Saturday, June 20, 2009

Interesting article on Detroit

The article goes by the title Letter from the Motor City (h/t Leanan at The Oil Drum). I look at Detroit as something of a harbinger. Clearly there is the decay associated with the previous era:
The ruins of Detroit are no less spectacular, no less heartbreaking, than those of fallen ancient capitals. A beaux-arts railway station, its 18 stories vacant for the last two decades, crumbles under the tread of scavengers and vandals, its tracks pulled up, its windows punched out. A once-grand movie palace, on the site where Henry Ford built his first automobile, lives on as a derelict parking structure. Marvels of industrial architecture bleach in the sun, disappearing under urban prairies, green and garbage-strewn meadows that line the city's major avenues.

The city's disappearing act is matched by its vanishing institutions. For Chrysler and General Motors, these are the days and nights of Chapter 11 - the American bankruptcy code which allows reorganization and repudiation of contracts - while Ford attempts a desperate restructuring of its own. The ingenious legions of bankruptcy lawyers may labor in New York courtrooms (where the process is supposed to be faster, and relatively less painful), but Motor City is the site of the pileup. As bankruptcy loomed over Detroit, I went to take the city's pulse.

Unemployment in the metro region pushes towards 14 percent, the highest in the country, and rising. Municipal bonds are at junk status. The city fathers - those not ousted in successive scandals over marital infidelity, perjury, the death of an exotic dancer, and improper text messaging - grapple with a $300 million budget shortfall. Infrastructure buckles and frays. The population declines: a city of nearly two million souls in 1950 musters fewer than a million in 2009.

And yet:

...over the long Memorial Day weekend in May, more than 75,000 electronic music fans streamed into Hart Plaza on the renovated waterfront, dancing ecstatically in the shadows cast by empty skyscrapers.

Young Detroiters prefer to boast that their city gave the world techno music, rather than harp on the invention of the modern assembly line or on the Nation of Islam (which came into being in 1930, in the city's Linwood Avenue neighborhood). Every year, one of the world's largest electronic music festivals pays homage to the small group of African-American producers and DJs who fused local traditions of funk and Motown with avant-garde European electronica in the early 1980s. Soon the sound had spread to cutting-edge clubs, underground raves, and plucky record labels around the world.

One of the pioneer DJs, Derrick May, described it as a "complete mistake... like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company." Yet this unlikely fusion - ethereal and driving, futurist and vintage, high concept and for the masses - fits Detroit well. Recent standard bearers of the Detroit aesthetic include Carl Craig, who is equally at home remixing Ravel and Mussorgsky or juicing up a dance floor, and Jay Dilla, a hip hop producer who achieved transcendence by discovering obscure soul records and sampling them flawlessly.


The city's bright spots are small-scale, experimental efforts. Immigration - particularly from Africa and the middle east (the city of Dearborn is by now the acknowledged center of Arab America) - is one hope of the revivalists. Bringing back manufacturing - electric car startups, green job schemes, and high-speed rail plants have all been mentioned - is another. To boost local businesses, a new, homegrown currency, the Detroit Cheers, was recently launched.

Mostly in their 20s and 30s, Detroit's several hundred urban farmers, linked by the Detroit Agriculture Network, have their own answer to the shrinking city. Many sell their produce at Eastern Market, one of America's largest and oldest public markets, currently being restored to greatness shed by shed. Some farmers are growing vegetables along Woodward Avenue, the city's main drag, which runs from the riverfront to the suburbs. Others establish community gardens the size of postage stamps wherever they can.

On the depressed east side, Tyree Guyton and other artists have transformed a section of derelict Heidelberg Street into an vast outdoor art project. Dozens of discarded stuffed animals hang from the sides of a boarded-up house. Regiments of defunct vacuum cleaners, waving gloves from their handles, mark out an overgrown garden. Shopping carts defy gravity on an exposed treetop.

Any "green shoots" are going to be apparently small scale and, well, green. If viewed through the lense of someone hoping to restore Detroit to that of its former industrial-era glory, there doesn't seem much reason for hope - only more decay. The ruins from the previous era will be around as reminders, no doubt. What will be interesting to watch is how the relatively youthful denizens refashion the community on a smaller scale, in a more environment-friendly manner, and in the process offer a blueprint for the rest of us who look for ways to transition from the old "dream" of sprawling suburbs and exurbs to something more realistic within the limits of our remaining economic and natural resources.

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