The City Vanishes: Seven Ways of Imagining Detroit

Jerry Herron considers ways of thinking about an industrial metropolis in decay.

August 1, 2008

  1. Detroit is the shrinkage capital of the United States; more than half the population has left since 1950, and half the people remaining say they would leave if they could.
  2. Are you kidding me?! Nobody lives there any more. Do you want to be killed?
  3. There are these two phases when a star begins to die, at least that’s how I remember it more or less from high school science class. First, the star shrinks, a lot, and then a whole lot  more. The star gets really dense, a kind of hyper-intensified version of its former self. And then all of a sudden, the star reverses direction, going super-nova, blasting cosmic souvenirs across the galaxy. Like I said, that’s more or less how I remember this process. And Detroit is just exactly like that. First it shrank a lot, becoming more and more like itself—tough and bitter and racial and mean and who-the-fuck-are-you-to-come-in-here-and-criticize-me kind of proud—and then just when it seemed things couldn’t possibly get any worse (but always did), just then, Detroit went global. It became—it is—probably the most famous city in America, maybe the world. Other places—London, Boston, Los Angeles, Beijing, New York, Sydney—people have heard of, sure, maybe even visited, maybe they recognize bits of the skyline, the Eifel tower, the Chrysler Building, the Opera House, stuff like that, and you ask someone, So, would you like to visit, and they have to think about the question because they take it seriously. Not Detroit. We’re the super-nova city; we’ve spread ourselves cosmically across the known world. And what everybody knows about Detroit is that they know enough to know they never want to come here. Pretty incredible. The city vanishes, and in its place there’s this imaginary cosmic metropolis: the global capital of urban undoing.
  4. I’m flying home, taking the long way around, following the river east, just like Cadillac did in 1701, past the Ren Cen, where he planted his flag and claimed everything in sight for good King Louis, and himself, the fresh green breast of this new world, which is how Scott Fitzgerald imagined those old explorers must have seen what they set foot upon—fueled with a hopefulness of extravagant proportion. So, past the Ren Cen, the plane heading east, and then the big banking turn, and the city spills itself into my window, all freeways and sprawl, smeared out toward the horizon, the Metro, 4.5 million people living in conflicted proximity but not necessarily together in this place like no other, and those freeways, great ribbons of concrete, invented right here, our Thames and Seine and Yangtze, great channels of commerce that overflowed their banks with unprecedented wealth, carrying everything along on that extravagant tide, houses and people and stores and schools, all cascading out onto the green banks of suburbia. Nobody had ever seen so much wealth so quickly made, by working people, flowing out of a place, and nobody probably will again, past the Mile Roads that mark the distance from the surveyor’s ground zero established when this was all still just a territory—Eight Mile, Ten Mile, Fourteen Mile, all the way to the pole, it seems, which is maybe what Cadillac had on his mind—out to the edgecity rim with its shiny office towers and hotels, shopping malls and people, lots of people with their burgeoning houses and cars and funny ways of looking at you when you answer their question, Where do you live? and you say Detroit, and they just can’t figure it out, as if they didn’t live here too, which of course they don’t, not in any way that matters.
  5. Here’s the thing, the city didn’t shrink, it’s the same size as always, 140 square miles give or take, pretty large for an American city, spread out, back when space was no problem, a place that never went vertical because it didn’t have to, with private houses, lots of private houses, so that when “half the goddam population left,” as Coleman A. Young put it, Detroit’s first African American mayor, when taxed by a TV talking head with the collapse of the city, when the people all left the empty footprint they left behind was exaggerated beyond what it would have been in a place like New York or Boston, where the density is greater, people stacked on top of each other, vertically, so that when they decamp, their leaving doesn’t create such an immediately visible hole. Not like here, block after block emptied out—schools and houses and the corner bank and bar, and stores and movie theaters and all the rest. Empty, in ruins. And the trees of heaven sprout, wild ailanthus, ghetto palms some people call them, on roof tops and in vacant lots, not like the elms that once-upon-a-time made this the “city of trees,” that nobody would think of calling that any more. And I walk through my three-hundred-years-old neighborhood downtown, bounded by streets named for the first French settlers, Rivard and St. Antoine and Beaubien, and in the fall especially I flush pheasants in the open fields where nature has begun to reclaim the city for other purposes, and my friend across the street sees coyotes passing through the back yard of his Mies van der Rohe townhouse. And that’s what freaks people out, not the ones that live here, but suburban evacuees who read stories about the critters in the Sunday papers and can’t imagine that this city built of steel could end up like this with weeds and wild things having their way. But it did.
  6. Can’t get enough of the driveby crowd — photographers and politicians, architects and assorted thrill-seekers who have to see first-hand to believe that an American place could end up like this. How could “they” let this happen they ask, gawking at the open secret, with the answer hiding in plain sight. “They” didn’t have to do anything. Detroit is this way by design, our exceptional American design, because this is the way we are, never intending to stay in town, only using this place like any other appliance to do what we wanted to do and then get the hell out, because we never meant to settle down with the past, which is what our so-called exceptionalism is all about, and what makes those other places—New York and Boston and Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston and Seattle—anachronistic quirks, nothing like the real America, which is here in Detroit, the city that all those other cities would be like if people went all the way, because that’s what we did here, so I look into the stupid faces of the tourists, feigning sympathy and interest. You just don’t get it, I’d like to tell them (if I weren’t exceedingly polite, which, in fact, I am). You don’t understand anything.
  7. Sooner or later you have to think about Conrad. Well, you really have to think of Conrad, in fact most people probably don’t, or else if they do, they probably wish they hadn’t because of the politically incorrect implications. But say you do let yourself think about Conrad, and that passage in Heart of Darkness, before the trip down that river, and before he gets mixed up with all the stuff that has been getting his story into trouble pretty much since it was first published, not that stuff, then, but the part where Marlow is sitting in the stern of the ship, in the Thames estuary, before the trip begins, watching the night fall, and he sees his way back to when London was one of the “dark” places of the earth, and he does a little imaginary time-traveling, thinking of the young Roman, sent out to mend his fortunes, who instead walks off into the forest where the wild people dwell, and Conrad imagines the state of that tender young citizen, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate, he writes. And the genius of the story, of course, is that the darkness that provokes this selfhatred is not so much the result of something “they” do to him, since comparatively speaking, they are powerless in the face of his superior intelligence and technology, no it’s something the young Roman does to himself, or sees in himself that causes all the harm: the darkness at the heart of things with all that civilizing of his being just a cover-up. A necessary cover-up, and certainly a congenial enough one. But a cover-up nevertheless. And that’s what gets revealed in the shrinking city, where the city doesn’t shrink, it’s all still here physically, when what shrinks is the cover of civility that otherwise conceals the truth. Not that I’m saying there’s some kind of metaphoric darkness at the heart of things, as if I presumed to know what that even means, but one thing I’m sure of is this and it’s not a metaphor. In Detroit, we’re just like everybody else in America, only more so.

A whole lot more so.

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