Detroit: from disaster to salvation?

Detroit was the cradle of Fordist capitalism and the American dream. Then it became their grave. But now, amidst the ruins, something is moving. Is there an end to the city's decline? 

Niki Seth-Smith
17 December 2013
Flickr/Dave Hogg. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Dave Hogg. Some rights reserved.

Detroit was the cradle of Fordist capitalism and the American dream. Then it became their grave. But now, amidst the ruins, something is moving. Is there an end to the city's decline?

Detroit is often held up as the ultimate capitalist dystopia. The birthplace of the automated production line, Motor City's slide into collapse is a cautionary tale for the post-industrial world. The city that gave us Fordism is now hosting its funeral, and this is what it looks like: a ruined city, littered with abandoned factories, homes and schools; chronic unemployment; minimal infrastructure and the young and fit competing over scraps in the black economy.

Yet the city is also attracting utopic experiments in new forms of production and alternative living. On ground abandoned by big industry, Detroit has developed a reputation as an urban laboratory for green, sustainable and community-based initiatives. Are these efforts merely small-scale attempts to survive in a city that can no longer compete in the US economy? Or is Detroit, betrayed by the promise of consumer capitalism, being forced to imagine new modes of living beyond those of the American Dream?

The road to ruin

There is much debate over Henry Ford's actual intentions when he raised his workers' pay to $5 a day, a reasonable wage in 1914. Its results were revolutionary. He created the aspirational worker with money in his pocket, able to save up and purchase his own product. In the process he established the car as the ultimate receptacle of desire and symbol of US prosperity. The automobile industry typified the new model of mass employment, production and consumption, built on a consumerist philosophy that increasingly became a way of life for the American population.

Where did it all go wrong? Globalisation and technical innovation is the simple answer. Ford, GM and Chrysler began to lose their grip in the 1970s when smaller, more efficient cars from Japan and elsewhere catered better to the public's needs and the pressures of the 70's oil crisis. Even the long and vicious battle against union power was unable to restore global competitiveness.

Today, around eighteen per cent of Detroiters are unemployed. Big industry has fled the city and the US market is flooded with foreign cars. The reliable option of a factory job has been replaced by the ever-present temptation of a criminal life in scrapping, dog fighting or drugs. Empty factory buildings now used as club venues are temples to a system that still promises the capitalist dream but which no longer produces the stable careers to sustain it. Even Marshall Mathers, whose anthems to quick highs and no jobs brought him fame as Eminem, got legal employment in the music industry and fled his native city.

Fordism and social engineering

The rise and fall of Detroit's economic capital is the story of Fordism raised to extremes. While Barack Obama's presidency has tried to rejuvenate the automobile industry through state investment and bail-outs, the magic circle of mass employment, production and consumption has long been broken.

What's less explored is the reliance of the Fordist model on social as well as mechanical engineering. While production of the American Dream went full steam ahead, there was a countervailing force at work: the erosion of social bonds and trust, also known as social capital. In Detroit, the blind pursuit of consumerist capital brought with it the breakdown of community on racial as well as class lines.

Detroit today is the most segregated city in America. More than eighty per cent of the population is black. White residents make up around ten per cent and the majority live in the suburbs, seeking comfort and safety away from the center. The 2010 documentary Requiem for Detroit lays the blame for this segregation at the doorsteps of the factories. The motor companies, it suggests, encouraged the creation of all-white suburbs, which in turn generated a greater need and dependency on cars and highways. This 'white flight' emptied central Detroit of all but the poor, majority black, who could not afford to move out.

The resulting racial and class division and erosion of trust have warped the city's development. Violence has died down and flared up over the decades, with flashpoint race riots in 1934, which raged for three days and claimed thirty four lives, and 1967 the most notable. The resultant geography ensures that these tensions have little chance of being overcome. No longer enclaves of comfort and prosperity, the suburbs have been emptying for a generation. The city has lost a quarter of its population in the last decade.

Utopia from dystopia?

Last week, Detroit was declared eligible for bankruptcy. An Emergency Manager has taken on the powers of local government and is overseeing the resulting attack on pensions and public services. This is where the loss of economic, social and cultural capital leads after decades of collapse. 

Yet on the other side of this dystopian future, the city is earning a reputation as a fertile ground for utopic experiments and alternative living. Urban farming is perhaps the most well-known aspect of this movement. City farms and gardens are now able to provide more than two thirds of the vegetables eaten by Detroiters. The non-profit agency Greening of Detroit provides skills to young people and gives them seeds and land for a small fee. However their call to "join us building tomorrow' Detroit!" reveals an ambition that is about more than feeding mouths. The movement aims to help create community networks and re-build trust, dignity and a connection with the land.

Last year, Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin made a documentary about this movement called 'We Are Not Ghosts'. They interviewed people working, often without pay, in urban farms, food security networks, worker-owned shops and non-profit cafes. The documentary reveals a city whose immediate aim is not economic growth, but to satisfy the basic conditions of living. Young and Dworkin describe the movement as "not trying to restore Detroit's lost glory, but rather to imagine and set forth a more humane and interconnected urban environment, one that in the long run will make for a much better quality of life."

Detroit as blueprint 

This reputation for experiments in alternative living and working is attracting would-be pioneers from across the US and the world to Detroit. They come in search of low rental prices and a 'blank page' on which to build. There has even been a proposition to turn Detroit into the gay capital of the US. Where Detroiters once cruised the highways, flashin' cash and guzzlin' gas, today groups like the Mower Gang bring volunteers together to clean up abandoned city parks for fun. Plans for a new green light rail are in the works. Detroit announced the creation of a Blight Authority this year, dedicated to clearing more ground on which to build the new future.

For some, these changes are symbolic at best, exploitative at worst. Home grown kale is all very well, but it won't ease the pain of the public workers who now face losing their pensions. The poet and founder of the White Panthers, John Sinclair, is outspoken in his skepticism. "It's great stuff in terms of creating an alternative reality of your own," he says. "But I think as far as having a transformative effect as a social order, you need some jobs." Sinclair, who lives in Detroit and Amsterdam, has also warned of a new kind of segregation, where those artists and ethical entrepreneurs attracted by the city's reputation aren't mixing with the local population.

Will Detroit, the place where Fordist capitalism went to die, be the birthplace of a new kind of living? We must be weary of generalizing its experience. The capital of 'ruin tourism' is an exceptional case. Yet it has one thing on its side. While leaders in the US and Europe talk of rebalancing the economy and rejuvenating manufacturing power, Detroiters know they can't turn back the clock. Some think it not only impossible, but undesirable. In Detroit, they see evidence of capitalism's collapse and the structural violence that has been its mirror image. Detroit may give the post-industrial world something more than a cautionary tale. The city's barren land is bearing fruit in new stories on how we can work and live.

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