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Detroit City: What's Going On

Mark Binelli’s book The Last Days of Detroit is a relevant account for many languishing post-industrial cities

The logic which determines how American book titles are adapted for a UK audience is inscrutable. In the case of Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli’s recent lovesong to his native city, the American title Detroit City Is the Place to Be nails the essence of the book far more effectively than the humdrum UK version. This is not a humdrum book, and it’s a compelling read for anyone interested in cities.

Ever since I can remember, Detroit has suffered from a bad reputation: a failing, crime-ridden black inner city surrounded by affluent white suburbs, made worse by the beleaguered American automobile industry incapable of grasping new realities and competition from abroad. Why would outsiders visit Detroit, except perhaps to attend the annual automobile show in January?

The city is what Binelli calls ‘porous’, literally up for grabs. It’s cheap, and it’s broke

But they do, and in droves. Artists, photographers, urban planners, architects and creatives generally: lots of New Yorkers and many Europeans too. As long ago as 1995, Chilean photographer Camilo Jose Vergara observed that Detroit’s abandoned downtown could become an ‘American acropolis.’ What was America’s fourth largest city almost a century ago, when Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off the production line, now reports 90,000 vacant buildings. Of the city’s 139 square miles, up to 30 per cent is vacant land. The city is what Binelli calls ‘porous’, literally up for grabs. It’s cheap, and it’s broke.

Two recent photography books, one by the American Andrew Moore and the second by the French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, document the eerie beauty of these abandoned buildings in excruciating detail, a vogue of photography termed ‘ruin porn.’ While the more dramatic of these are office buildings and theatres from the city’s heyday, as well as the obsolete automobile production plants (such as Albert Kahn’s 3,500,000 sq ft Packard Plant located on 35 acres and closed since 1958 – a legendary site of techno raves in the 1990s), others are just the usual stock of urban blight, empty storefronts and many, many abandoned homes.

Detroit is ground zero for ‘the beginning of something else’

‘Greenland might be called ground zero of the broader climate crisis,’ says Binelli, while Detroit is ground zero for ‘the beginning of something else.’ A buoyant DIY culture has erupted from Detroit’s political and economic collapse. Binelli describes eastside African-American artist Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, an ongoing sculptural installation which occupies several city blocks and now receives upwards of 50,000 visitors annually, and work by community gardener Mark Covington, one of the more enterprising of the 875 gardeners and urban farmers documented in a 2009 study. Researchers from Michigan State University have calculated that Detroit’s nearly 5,000 acres of vacant land, if cultivated, could provide 75 per cent of the vegetables and 40 percent of fresh fruits for all the city’s residents. 

The cumulation of these initiatives makes them much more than one-off events. Art happenings abound. New York artist Matthew Barney’s 2010 Khu began with a buffet brunch for 200 in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Great Hall (which boasts 27 Diego Rivera frescoes commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son) and concluded with a performance in an abandoned automobile plant.

’..it makes for a very creative cocktail which encourages risk-taking and experimentation’

Detroit hosted DC3, its second annual design festival, last autumn. Lizzie Hines, deputy head of South Kensington exhibitions at the V&A, recently completed a review of the Detroit Design Festival. Hines describes Detroit as ‘the most exciting city I’ve been to in a really long time. It’s oozing with potential. What it has and what it lacks are so different to any other city that it makes for a very creative cocktail which encourages risk-taking and experimentation.’

The most insightful parts of Binelli’s book chronicle his encounters with former autoworkers, local firefighters, pregnant teenage girls in a special charter school and the local justice system. His experience of enrolling in a gun safety and proficiency class, required for anyone who wishes to carry a concealed weapon, is an apt reminder of Detroit’s seamier side. Binelli’s description of showing up at 8am on a Sunday morning  in the conference room of a suburban hotel along with nine others to learn the basics of self-defence makes the stark reality of Detroit’s high murder rate much more immediate than the equally shocking statistics he cites.

The policy challenge that Detroit faces is bleak. The city is shrinking, suffering what Binelli terms ‘a decades-long population bleed’, confirmed by the 2010 census, which reported a 25 per cent decline in population in the previous decade. Last month, following the publication of Binelli’s book, Detroit’s mayor officially launched Detroit Future City, a strategic framework for economic and community development, the culmination of a two-year planning process supported by the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation. The $4 million study funded Harvard professor and urban planner Toni Griffin to lead a community engagement process throughout the city with a team which included SOM for urban design, AECOM for a landscape, ecology and environment audit, and Boston-based Stoss Landscape Urbanism.

This is a vision of landscape as a tool for urban regeneration

The 357-page framework identifies neighbourhoods for investment, as well as setting out a decades-long transformation plan for the approximately 30 per cent of the city that is currently vacant, proposing woodlands, orchards, urban farms and reservoirs. This is a vision of landscape as a tool for urban regeneration. According to Binelli, many Detroiters – natives and newcomers alike – are highly sceptical of this top-down approach. Currently the plan has no financial backing, but Binelli suggests that the plan ‘could end up being one of the boldest reimaginings of urban space in modern US history’.

Could the Detroit Works Project spell a comeback narrative for Detroit, an approach with relevance for many other languishing post-industrial areas in America and abroad? A group of students from the University of East London is among many who are flocking to Detroit to find out. In preparation for a study trip this summer, which has seed funding of £3,000 from the university, a group of six Part 1 and Part 2 students, dubbed the ‘Project Detroit’ team, plan to compare developer-led regeneration in east London with community-led regeneration in Detroit.

With private foundation funding, Detroit’s Wayne State University has launched the Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program to attract talented professionals to a two-year employment period in a ‘Detroit-centric’ organisation. The biographies of the first 29-strong cohort range from native Detroiters educated elsewhere and returning to teach in the public schools to a landscape architect interested in ‘urban wilds’ snapped up to work for a local utility company.

Though the creative industries and urban greening are gaining traction in Detroit, one can’t help but wonder about the other desperate narratives in Binelli’s book: failing schools, rampant crime and arson, and a heavily disenfranchised population for whom skateboard artparks and design happenings only scratch the surface of the fundamental change required to turn the city around. A recent study revealed that 60 percent of Detroit children live in poverty. But Binelli is optimistic and, if you read Detroit blogs – Model D, Detroit Urban Innovation Exchange, Data Driven Detroit, to name a few – it’s contagious, despite inevitable underlying tensions. At a minimum, it makes you want to see it for yourself.

The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant, by Mark Binelli, Bodley Head, January 2013

Readers' comments (1)

  • stewart dodd

    A great read if you are obsessed with the decay of the great American cities. Mark Campbell and I took our Architectural Association unit to Detroit in December 2012 following on from our previous trips to the Mississippi Delta and the Salton Sea. Detroit resonates with post industrial failure, the once great Motor City which has now forgotten the car and the people who produced them. The enormous empty industrial plants like the Packard are a reflection of this once great city, but now there lingers only wasteland and poverty. On the fringes there is a hope, a few pockets of energy percolate through the city, like Phil Cooley's Pony Ride and Slows BBQ. Maybe there is hope for the Motor City in the future, although it will be hard to stop the ruin obsessed photographers flying in to capture the death sentence.
    Stewart Dodd, April 2013.

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