, and all the fashions are supposed to come from Paris. [12] 

City and not-city were alive here, then, in that shop, in “the last village of America,” which also contained news of the latest Paris fashions — presumably because citizens needed such information to maintain an appropriate sense of who they were here in the Paris of southeastern lower Michigan.

Urban prairie with old silos, Orleans Street. [Photograph : Corine Vermeulen

That exceptional, American condition is what sets our cities apart, like the people in them, as Witold Rybczynski points out in his study City Life; it’s what Beaumont noted in that Detroit shop, the distinctive way in which our individualism deployed itself:

The United States is the first example of a society in which the process of urbanization began, paradoxically, not by building towns, but by spreading an urban culture. Here is an important distinction, and perhaps also another reason for the ambivalence that marks American attitudes toward the city: there never was a sense of cities as precious repositories of civilization. Because urban culture spread so rapidly, it lost its tie to the city, at least in the public’s perception. [13] 

And that, Rybczynski says, is why our cities are not like Paris — not because Americans are a society of bunglers who can’t imitate correctly, but because we were never trying to build Paris in the first place: “[I]f our cities are different — and they clearly are — it may be not only because we build them differently and use them differently but also because we imagine them in a different way.” [14] And there is surely no more different-seeming city than Detroit — America’s greatest city/not.

But all of our cities are — to a greater or lesser degree — cities/not, in the terms Rybczynski suggests; they are not places where most of us want to live. As the Associated Press reports, “Without immigrants pouring into the nation’s big metro areas, places such as New York, Los Angeles and Boston would be shrinking as native-born Americans move farther out.” [15] We are metropolitan but not urban. When Money magazine posts its yearly list of “best places to live,” they are not cities, typically, but small towns, such as Middleton, Wisconsin, with a population of 17,400. [16] Served by transportation and communication networks, Americans don’t need cities the way other people seem to, any more than those residents of Detroit in 1831 needed Paris in order to keep up with the latest styles. We proceed by spectacular means toward the fulfillment of our exceptional individuality. And most of the time, it seems — both to ourselves and to others — as if we were all along intending something entirely different, something unrelated to actual conditions on the ground, which are not our doing, really, but somehow self-generating. That kind of forgetting is perhaps comforting, even necessary. But it comes at an extraordinary cost.