Detroit: the picture in our attic

I haven’t seen that many of the great American cities. I have visited New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, but not San Francisco, LA, Atlanta, or Seattle. However, I can say that I have lived in one: Detroit. It still remains my favourite. It saddens me greatly that this vibrant town has become a byword for depression and misery.

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In the Summer of 1985, I spent six weeks at Wayne State University Law School, which had an exchange programme with my home university. (This may seem odd, until one adds the information that the University of Warwick was actually sited on the edge of Coventry, the closest Britain came to having a Motor City.) In retrospect, this was a very happy time. I had work to do (mainly researching the activities of the Department of Housing and Urban Development with special reference to the Urban Development Action Grant program), but I also explored the city itself. Not just the civic magnificence of Woodward Ave (the Public Library and the Institute of Arts), but also the commercial opulence of the Fisher Building and General Motors Building in the New Center and the comparatively characterless Renaissance Center downtown.

My recollection of the city, though, is not rooted in these overbearing buildings and boulevards. It was the people and heart of Detroit that I fell for. Even in the mid-80s the beginning of decay was obvious. There were neighbourhoods that had not been touched since being burned in the 1967 riots. Few streets were without a gap where a house had been torched. Even so, everyone I met was unfailingly courteous and welcoming. I walked nearly everywhere, and never felt particularly unsafe. (Although being propositioned by a rather seedy gentleman downtown one afternoon was a bit of a low point. He thought I was Canadian.)

Because of GM and their ilk, Detroit is very much in the news at the moment. Whatever the cost to the American tax-payer (which appears to be the greatest concern to the likes of the Harvard Business School and the Wall Street Journal), the real cost is being felt by the people of Detroit left behind as their more mobile neighbours abandon this great city. As Don Witt, the cab driver in the interview above, puts it:

They [the motor industry] have always been the heart of Detroit — the heart and soul of Detroit. They made the middle class in Detroit. If General Motors and Chrysler go bankrupt, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the city for a while. … You’re actually destroying the middle class of Detroit so that, along with the city, you’re going to have to rebuild the middle class.

[I hope non-UK readers can see the footage. There is an associated story on the BBC News website.]

Bill Ives recently linked to a touching collection of photographs of Detroit’s dereliction. Others have also documented the physical toll wrought by the decline of this city.

I cannot pretend to understand all of this. But I feel that Detroit (along with similar cities) bore the brunt of our prosperity. Just as Dorian Gray stayed beautiful as his picture aged, we have prospered as Detroit suffered. It suited the motor industry to concentrate its activities (almost to the exclusion of everything else) in a small number of locations. As a consequence, the failure of that industry brings about the failure of the city. There was no back-up plan. The diversity of Detroit’s people was not matched by diversity in its industrial leaders. That is surely unforgiveable.

1 thought on “Detroit: the picture in our attic”

  1. In the penultimate sentence, what I meant to say was that there was no diversity of thought, no creativity, no imagination that things might be different, and therefore no planning for those alternatives.

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