Detroit, I do mind

The metal grill inside the doorway I squeezed through looks solid enough, so I edge out across it, feeling for flaws beneath the dust. To my left is the pit, open like a grave; ahead, the chair-less floor looks madly slanted. Light falls in through the round windows in swing doors at the back. There is a little box office squeezed in beside them. Above my head, the curve of the upper circle is just visible. Once-ornate plaster clings on, rotted with damp. For a second I imagine a rowdy audience up there, but the illusion passes.

I’m in the wings of Detroit’s National Theatre, one of many empty buildings that have come to characterise the city. It was built in the 1890s in what the Historic Detroit website calls ‘Baroque-Moorish-Beaux-Arts hybrid with a Moroccan or Egyptian flavour’; it’s stylised tile facade now looks out of place from the street. The theatre’s vaudeville glory days were, perhaps predictably, replaced by burlesque when burlesque was still seedy. This was followed by several attempts to revive the theatre’s fortunes through cinema. The last thing playing before its closure was X-rated porn.

In 1976, the building was bought by a parking company. The surrounding area, the once thriving Monroe theatre district, was razed in the 1980s; the Detroit Opera House and the Gayety, Temple, Columbia, Liberty and Family theatres were replaced with car parks. The National Theatre was spared demolition because of its heritage value, which has since been compromised by significant decay.

Many people I know share a common vision of the end of the world. When humans are gone, we imagine, the wilderness will grow over the ruins of our civilisation. Weeds will break through the cement. Tree roots will crack the foundations of buildings. Decay will restore some kind of natural equilibrium. The absence of human beings will allow the planet to find its level. It’s everywhere, this set of images; it’s even played out in beautiful blow-by-blow detail in Alan Weisman’s 2007 bestseller World without Us. Looking at ‘empties’ is compelling, in part, because their decay evokes this vision.

It’s a vision that can feel radical. It seems to arrive in opposition to the obsession with growth – with the new – that surrounds us. But it can also be argued that the fantasy apocalypse is a kind of release valve that absolves human beings of any responsibility to the future. If nature is going to grow back after us, then there is no reason not to use up all available resources on the pleasure of being alive, here and now. This is the meeting point of ‘ruin porn’, Christian redemption and the nihilism of an expansionist free market. Looking at empties tempts the observer to see her culture and her planet from the outside, as if in retrospect. It positions the observer as a non-participant. Arguably, the pull of ruins is nothing but a kind of projected gloating.

I’m in Detroit to marvel at these relics. This is what I’m doing with my holidays. Many people have been here before me; some of them, such as Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, took famous photographs, poignant with wreck, that now feature in listicles and coffee-table books. The term ruin porn was coined for this city, suggesting that its decay titillates those who come to witness it. I’m well aware of the implied predation behind my taking pleasure in Detroit’s faded glory.

Before arriving, I booked an Airbnb room in a sharehouse half an hour by bus from downtown. It turns out that is on a good day – that is, when the buses show up. I walk through neighbourhoods where half the houses have been demolished and the other half are collapsing, overgrown with weeds. I was expecting the empties downtown, but Detroit’s fallen suburbs are a sad surprise. Some blocks are entirely tumbledown; sometimes it’s hard to tell if a house is uninhabited or just badly neglected by its landlord. The suburban architecture is doll’s-house Americana gone gothic: timber shingles and peaked roofs, the kind of houses parodied in cartoons and fairground ghost trains. The emptiness of the suburbs feels like something out of Stephen King, but just as it begins to get spooky, I enter a neighbourhood like any other middle-class neighbourhood in any other Midwest city. People carry oversized coffees, jog, talk into their headsets.

Detroit is scaled for cars, not pedestrians: its suburbs are absurdly spread out; its streets long stretch marks pulling away from a gutted centre. I feel dwarfed in a way I never do in Beijing, where I presently live. The city’s population peaked at 1.8 million in 1950 and has since dwindled to 670,000. The massive growth of the auto industry in the first half of the twentieth century made Detroit one of the fastest growing cities in America. But then the factories closed and the postwar dream of outer suburbia beckoned. The 1967 riots punctuated, rather than caused, the economic phenomenon of ‘white flight’.

As I approach downtown, its vintage skyscrapers seem to shrink, and then to creep apart like awkward cousins at a funeral. Slowly, their embellishments become clearer. These ornate buildings were built in an era when the rich still moved among us. There are more vacant lots downtown than buildings now. It is strange to see so much space. Once inside the gap-toothed skyline, I look up at the empties. Standing among them evokes a complex set of feelings, the sharpest of them a sort of melancholic awe.

