Requiem for Detroit
Internet myth or urban tragedy? When one of America’s most iconic cities is portrayed as a post apocalyptic dystopia, returning foot by foot to the prairies from whence it came, the temptation to mythologise is almost overpowering. Motor City, home of the automobile, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Kevin Sanderson and Tamla Motown as a metaphor for the decline of western civilisation may be stretching a point, but is it a point worth considering?
Built on the fabulous wealth generated by the motor industry, ripped apart, literally by the freeways designed to cope with the ever increasing number of vehicles and ultimately crushed by recession as the automobile industry failed and the money went elsewhere, Detroit is not the city it once was. Now, 40 per cent of the land in the centre is returning to prairie. Greenery grows up through abandoned office blocks, houses and collapsing car plants. Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit’s population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone.
One in five houses now stands empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1.
These are terrifying figures, yet locals feel that Julien Temple’s film misrepresents the city, it has been referred to as ‘Ruin Porn‘ and people point to a still vibrant music scene (White Stripes, Eminem, Kid Rock) and evidence of major investment in the city in the shape of Ford Field, Comerica Park, the Fox Theater, People Mover, Renaissance Center, Book Cadillac, Rosa Parks Transit Center and a proposed new hockey arena. The citing of an influx of art punks into the freely available housing and a DIY ethic recalling both the halcyon days of San Francisco in the sixties and London in the seventies, as evidence of a new, alternative vitality re-energising the city is perhaps too conveniently poetic.
America has been here before – New York was functionally bankrupt in the 1970′s, Central Park overrun by muggers and graffiti artists. London too was a pretty grim place around the same time – I recall the area now housing Chelsea Harbour as row upon row of semi derelict houses, many of them home to drug addled squatters and Thatcher’s other children – heavily politicised self styled anarchists.
The root cause of Detroit’s collapse is not simple to isolate. The car industry certainly has a lot to answer for, but then so does the federal housing policy post World War II. What seems certain is that Urban Farming and Art are unlikely to reverse the trend in the forseeable future. We are left with uncertainty, there is no doubting the scale of the disaster and the power of the imagery, but is Detroit the beginning of the end of capitalism or just another blip in the gradual decline of Western Civilisation? Or are we, as ever, overthinking?
“What’s going on here?”
“I’ve no idea, I just woke up…”