Letter from Motor City

About the author
Ross Perlin has written on issues of language endangerment and cultural survival in China, the US, and the Jewish Diaspora.

The ruins of Detroit are no less spectacular, no less heartbreaking, than those of fallen ancient capitals. A beaux-arts railway station, its 18 stories vacant for the last two decades, crumbles under the tread of scavengers and vandals, its tracks pulled up, its windows punched out. A once-grand movie palace, on the site where Henry Ford built his first automobile, lives on as a derelict parking structure. Marvels of industrial architecture bleach in the sun, disappearing under urban prairies, green and garbage-strewn meadows that line the city's major avenues.

The city's disappearing act is matched by its vanishing institutions. For Chrysler and General Motors, these are the days and nights of Chapter 11 - the American bankruptcy code which allows reorganization and repudiation of contracts - while Ford attempts a desperate restructuring of its own. The ingenious legions of bankruptcy lawyers may labor in New York courtrooms (where the process is supposed to be faster, and relatively less painful), but Motor City is the site of the pileup. As bankruptcy loomed over Detroit, I went to take the city's pulse.

Unemployment in the metro region pushes towards 14 percent, the highest in the country, and rising. Municipal bonds are at junk status. The city fathers - those not ousted in successive scandals over marital infidelity, perjury, the death of an exotic dancer, and improper text messaging - grapple with a $300 million budget shortfall. Infrastructure buckles and frays. The population declines: a city of nearly two million souls in 1950 musters fewer than a million in 2009.

Yet in June the Red Wings, the city's beloved hockey heroes, made an electrifying bid for a second straight Stanley Cup. Faith in Obama still ran high among the city's overwhelmingly African-American population, despite the fallout from the administration's "managed" bankruptcies. And over the long Memorial Day weekend in May, more than 75,000 electronic music fans streamed into Hart Plaza on the renovated waterfront, dancing ecstatically in the shadows cast by empty skyscrapers.

Young Detroiters prefer to boast that their city gave the world techno music, rather than harp on the invention of the modern assembly line or on the Nation of Islam (which came into being in 1930, in the city's Linwood Avenue neighborhood). Every year, one of the world's largest electronic music festivals pays homage to the small group of African-American producers and DJs who fused local traditions of funk and Motown with avant-garde European electronica in the early 1980s. Soon the sound had spread to cutting-edge clubs, underground raves, and plucky record labels around the world.

One of the pioneer DJs, Derrick May, described it as a "complete mistake... like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company." Yet this unlikely fusion - ethereal and driving, futurist and vintage, high concept and for the masses - fits Detroit well. Recent standard bearers of the Detroit aesthetic include Carl Craig, who is equally at home remixing Ravel and Mussorgsky or juicing up a dance floor, and Jay Dilla, a hip hop producer who achieved transcendence by discovering obscure soul records and sampling them flawlessly.

Decline and collapse

Like Venice, like the family farm, Detroit has been going under for as long as anyone can remember, making it more symbol than city to other Americans. The official motto is Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes) - an optimism already two centuries old, referring to a city-wide fire in 1805. Likewise, GM's world headquarters are at the "Renaissance Center", a cluster of glowering glass towers, a familiar backdrop from baleful news reports on TV, which was recently redeveloped on the fleeting profits of the Hummer Boom.

Talk of renaissance and rebirth is stale officialese to many Detroiters, but downtown does show signs of life - a renovated theater, a fixed-up hotel, cleaner streets. Still, the city's thousands of homeless wander the few parks; thousands more squat in vacant buildings. A little farther out, the authorities have lavished less attention; whole districts of the city molder half-empty, and condemned towers of public housing await demolition. This may be the ultimate stage of inner city blight: grassy, silent lots and the peaceful ruins of stately homes. No gun-toting criminals, no noxious industry, no overcrowded housing projects--in fact, no one in sight at all.