Ruin appreciation is nothing new. The temples of the Delphic oracle, a pagan institution that withered away under Christian Rome, were finished off by an earthquake in the fourth century, then attracted tourists as early as the fifth. Ruins obsessed the Renaissance painters, then entranced the Romantics, who as well as being morbid wanted a connection to past struggles – to make visible the fault lines of power. CF Volney, who visited Homs during the French Revolution, wrote: ‘Now behold what remains of this powerful city: a miserable skeleton! … Ah! How has so much glory been eclipsed? How have so many labours been annihilated? Do thus perish then the works of men – thus vanish empires and nations?’ Ruins made the possibility of revolution visible. The knowledge that Homs is now a palimpsest of ruins gives this plaint a little too much contemporary resonance. But the laments for a lost Detroit, while seeking those same fracture lines in contemporary empires, can also be overwrought, sentimental. There is a little too much schadenfreude.

This isn’t the only German word that comes to mind. The other is Ruinenwerttheorie, a concept developed by the architects of the 1936 Berlin Olympic venues, particularly Albert Speer. Translated as the ‘theory of ruin value’, the idea was to create buildings that would leave behind good-looking corpses. Hitler was attracted by the idea of his Reich leaving monuments to rival those of ancient Greece and Rome. Ruins are, at least in part, a fantasy of ego. It appeals to human vanity to imagine our own remains persisting. Of course, imagining ourselves as history also means imagining our own demise.

Detroit’s welcome to tourists like me is half enthusiastic, half resigned; a mixture of pride in their unique city and a shrug at its macabre attractiveness. I’m delighted to find that some of the iconic buildings have hand-painted signs informing visitors of their history, a DIY version of heritage plaques. They are signed simply ‘Rat’, and the one on the National Theatre tells me that Detroit ‘once was the greatest city in the nation’.

Recreational trespassing is obviously common, and some building owners have even made an effort to police it. When I drop by the famous Michigan Central Station, a glorious monolith occasionally featured in blockbuster films, the security guard sitting on a chair in the sun won’t let me behind the razor wire. Elsewhere, boards hang open like an invitation. Wounds become entry points. Broken windows have bricks left stacked beneath them, reminding me of the way people might move a stone or clear a branch to maintain a bush trail. These buildings are often called abandoned, but I think it’s the wrong word: they have only been abandoned by their owners.

Detroit residents accept the city’s symbolic role partly because the old Detroit was an intentionally mythic place. The city represented a certain brand of American success: the motor industry was always a promise of the future, of growth, of the primacy of the manufacturing industry. In their use of space, in their architecture, the owners of industrial Detroit made a custodial promise. It was what passed for a twentieth-century social contract: a city’s built environment was seen as a philanthropic gesture.

In contrast, the Renaissance Centre, nicknamed the RenCen, rises beside Detroit River like an evil lair. Owned by General Motors since 1996, the building was constructed by Ford in the early 1970s as a revitalisation effort for a city already in the throes of economic catastrophe. The project haemorrhaged money from the beginning. Five clustered buildings make up the complex; its raised middle finger is a luxury hotel, once the world’s tallest. It’s like a gated community, or, as described in Joe Darden’s Detroit: Race and Uneven Development, ‘a fortress for whites to work in while the rest of the city goes to hell around them’. There is an enclosed walkway so businesspeople can cross Detroit’s streets without touching them. Outsiders get a view of two-story-high concrete bunkers, as impassable as the walls of Gormenghast.

A block away, I wait at the bus stop for so long that I become the local oracle. New arrivals ask me whether the 25 has been, or the 33. It’s freezing once the sun goes. We all hide our hands in our pockets and our faces in scarves and hoods. ‘You have to pray,’ advises one woman. There is a timetable, but time doesn’t seem to work the same way in Detroit as elsewhere, and it doesn’t seem to work the same for rich people as it does for poor.

A decaying public transport system is one visible symptom of the collapse of public infrastructure that is the endgame of privatisation. As an outsider, I’m shocked by the racial divisions of service provision in the US. I’m aware that being shocked by institutional racism is the ultimate white privilege. But to live poor in Detroit is to be laid right down at the base of Maslow’s pyramid. Things I expect to take for granted, like buses and hospitals, exist or do not exist depending on how black you are. Between the eastern suburbs of Detroit and the wealthy, predominantly white neighbourhoods of Grosse Pointe, informal barricades have been appearing. Those barricades say something about America that its white citizens can’t say. I am here in the year of Ferguson, a year of Black lives needing to be said to matter.

