Schrödinger’s Detroit

by Misha Lepetic

Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.
~Marvin Gaye

548785_detroit-la-nouvelle-terre-promiseIs Detroit alive or dead? It depends, I suppose, on your viewpoint, or what kind of attention you might be paying in the first place. In January, the New York Times previewed a brief little docu on scrap metal ‘salvagers’ in Detroit (or are they thieves? As always, this depends on your point of view). At any rate, it highlighted for me what are two emerging – and competing – narratives of Detroit. These two narratives – I’ll call them ‘ruin porn’ versus ‘our very own Berlin’ – provoke attention for two reasons. The first is the reminder that contradictory views can be maintained with equanimity within and about the same built environment. This is not so difficult to countenance, since cities do support many seemingly contradictory narratives. In fact, cities are exceptionally adept at this, and is one of the chief reasons what makes them so enjoyable. The second reason is more interesting, however, since it provides some insights into how we choose to look at cities.

Detroit’s ruin porn narrative has gotten lots of play over the years. I remember the first time I ever heard it, actually – as a punchline in the Kentucky Fried Movie, ca. 1977. Since then, as received wisdom would have it, Detroit has had plenty of time and opportunity to keep at this downward trajectory. More recently, art book browsers could enjoy a chorus line of weighty photo-essays appealing to our rubbernecking tendencies: please consider the fact that these three books were all published within the span of a year (although I have to ask, where is Robert Polidori when you really need him?).

Add to this list the Times’s featured doc-let, which is in fact a trailer for a feature-length effort called ‘Detropia’ recently shown at Sundance and soon to be premiering at the IFC Center in New York (I’m assuming that ‘detritus’+‘topia’=‘Detropia’. Got that? Ok, good). This is dystopia at its finest: when it’s not dark, everything is grey, muddy, cold and generally nicely prepped for the end of the world. When they’re not pulling down decrepit factory buildings for scrap using badly outclassed pickup trucks, these Detropians are a grumpy, hard-scrabble lot that crack wise while warming themselves by a trash fire. I don’t know about the rest of the film, but the city depicted in the trailer is a place where I wouldn’t settle for anyone less than Snake Plisskin as my tour guide cum personal security detail. In any case, all our narrative is missing is some Chinese guy in a shiny suit peeling off a few hundred yuan as payment, and we would be all set for globalization’s last act.


An-amassment-of-colors-by-detroit-derekHowever, we all know that hope springs eternal in the human breast. Our other thread is the resurrection narrative, where scrappy Detroiters are rallying around their city, and rebuilding it in the spirit of a DIY revolution. It is particularly interesting to note the extent to which this narrative is about food and agriculture. Whereas the ‘ruin porn’ narrative is about disassembling and selling civilization for scrap, urban resurrection signifies that you’ve tumbled all the way down Maslow’s hierarchy and are starting to claw your way up all over again, which initially means having a place to sleep and something to eat. This is not a new narrative for Detroit, either. The first time I ever heard of urban agriculture was within the context of Detroit’s abandoned lots, sometime in 1998. More recently, its boosters have touted Detroit as the first city in the United States with the chance to be completely self-sufficient in terms of food production.

Even this story, however, has its ungainly bits. For example, how do its narrators accommodate the appearance of a financial-services entrepreneur who wants to convert a total of 10,000 acres of empty lots into productive farmland, and quick? Just as Detropia’s filmmakers may prefer the company of fly-by-night scrap thieves, grassroots advocates likely prefer the lot-by-lot approach: smallholders rebuilding the urban fabric, one bartered zucchini at a time. From this point of view, it is easy to be mistrustful of John Hantz’s ambition. But it gets much worse, since a key characteristic of our narrative – in fact, its ultimate promise and the guarantee of its success – is that abundance is always-already present. It is competition for resources that has put us on the road to our current state of perdition. Along comes Hantz, however, stating that Detroit “cannot create value until we create scarcity. Large-scale farming could begin to take land out of circulation in a positive way.”

Hantz’s position, while obviously anathema to our story so far, ought not to surprise anyone. After all, Detroit is still located in the United States of America, with its accompanying respect for private property, enforcement of contracts, fiat money system, and all the rest of the accoutrements of late-stage capitalism. It’s not like Kevin Costner is delivering the mail to the good citizens of Detroit. Having a capitalist show up in the heart of the place and moment that a grassroots movement had just – just! – begun to call its own is, in fact, perhaps the most American thing of all.

But, like the soils of Detroit, contradictions within the resurrection narrative continue to bloom. In fact, urban agriculture is just the beginning for Detroit, since, once your belly is full, it’s time to make art. Here is where conceptualizing Detroit as “our very own Berlin” passes Go and collects $200. It says something about our facile self-regard as a society that we accept (expect?) the media’s simplistic leapfrog from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy to the top; why wait any longer to become the next TriBeCa? It occurs to me that there might be a few more steps between cultivating vegetables in your garden and cultivating artists in your gallery, but not much of that stuff in between makes for really good copy. Exhibit A here is Richard Florida dressing up accountants as members of the “creative class” to give his über-theory the play it needed.

Scarry_bankI am, of course, being unnecessarily waggish. Jane Jacobs, whose greatest gift to us was her endless supply of common sense, wrote of the importance of old building stock as vital capital for new ideas and commerce (187ff). The fact that Detroit has plenty of supply, low density and therefore low rents makes her prescription correct at this moment, even in the eyes of contemporary critics such as Edward Glaeser (who would doubtless welcome the eventual manifestation of people like John Hantz as proof positive of progress). And certainly no one disputes that it will take Richard Scarry’s full assortment of townspeople to establish a credible revitalization of any real duration. But – and this is the interesting bit – Detroit somehow inspires people to compare it to Berlin. Why is this? After all, Berlin is flat, spread out, not dense, cheap and therefore full of artists and designers. Both Berlin and Detroit were, in their respective heydays, economic powerhouses and centers of industrial innovation. Moreover, both cities are considered epicenters of techno music. So Detroit must be our Berlin, right?


