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.

No comments: