Archive for October, 2012

New Motor City

October 12, 2012

Will The Real Detroit Please Stand Up?

(In a recent piece for The Economist, I highlighted two new works that examine Detroit’s past, present and future. But Detroit’s problems are so complex, and the solutions so hard to see or understand, and I wanted to explore further. Here is a much longer version of that article, published here with the permission of The Economist).


CLINT EASTWOOD’S baffling conversation with an empty chair at the recent Republican Convention was not the first time this year that the aging actor stepped into the political spotlight. In the now famous Super Bowl  commercial for Chrysler, Eastwood declares, “It’s Halftime in America.” He tells us, “How do we come from behind? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.”

Detroit seems to represent many things to many people, often in hyperbolic terms —  the death of America’s indutrial might, the worst kind of urban blight, intractable racial tension. But also the future of America, the future of cities, the future of the post-industrial world. That’s a lot to project onto one city.

A (Very) Brief History

Most people immediately associate Detroit’s downfall with the 1967 race riots that left the city burning and brought in the National Guard in tanks. However, its demise began long before, bred, in many ways, by the very conditions that made it the world’s fastest growing city in 1930.  Henry Ford’s famous innovations and assembly lines in massive factories led to the quick profileration of other giant auto plants and related industries. The demand for mostly unskilled labor skyrocketed and presented a chance for the regular working man to finally make a decent wage and enter the middle class.  Diego Rivera and other fellow travelers visited the factories in Detroit and spoke praises of a new workers’ paradise. (You can take a look at Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco cycle here).

Along with immigrants and white Southerners, this promise of a good life appealed to so many Southern blacks who had been languishing in often dire poverty. The mass migration North began, into a city that was neither prepared to house all its new citizens nor to address the  friction between the races and obvious racial inequities in hiring practices. The failure to effectively address these issues exacerbated already simmering racial tensions that only “resolved” themselves in the eventual white flight from the city and into the neighboring suburbs, taking most of the tax-base with it. Powerful unions that kept the working middle class thriving kept the lid on the pressure cooker for a while longer. But bad policy and racial politics, combined with a one-industry town manned by  mostly unskilled labor, left Detroit woefully unprepared for globalization and American auto fading.  It was a perfect and deadly storm. The world’s once most modern city suddenly seemed a crucible for the worst racial and economic issues plaguing America.  Today, a city once bursting at the seams, has lost half its population, leaving so much of it (40 square miles out of 149) abandoned, slowly being reclaimed by the Midwestern prairie from which it sprang.

Ford Assembly Line

“Saving” Detroit

The effort to “save” Detroit and what remains of the American auto industry has played a prominent role in the political landscape the last few years and certainly  in the upcoming presidential election.  To let Detroit and Big Auto fail would seem too strong a statement about the still precarious economic recovery. Obama’s decision to bail out the big three auto makers in 2009 is a major part of his economic recovery platform. As he boasted at the Democratic National Convention, “Osama is dead, Detroit is not.” Mitt Romney, on the other hand, famously stated in a 2008 New York Times Op-Ed that Detroit should be allowed to go bankrupt.

Along with major government intervention in Detroit’s fate, a serious grassroots movement of artists,  young entrepeneurs, urban planners and urban farmers has taken root in the city over the last few years. The cheap rent, empty arable land and the fading glory of a once grand city, has attracted a consistent and growing number of young people who very genuinely see the city as the new Brooklyn or Berlin, full of creative possibilities. It has attracted big names as well – Matthew Barney produced a major performance piece there that brought in big players in the art world;  David Byrne apparently likes to bike around the city; and  developer Tony Goldman, who famously revived Miami’s South Beach and New York’s Soho, visited and saw great potential.  Much has been written about new and trendy Detroit– a 2011 article in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times about the new (mostly white) hipster class, was titled,  “Detroit Pushes Back with Young Muscle. “

A more serious examination of these two competing narratives – Detroit as beyond salvation and Detroit as the future of post-industrial America – has been sorely needed. Two recent , excellent, works take on this task, and mostly succeed. “Detropia,” a documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, looks at the personal, political and phsyical landscape of the city. Mark Binelli’s book, “Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis,” explores these themes in full, alternating between hard tragic truths and the new seductive air of optimism. There is almost too much material to mine.