People talk in code. Billionaire Dan Gilbert is one of the central figures touting revitalisation plans for the city: ‘Opportunity Detroit’. The opportunity has involved a massive real estate buy-up spanning a couple of square miles of downtown. Gilbert writes about dealing with ‘blight’ on his blog, written with a relentless combination of self-help positivity and management jargon. In the end, he says, the thing Detroit needs most is ‘to develop a positive climate’. He has been less effusive in discussing his company Quicken Loans’ alleged involvement with subprime lending in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

Out the front of Quicken Loans HQ there is one of those faintly comic urban beaches, pathetic in the autumn chill. It was designed as a fun, participatory public space, but there is a fence around it now. The wine bar next door has plastic covers-up and the well-to-do citizens of Detroit grip glasses in the fading light of their enclosure, breathing each other’s air. The park is privately sponsored by the surrounding companies, including Quicken Loans. Locals call this area ‘Gilbertville’. It’s like it sounds: a theme park version of an ordinary city. Outside the plastic-covered wine bar is a bigger bubble, and outside that, suffocation.

The story of Opportunity Detroit has to be pitched carefully for this to work. Youthful start-ups need to be attracted, renovations planned, corporate confidence built. Dressed up in the language of community revitalisation, megabanks promise good corporate citizenship. Twitter has an office here. JP Morgan has recently thrown $100 million into the ring. But there is a tipping point when enthusiasm for a positive climate translates to destruction of heritage. Angled perpetually towards a promised future, the present reality can be manipulated as nothing but a state of aspiration, a question for which more money-making is always the answer. Knocking down empties can seem like an effort to erase parts of Detroit’s history, to forget mistakes were ever made.

Empties are living memorials, places that resist forgetting. Sarah Wanenchak, writing for Cyborgology, described contemporary ruins as ‘atemporal spaces in and of themselves … spaces in which the experience of linear time breaks down’. I try to imagine how the discovery of deep time made Europeans feel in the eighteenth century. The dizziness of realising there were billions of years of stories embedded in the earth before us. Other cultures have other times in their foundational narratives; as a result, the understanding of time sits on a fault line in the New World. Perhaps that is part of why the future has become so hard to talk about.

Not everybody wants to forget. There are those, like conservation group Preservation Detroit, who want to maintain the city’s unique aesthetic. Art and re-use projects happen: an impressive downtown community garden, an old petrol station recycled into a games park. But these small efforts at public life are swimming upstream. Demolition often happens without consultation. There were forty-eight abandoned skyscrapers in Detroit in 2009; now there are thirteen. The city’s heritage is under intense pressure.

Midstream in Detroit River, in view of the RenCen, lies the magnificent Belle Isle Park. Based on a design by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York’s Central Park fame), Belle Isle has officially been a public space since 1845. The island is rich with birds. The end of industry has given this river a chance to heal from generations of toxic waste. Many of the original buildings still stand, though the aquarium is now staffed by volunteers. The boat club, which closed in 1996, is slowly slanting into the river. The city has leased the whole island back to the state of Michigan for thirty years while it deals with its financial crises.

Near Belle Isle’s fine Victorian glasshouse conservatory, I meet a couple visiting the city they grew up in for the first time in thirty years. ‘I’m so glad this is still here,’ the woman says, surprise in her voice. She has come back in the way that people do after a bushfire, to see what is still standing. But it’s hard to say which specific disaster has spared this island in its wake. We watch a stray Monarch butterfly clinging to a flower. It should be halfway to Mexico by now, but something has knocked it off course – maybe climate change, maybe just the wind. Their only food, milkweed, has been decimated by agricultural chemicals in the US; their flight path has been laced with poison.

Lately, when people talk about the future, we talk in warnings. I have read that all ocean fish will be dead by 2048. The oceans will rise by two metres, or perhaps six, within a century. My temperate-zone home in Australia will be swallowed by the desert in my lifetime. Such warnings don’t seem to empower people to change the way we live, or not at a scale that matters. Climate science is complex, but I’m convinced there is something else going on. An inability to look at time clearly, an unwillingness to see the future as a collective responsibility. Empties, in their atemporality or dyschronia, seem to signpost this predictable failure.

The rich no longer walk among us. Absentee landlords are ruining the planet. But their neglect negates the legitimacy of their possession. The empty building becomes a sort of default bequest to the public. The affection and identification people feel for empties is only possible because they have lost all market value. An empty’s uselessness is what makes it ours. But its loss – the loss of its promise – is what makes an empty a meaningful site of grief.