Not really. This is more of a manifestation of our desire to make sense of our environment by finding patterns where there are none (a phenomenon also known as apophenia, a delicious word for a delicious concept). As Mitch McEwen writes:

If Detroit is being called the next Brooklyn or Berlin, it is possibly because we have not yet sufficiently understood what Brooklyn and Berlin are made of. We have not yet created the terms of assessment, parsed the mechanisms at work, so we must point from one thing to another, like a child calling every dog by the name of the family puppy. “Look, it’s another Fido, and another!”

In general, urban studies seems particularly susceptible to this sort of analytical roughhousing. For example, the Los Angeles School of urbanism sought to deep-six the older Chicago School by positing the urban form of Los Angeles as the future template for the global city. Indeed, the LA School has gained significant traction, to the point that I have even heard Karachi discussed in these terms. Really? Karachi?

The real reason for ebb and flow of various –isms, of course, can be located in the struggles between academics who vie for the directorships of various schools, institutes and centers, and the funding that usually accompanies such laurels. Anyone who can create – or even better, brand – a movement is sitting pretty indeed. Richard Florida’s catch-all “creative class” theory that I mentioned above is one such example; another is the recent brouhaha at Harvard’s venerable Graduate School of Design that led to the ascent of “ecological urbanism”.

Fortunately, thoughtful scholars such as Martin Murray (whose ideas around “post-modern urban forms” I have touched on here and here) and others have indicted the ease with which we commit these errors of pattern fabrication. Murray forcefully insists that each city ought to be understood on its own terms, and the quick comparison is only tempting and insidious. You can say that Karachi and Los Angeles both have terrible traffic, but you can’t say that that’s what makes them similar, without examining each city’s geography, transportation mix, and the various histories of planning, economics and growth. Such gestures, however, are easy and provide us with the added absolution of the need for further thinking. Traffic is traffic, but with this approach it remains symptomatic, superficial, and incomprehensible.

300px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R77767,_Berlin,_Rotarmisten_Unter_den_LindenReturning to the comparison between Detroit and Berlin, then, we may then wonder if any of the following facts really ought to make a difference. For example, has Detroit ever been the capital of its nation, or been bombed and occupied by neighboring countries, or let alone recently emerged from a history of a wall that literally cleaved the city in half? Conversely, has Berlin laboured under the consequences of decades of white flight, the evisceration of its public transportation network, or the more-or-less irrevocable fade-out of a once-mighty industrial raison d’être? Could Detroit claim the mantle of the most multi-cultural city of its nation? And would Berlin’s citizenry or government tolerate the (very recalcitrant) private ownership of the city’s main train station? Doubtful: the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is, in fact, now the largest train station in Europe, and serves a population that is approximately 5 times the size of Detroit’s. In fact, that much-celebrated yardstick of urban success, density, tells us that these are very different cities: Berlin’s is almost twice that of Detroit. So, what was it that we were comparing, again?

These are a few fundamental differences that I conjured up in about two minutes of lazy thinking, and fact-checked in a few minutes more. But this also illustrates why we seduce ourselves with narratives, whether they are about ruination or resurrection. Difference is so ubiquitous and bewildering that we look for a story that will tie it all together. If the story is easy to follow and rewards some already well-trodden assumptions, even better. It is all too inviting, and generally inconsequential, to allow the story to supersede the reality.

But the disciplines that are intended to critique and intervene in our built environment are not so easily excused. The problematic around the “comparative” thrust of urban studies can be summed up like this: Does the significance of the similarities outweigh the significance of the differences? And how do you know? Most schools of thought do not bother to understand what difference a difference really makes. It gets even more contentious when those same schools of thought assert that they have identified the right similarities and differences. This matters because when you begin thinking that you know how things compare, you start creating policy, and then you wonder why something that worked in one city abjectly failed in another.

Beyond this, however, is the fact that urban policy never occurs in a vacuum, or merely at academic conferences. The people who are subjected to, refract, rebel against and resign themselves to policy and its consequences – they remain. Are we to not heed them and learn from their desire or indifference? In a thoughtful essay on what living among the “ruins” of a city like Detroit might truly entail, Jerry Herron writes:

I feel like Gibbon’s Petrarch, then: astonished at the seeming indifference of the local citizenry to Detroit’s monumental fragments, humbled at the discovery that after 30 years in the city I seem to know more about its crumbling relics than the natives do — many of them, at least. But these are not ruins from some distant age; they are distinctly mine; and I find it hard to recover Gibbon’s hearty self-satisfaction at the “supine indifference” of Roman natives. Here in Detroit, the city has been ruined by the same people who still inhabit it. So the question is, who understands better what the place really means: the person who tries to remember it, or the one who lets it go?

Oh, and something else that’s funny about this whole “Detropia” thing? Go to what you would think would be the film’s website and see what’s really there: a woman who bought a house, and is turning it into a home. This process involves both salvage and scrap, and gardens and renewal. It is also a pithy microcosm of the socioeconomic turmoil that will mark the struggle for progress in the United States for the foreseeable future, but I will let you explore that for yourself. In any case, what better narrative could anyone ask for?