In their beautiful and moving film, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, provide the kind of stark visuals and atmospherics that underpin all of the issues Detroit presents, never shying away from hard realities but also never judging. Ewing and Grady, best known for their 2006 film Jesus Camp, are astute observers of  various aspects of the American condition. As Ewing  describes it,  “We actually went in to Detroit planning to on making “Detroit Hustles Harder,” a film focused on the revitalization of the city. Once we moved to Detroit in October 2012, however, it became clear that the story of Detroit is in many ways not one of the future but of people dealing with decisions made long ago. Detropia is a story of consequences: the realities of globalization, the price of short term thinking (by the big 3) and the real downside to unresolved racial tension. It also shines a light on those people who have chosen to stay in Detroit, to stick with the city and do their part. The pluck and grit they exhibit bring a sense of hope to the city.“

Ewing and Grady’s cameras achieve this by taking us along to frustrating union meetings, tense confrontations between the mayor and the public about his plans to “downsize” the city, long rides past abandoned auto plants, evenings spent with scrap metal scavengers, and the somewhat surreal existence of the artists homesteading in Detroit, who see it as their canvas and can afford to live there for $700 a month (rent can be as low as $250).  For the viewer who does not come equipped with familiarity of Detroit’s condition, the movie may lack a coherent enough explanation of its intentions. But for the initiated, it is a beautioful and sad meditation on all of these issues.

There is much discussion in their film of the American middle class and whether it is dying, like the city that many believe gave birth to it. China serves as the bogeyman to many of the people in the film, most poignantly during scenes of the annual auto show where amid excitement over the unveiling of the Chevy Volt, we are quickly introduced to competition from a new Chinese model, significantly cheaper.

Looking at the landscape in the film, one wants to resist the allure of “ruin porn” that Detroit so easily provides. But it is hard to pretend not to see the beauty of the decay in the city – grand old Beaux Arts  buildings sitting empty and overgrown, the history of the city lying around you. The beauty is sad but it is still beautiful.

Detroit City is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of An American Metropolis

Like Ewing, Mark Binelli also grew up in Detroit, and returned in 2009 to see the new highs and new lows for himself.  The result of his two-and-a-half year long stay is a book that hits almost every issue, giving both the necessary stupefying numbers (in 2009, half of all children in Detroit lived in poverty and nearly half of all adults were functionally illiterate; the city regained its number one spot as America’s murder capital and was a leading contender for most arsons, to name a few) but also supplementing hard numbers with the actual problems as grappled with in real life and providing optimistic counterpoints.

In one chapter he introduces us to Mark Covington – a Detroit gardener who has gained much attention for his urban farming efforts. After losing his job in 2008, at age 37, Covington, out of sheer boredom, began to clean up and eventually cultivate the vacant land in his blighted neighborhood. Detroit is a leader in America in urban farming and according to long-time Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs, the city has enough unused land to become the first entirely self-sufficient sustainable city in the world.

Of course, the DIY culture of Detroit extends to less utopian ends as well. So many city services have been cut so drastically and crime is so rampant that a near-anarchic state exists for many residents. In his chapter on civilian responses to crime, Binelli tags along with Rick Ector who runs a firearm academy and gives classes mandatory to obtaining a conceal and carry license. In one class, Ector asks his student,“ What if, a twelve year old with a shotgun in his pants rolls up on a bicycle? Would you have it in you to shoot him? If you are not prepared to shoot a twelve year old, you should not carry a handgun!”

Binelli gives incredibly well grounded and always engaging colorful accounts of all that ails Detroit and the myriad proposals for its survival. His book is empathic but also highly skeptical – the poverty, mostly incompetent political class,  horrific but regular crime, lack of basic city services and weight of the city’s history appear to keep him from believing that Detroit can withstand these forces. His chapters about Detroit as a new creative capital are tinged with irony, and he rightfully remains skeptical of the idea that the creative class can save a city. And yet, he confesses to ultimately being seduced by the optimism of these new folks, who seem determined to stay, make Detroit their home and remake it into a new 21st century city that embraces its post-industrial fate.

Both the film and the book provide more than mere indulgence of morbid curiosity or scenes from the “last frontier.” As Binelli writes, “… it’s undeniable that Detroit feels like an extraordinary place, and at the same time, just as Greenland might be called ground zero of the broader climate crisis, Detroit feels like ground zero for…what, exactly? The end of the American way of life? Or the beginning of something else? Either way, that is why so many divergent interests are converging here right now. Who doesn’t want to see the future?”

Detroit’s problems are mostly particular to it and it may be unwise to read too much into its fate, but it serves as a strong cautionary tale for the new industrial capitals of the world and has emerged as a sort of canvas for possibiities for post-industrial, urban, America.

Further Reading & Viewing


Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy


BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit

Searching for Sugar Man