The pivotal moment, according to many white Detroiters, was the 1967 riots. In the most compelling Detroit novel of recent times, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, those terrifying race riots received extended fictional treatment for the first time. "Oh my god! Is like Smyrna! Like the Turks they are burning everything!" cries Desdemona Stephanides in the riot's early hours, evoking traumatic memories of the horrors that drove the novel's Greek immigrant family to America in the first place. Eugenides depicts the anguish of Detroit's white middle class, heavily ethnic, which fled en masse in the following years. Although polarized race relations had long haunted the city - ever since the influx of southern blacks to the auto factories brought competition for jobs - the fall-out of 1967 signaled a definitive pattern of "chocolate city, vanilla suburbs" and a new atmosphere of ineluctable mistrust.

Keeping up with white flight and moving nimbly for tax breaks, the auto companies inhabit this whole gridded sprawl, first patterned by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Chrysler's headquarters are in the cozy suburb of Auburn Hills, Ford anchors the city of Dearborn, and GM threatened a move to nearby Warren until bankruptcy hit. It was in Highland Park, a now-impoverished black enclave within Detroit, that industrial architect Albert Kahn built the visionary factory which famously churned out Model T's in under a minute; the structure now grows shabby as an unloved storage depot.

In fact, the whole of the original Northwest Territory became a cradle of the American auto industry, with important early ventures by the Studebaker brothers in South Bend, Indiana, and Ransom Olds in Lansing, Michigan, among hundreds of others. The triumph of the Big Three, clustered so close together, took decades - and was a testament as much to business acumen and an era of consolidation as to feats of engineering.

Most haunting of all, in light of this year's bankruptcies, is the memento mori on East Grand Avenue, in Detroit itself: the former plant and headquarters of the Packard Motor Car Company. This massive complex, containing 47 buildings spread over 3.5 million square feet, has been crumbling since Packard's demise in 1956, when the luxury brand succumbed to competition from the Big Three. The site later became a hub of Detroit's illegal rave scene. Today, you find oceans of old shoes dumped across the old factory floor, or the charred remains of a boat, which pyromaniacs brought here for a lark.

Detroit is probably America's best-known example of a shrinking city, and it's still in free fall. This is one reason why the city has little to show for its large-scale, officially-sanctioned renewal plans. The city's bright spots are small-scale, experimental efforts. Immigration - particularly from Africa and the middle east (the city of Dearborn is by now the acknowledged center of Arab America) - is one hope of the revivalists. Bringing back manufacturing - electric car startups, green job schemes, and high-speed rail plants have all been mentioned - is another. To boost local businesses, a new, homegrown currency, the Detroit Cheers, was recently launched.

Mostly in their 20s and 30s, Detroit's several hundred urban farmers, linked by the Detroit Agriculture Network, have their own answer to the shrinking city. Many sell their produce at Eastern Market, one of America's largest and oldest public markets, currently being restored to greatness shed by shed. Some farmers are growing vegetables along Woodward Avenue, the city's main drag, which runs from the riverfront to the suburbs. Others establish community gardens the size of postage stamps wherever they can.

On the depressed east side, Tyree Guyton and other artists have transformed a section of derelict Heidelberg Street into an vast outdoor art project. Dozens of discarded stuffed animals hang from the sides of a boarded-up house. Regiments of defunct vacuum cleaners, waving gloves from their handles, mark out an overgrown garden. Shopping carts defy gravity on an exposed treetop.

The result is more eerie than beautiful, a possible model for the endless foreclosed suburbs of southern California and Arizona. The Sun Belt will soon follow Detroit's lead into decline, say the prophets of doom. And what artistic medium to better savage the American Dream than the single-family home (as artist Mike Bouchet recently demonstrated in Venice)? Yet the Heidelberg Project also points up the limits of Detroit's DIY urbanism, already appearing as neglected and ghastly as the surrounding desolation it critiques. The artists deliver a harangue to accompany the decay, a raging against the dying of the light, but no end to the decay itself.