Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dispatches from Detroit - 1. Can One Enjoy a Dead City?

Detroit has an impressive GM center, a new riverside walk, and a spacious downtown, encircled by a light rail called "People Mover." What it does not have is people.

Detroit has become a symbol of the death of American cities. On my first visit here, I am beginning to understand that this death is a more complicated process than I supposed - a slow, gnawing decline rather than an apocalyptic destruction. I came expecting burnt-out streets and gutted buildings. I'm sure there are many such sights in the outer rings of the city but from where I am now - on the 14t-h floor of  a downtown hotel - Detroit looks very grand indeed. The skyscrapers, some in Art Deco style, are somewhat shabby but there is a crystal cluster of the new Renaissance Center by GM to promise new architectural glories. There are small parks, sky-walks, and wide pavements.

And no people. The parks are empty; the glass sky-walks are blazing with sunlight, unobstructed by moving bodies; even the river's placid flow is not marred by boats or cargo ships. The concrete labyrinth of RenCen should be bustling with retail and eateries: similar places in Asia shock you into parting with your money in a myriad colorful ways. A dejected pharmacy, a couple of junk food places, and a single boutique is all you get in this GM showpiece (well, there are also cars on display on the ground floor).

The giant riverside walk which is beautiful enough to make Melbourne is populated by a couple of cyclists and a group of black women in yellow t-shirts pathetically trying to undo the lifetime of junk food consumption by walking. There is a sign "God Bless America" on the terminal for crossing into Canada.

It is people who make a city. And the people are not here. Where are they? In the suburbia? Why? What made Americans give up this great city that for so long was a symbol of American pluck and ingenuity?
Why did they leave behind this beautiful urban corpse? I came expecting a Mad Max urban wasteland and found a sad mausoleum. What makes it even sadder is the fact that it refuses to die. The city fathers are  investing in revitalizing the downtown. Volunteers are organizing bus tours of local businesses. But one cannot have shops without customers; streets without pedestrians; cities without citizens.

The few local faces one sees on the streets are all black. Is this the key? The white escape to the suburbia is a well-documented phenomenon but it is spooky to see it so palpably in action. And still, racism aside, the mystery remains. Segregation is, unfortunately, a well-known urban phenomenon. But why did the affluent whites abandon the beauty and grandeur of the city center to the impoverished blacks? This is the opposite of what is happening in many European cities where the minorities are expelled into the boring, faceless suburbia.

Perhaps I will find an answer later. Still, I am enjoying downtown Detroit. It is the same kind of enjoyment one has in contemplating the ruins of other dead cities.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".  (Percy Bysshey Shelley, "Ozymandias")

1 comment:

Vadim Gorodetsky said...

Sounds like something out of a certain Philip K. Dick novel. Perhaps the reasons are somewhat similar. Wasn't Detroit heavily industrialized and needed a lot of cheap labor, so it attracted a lot of blacks and other minorities. Maybe, the resulting crime rise and good old racism eventually pushed the whites away, leaving the impoverished blacks with no means for large consumption due to low salaries, thus starving the local businesses and factories, driving the city even deeper into crime and abandonment.