Monday, July 16, 2012

My last thoughts on the sad plight of American cities - and the promised solution.

The modernist utopia of the city as a machine for living (Le Corbusier) is gone, together with the rest of modernist utopias: Communism, fascism, Nazism. I can recommend an excellent book by Mark Mazower "Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century" which describes the utopian tide that swept over the West in the aftermath of the butchery that was World War One - and its result in the even greater butchery of World War Two. So I will not mourn the loss of Detroit as a Fordian model for the future city, in which disciplined armies of uniformed workers produced uniform Models T for the uniformly happy citizens.

On the other hand, the deadly boredom of the suburbia is unsustainable, both economically and socially. I'm sick of seeing empty streets, occasionally relieved by a waddling figure of gargantuan proportions (this is, if the street even has a sidewalk).

So here is my own utopian solution. Bring in those "hungry multitudes" of Mexicans, Indians and Chinese who still believe in the American Dream abandoned by most Americans. Dump them in the ruined heart of Detroit, Oakland, Buffalo NY and similar urban wastelands. Promise them a path to citizenship if after five years they are still living in the city, paying taxes and have opened a small business or found a job. Send them back if they move to suburbia.

It's not going to happen, of course. There is no political will for doing something like this. And am I not contradicting myself, by mocking modernism's social engineering, while indulging in a social engineering of my own?

Very well, so I contradict myself, as Walt Whitman said. It is still the only way. Without it, American cities will die, while cities in the rest of the world (especially Asia) will grow and prosper. And cities are not only cultural and economic centers but a way to avoid the ecological catastrophe of cancerous growth, unrestrained traffic, and greenhouse-gas pollution.

On the other hand...On a recent visit to Oakland CA, which looks like Detroit's depressed sibling, we suddenly heard a buzz of human voices in the desert of abandoned buildings. We followed the sound...and were engulfed by a crowd of shoppers. They were all Chinese. Oakland's Chinatown on Sunday was so bustling that some dim-sum places had waiting lines. (Oh yes, the mayor of Oakland is Chinese).

"What is the city but the people?" Shakespeare, Coriolanus.            

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dispatches from Detroit - 2. Who Killed the Big D?

Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

I can just imagine the reactions to it. To most people, word associations with Detroit are: crime, decay, bankruptcy, apocalypse (not necessarily in this order). Most people are right, and still I stand by my assertion: Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

                                                       Part of the Rivera murals

Yesterday a couple of people from the conference I'm attending (Science Fiction Research Association annual gathering) drove to Detroit Institute of Art. This is a world-class museum, better and bigger than the De Young and Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It has a stunning collection of contemporary art, a great 19th century display (including Whistler, Pissarro and Gauguin), and the jaw-dropping atrium painted with murals by Diego Rivera. The murals show Detroit in the 1930s - the city of the future, with the industrial armies marching boldly into the working-class utopia of glass, skyscrapers and red stars (Rivera was a communist, a fact tactfully avoided by our helpful guide). But no matter: the murals are so stunning that for a moment one feels like belting out "The International". The atrium (newly renovated) should be filled with oohing and aahing crowds - and in San Francisco it would be. This Saturday morning in Detroit a couple of tourists wandered through the giant museum, looking lost and vaguely embarrassed.

Outside the museum, broad avenues of Art Deco high-rises, brownstone mansions and jewel-box churches stretched into the sunlight. The high-rises are abandoned -  vertical ghost-towns. The brownstones are locked up. The churches are burnt. In five blocks, we saw one person - a homeless black shambling through the empty city like an escapee from a zombie invasion.

                                                These skyscrapers are empty

The municipality has dotted the downtown with pretty little parks. I was relieved to see them empty. This morning, one of the participants in my panels described those green places as sites where bodies are dumped. I guess they had been removed earlier.

So what happened? Who killed the Big D? One of my fellow visitors reminded us of the concerted efforts of car companies in the mid-twentieth century to undermine public transportation. There are no more streetcars named desire, and Ford, GM and the rest of them are to blame. There is racism, of course. Segregation is just a word until you see the streets of Detroit where a white face means a visitor. And there is an all-American glorification of small-town life, which has created the nation of overweight gun-toting SUV-drivers. And still, it seems unbelievable  to me that a symbol of national aspirations and a world-class city would be just left to rot. Can you imagine the English walking away from London? The Italians abandoning Rome?

I have no complete answer to this enigma. But do I have a solution for Detroit? You bet. See the next installment.