We Almost Lost Detroit

I was in Detroit this weekend catching up with my family and friends and was able to look at the city with fresh eyes. Distance is necessary to have criticality, which brings with it a discerning tone. For the next two weeks, I will be blogging about the city, pairing my new perspective with over two years of research and accumulated information, as well as my first-hand experience of working as a creative in the city.

My journey begins on the southwest side of Detroit and continues to the suburbs of Grosse Pointe, back to the Eastside, Hamtramck, downtown, and vicinity. The amalgam of all this shall be a selection of artists and projects that work to develop sustainability and creativity, whilst encouraging community.

It stands out on a highway, like a creature from another time. It inspires the babies’ questions, “What’s that?” For their mothers as they ride. But no one stopped to think about the babies or how they would survive, and we almost lost Detroit this time.

The lyrics above are taken from a 1966 song by Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson, written in response to the partial meltdown of the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Power Plant located halfway between Detroit and Toledo, OH. The plant is so enormous that the affects of the meltdown—had it not been contained—would have left both cities in ruin. Heron’s lyrics are a prolific metaphor for the tumultuous events of recent times.

Once the fifth most populated city in the United States, Detroit’s population has declined to less than 800,000, according to reports from the 2010 U.S. Census. The housing crisis, failed economy, closing schools, high crime, and poverty rates are the main stories that make the national and international headlines, despite the rich culture and creativity that is being fostered there.

Time, Inc. was one of the many who took the theme of the housing crisis as a motif for its reportage. In 2009, it purchased a home within the city limits (the more affluent area of Indian Village, to be precise) and began what it saw as hard journalism— reporting from ground zero as the “crisis” unfolded. Dubbed “Assignment Detroit,” Time, Inc. stationed staff writers in the city for extended periods of time and ran their stories in The New York Times, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, People, Essence, Real Simple, and Golf. The digital component was the Detroit Blog, which covered topics ranging from urban blight, the housing crisis, the urban gardening phenomenon, and the shifting economy.

The New York Times coverage gave the city such an important national and international audience. The publication took a platform of solidarity and invested in the city. All this notwithstanding, it can be difficult to measure the intent and success of the type of journalism that publishes photo essays fetishizing abandoned buildings. This is not something that Detroiters are proud of. People are not standing up and cheering for the masses of buildings that fall into disrepair and the houses that have become feral over the years. The rate of the city’s decline can be likened to the impact of an earthquake and the resulting aftershock, cataclysmic and instantaneous, yet gradual at the same time. The failed economy and housing crisis have caused individuals and families great suffering. This is what happens when people get up and leave a city in droves. The market falls out and things are abandoned—left to rot and decay.

The economy of the city is shifting, away from a mono-economy heavily dependent on the automobile industry to a post-industrial creative mecca. The city beckons artists, activists, academics, musicians, and other creative types who diversify the landscape and implement sustainable models of living. Urban gardening, craft fairs, independent businesses, public art projects, community-based art projects, open markets, raw food cafes, creperies, community development corporations, pop-up art galleries, and the like are invigorating the landscape. The structure has shifted, the results of which we are only beginning to see.

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful post. I look forward to reading your upcoming reports. I’ve been disconcerted about the recent rash of “ruin porn” – photography showcasing the dilapidated state of some Detroit buildings. I’d love to hear more about the current public art and community-based projects in Detroit. Maybe the fact that I grew up in Hamtramck has influenced my position. However, I think documenting the vibrancy of art communities is very important. These projects have the power to promote social change and progress.

  2. It is amazing what has happened to Detroit. People always told me that a city’s population is directly correlated to the jobs in town, but I didn’t wholeheartedly believe it until seeing the mass exodus that happened in Detroit.

  3. I agree that Detroit has seen it’s better days. But in spite of that there are many good things that are going on in the city. I hope that you have found some positives in the darkness. I think that the artist scene has really revitalized the downtown area and should be commended. I look forward to reading more about your take on the city with “new eyes”.

  4. sarah says:

    Really interested in seeing what comes next 🙂 I am currently a member of Detroit’s first Hackerspace-OmniCorp Detroit. We are trying our darnedest to create/build/make/teach out of Eastern Market and promoting that change you speak about (we also have our reservations about ruin porn). It is nice to encounter what seems to be a more balanced and personal point of view concerning Detroit and its surroundings. Happy travels, and let us know if we can be of any assistance; http://www.omnicorpdetroit.com !

  5. Pingback: Living in the Present | Art21 Blog

  6. julie Genser says:

    A thoughtful and well-written perspective on Detroit. Glenn highlights the he romanticism of the derelict and decay of Detroit much to the natives’ chagrin. One of the major movements in Detroit is that of Urban Gardening, reclaiming unused abandoned properties to produce fresh food in what is identified as a food desert. We at Jefferson Courthouse, a nascent non-profit, community-based organization are building an urban garden with a ceramic arts co/op on the astride of Detroit. We are in a land bid war to stop a nightclub owner from purchasing the adjacent vacant loss to our property to build a parking lot and mow down what has become am urban prairie on our backyard. We are located near a Hugh school, and are hoping the City will recognize the nightclub as a nuisance business and not be lured by the glitter of revenue alcohol cam bring in. Nightclubs at this location are not new, and has been the site of several shootings in the past. Detroit, please! Do the right thing! We are the city of the future!

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