As Walter Benjamin indicates in his Arcades Project, falling buildings persist in the imagination because they contain something unfinished, something unfulfilled. The image of the empty continues to invite attention because something else lies dormant within it. Here, it is the unfinished story of Black class struggle. It’s become common to repeat a remark, attributed to Fredric Jameson, that it’s now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Ruin porn poses empties as a stage for apocalypse kitsch, a setting in which to enact the fantasy of total collapse. But the empty can also be described as a site of the struggle to find the imaginative reach to look past that end, and to see what comes next. Rather than a release valve for discontent, the love of empties is part of its expression.

Still, that expression is problematic. Our imaginations are limited. The photographs of Detroit’s iconic empties, the ones we keep liking and sharing online, have no people in them. We have depopulated the ruins. I’m doing this myself. I’m a tourist here, an aesthetic consumer.

When we set the apocalypse in the future, it is easy to forget that for many, it is already here. To be really poor, with no safety net, is to be in a concatenation of catastrophes, unable to build or to plan. In a natural disaster zone, there is a clear line between pre- and post-catastrophe. In economic disasters, there is no longer a before and after, just the desperate, demanding present.

When Judge Rhodes granted the city of Detroit its bankruptcy in November, he said, ‘What happened in Detroit must never happen again.’ The approval included a plan by the city to invest $1.7 billion into long-neglected services. Basic things, like ambulances and fire engines. Things a developed country should be taking for granted.

Bankruptcy offers the city a clean slate. Only now the decision has been handed down can Detroit repair its potholes, put in its light rail. With all this talk of rejuvenation and renewal, community organisations are sometimes able to garner support from philanthropists, and small creative businesses can thrive. But it’s a delicate position to be in. Small businesses can become unwilling contributors to the gentrification process that shuts some people out of public spaces. The hipsterfication of Detroit, if it succeeds, could well end up becoming a kind of parasitism.

When people return to a house destroyed by fire, they build again with the disaster in mind, in the hope of preventing its repetition. It seems logical that this should happen with economies, but more often the opportunism of what Naomi Klein dubbed ‘shock doctrine’ prevails. Thanks to privatisation, 40 per cent of Detroit’s residents are presently in the process of losing access to running water. The same proportion of the city lives below the poverty line.

The urgent problem of climate change is forcing humanity to re-examine the question of common value, of public resources. The design problem of my generation is to create, from the ground up, a new economy, one that values our collective responsibility for imagination and memory, and one that offers a means of evaluation that surpasses the simplification of market measurements. A city that does not do this will make the same mistakes.

What is the use of looking at empties? That awe lingers, and it seems to matter. When I search for its edges, I recognise the shape of a feeling that I most often have in wild places: deserts, forests. There are elements of trespass and of grace. Sniffing the air in the old National Theatre, I wonder if the sense of wilderness I have is a simple microbial association, an accident of damp. It smells like a forest in here.

In his exquisite book Wildwood, Roger Deakin writes, ‘I love ruins because they are always doing what everything really wants to do all the time: returning themselves to the earth, melting back into the landscape.’ Deakin refers to a cycle of birth and death, a closed system in which decay is a form of return. Given the geological scale of changes to which we are subjecting our planet, there is no sense talking of return any more. But maybe the balance wasn’t ever meant to be static.

When a tree dies, the organisms that will turn it back into soil are already alive in its body, just as most of the things that will break your body down when you die already live on or in you. The tree’s falling and the rot’s growing happen synchronously. Other bodies bloom and scavenge, tiny multitudes feasting on one another. Some have been around a long time; some are imported; some evolve anew. On a microscopic level, life is composed mostly of small, spontaneously cooperative systems interacting with each other, keeping each other in check.

When one organism reaches plague proportions, eating up all the available resources, it creates an emergency. Small organisations form to break down the concentration of energy and redistribute it. These organisations are already hard at work in Detroit: Detroit Food Justice Task Force, Assemble Detroit, Preservation Detroit, Detroit Water Brigade. Organisations touting not vague opportunities, but grounded, community-driven practice. As simple as leaving barrels of water on the doorstep of a neighbour in need; as complex as resisting the architectural imaginations of the super-rich.

Of course, it is better to build from a place of strength and resources and community than a place of desperation and despair. Too often, the immediate demands of survival keep people from making room for the imaginative struggle that is just as vital to continued existence as the material ones. It’s almost as if the vast majority of people are deliberately being kept in a perpetual, present-tense panic.

Nobody notices when I emerge blinking into the sunny expanse of the former theatre district. It’s still a car park, littered with autumn leaves and broken glass. People talk on their phones, tug up collars against the October wind.

I get the feeling I’m walking out of one empty theatre, and entering another.


This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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