Detroit is for lovers

The tour is going great. I'm writing from Quebec City, but I wanted to start off by describing the city of Detroit, Michigan.

I'm sure that most readers of this board have some idea already that Detroit is in pretty bad shape, and many of you probably imagine that it is a frightening and terrible place. Detroit has become synonymous with urban decay. I had a web of preconceptions about the city and was excited and a little apprehensive about venturing out into the city by myself after we arrived. What I saw amazed me beyond all measure.

Imagine the city in which you live, (assuming you don't live in Detroit), and then try to imagine that the vast majority of downtown buildings have been abandoned. Not just the little Quicky Marts and other two-story crap, but imagine that all the tallest buildings, the art-deco skyscrapers and the enormous hotels are completely empty. Now picture that the actual fact of Detroit is ten times more awesome and incredible than you are picturing in your mind.

Detroit was one of America's finest cities eighty years ago. It was the headquarters of American industry and some of our richest industrialists lived there and built enormous, grand buildings, full of stained glass and copper and stone. They were arrogant men in an arrogant time and their buildings were the finest piles of shiny brick you could build.

Then some time in the 60's and 70's, when people all over America were tearing down beautiful buildings and replacing them with crappy, flat-roofed motels, the people that owned Detroit just shut the doors. It was a bad time in America, sure. Lots of angry people tired of being kept down, the old economic policies not working so well any more, whole neighborhoods being razed in New York and Chicago to build lifeless housing projects and interstate highways, and a pointless war in Vietnam to piss off the white college kids... personally I think it was the greatest time in American life. But somehow, in Detroit, the devastation was amplified so that it actually killed the city.

OK, now I recognize that words are going to fail me a little bit here, but walking around downtown Detroit is like nowhere else in the universe. At one level, just strictly from an architectural standpoint, it's one of America's finest cities, but the fact that it's frozen in time and slowly rotting makes it a totally different kind of American monument.

They used to tell us about the Neutron Bomb when we were kids, (just in case our regular nuclear war terrors weren't paralyzing us enough,) which supposedly would kill all the people and leave the buildings standing. We were expected to embrace the idea of the Neutron Bomb, I guess, because it meant that we could kill all the Russians without destroying all the lovely looted Nazi gold in the basement of the Kremlin. Anyway, the city of Detroit is the realization of this fantastically morbid dream.

An abandoned skyscraper has a terrifying density. Your mind cannot help but race through all the empty floors, scattering moldy papers, trying to evade the chill of the wind whistling through broken windows 30 stories up. What terrible gangs of mutant punkers must be living on these floors? What nightmarish Michael Jackson video-shoot scenarios must be playing themselves out in the darkened catacombs of abandoned banks and railroad stations and hotels? How is it possible that the most humble public building in Detroit makes Seattle's grandest structures look like train set models, and yet the entire ruined city is mostly forgotten and ignored by the world?

Of course the story is written in the same familiar script of poverty, racism, urban-"renewal" and short-sighted capitalist aggression as a million other stories, but in this one particular case the results are so out of scale, so off the charts, that it's amazing that the whole fucking city isn't declared a World Heritage site. The fact is that when we talk about economics we often use the language of war, and the reason for that is that economic policies often wreak warlike devastation. The capitalists describe these events in bland terms of market driven effects, and they place the blame for the consequences on things like "urban unrest", (which is code for angry blacks), or on environmentalists or peacenicks or lazy workers or vegetarian pizza or whatever. But the fact is generally that by the time the lazy environmentalists are angry enough to fight, or the urban blacks are burning down their neighborhoods, the economic damage has already been done.

Holy shit, I sound like a goddamn hippy! Look, all I'm saying is that Detroit is definitely terrifying, but it's also maybe one of the most awesome places on the planet. It is a truly singular experience and I reccomend it to everyone. It is obvious that the city fathers of Detroit are pursuing the same broke-dick "fix-it-up" renewal policy that every other pinstriped shitheel in the country thinks is the secret to urban success. In other words, they plan to tear it all down and replace it with malls and sports stadiums and other worthless shit in the hopes that they can erase the past and replace it with the sound of shrieking cash-registers and la-dee-da, multi-decibal, pan-ethnic Nu-soul.

Visit Detroit! Put aside your "21 Jump Street"-era fears of yellow-bandanna'd gangsters kidnapping you into their "shooting gallery". If you have any fantasy/nightmare about a Blade Runner/Matrix/Escape From NY style future, well... the future is now.

Posted by John Roderick on June 1, 2003 @ 04:03 PM