What happens when a place, a mid-range American city at that, is literally abandoned? When the decision comes to simply up sticks and move municipal business elsewhere? After the inevitable social collapse brought on, or at least speeded up, by this type of bureaucratic death sentence? And key services and skills are at a stroke removed from the inner city? What happens then to this voided landscape, condemned to turn in upon itself in an embrace which is at once foetal and feral?
Peer into this twilit zone of recreational firestarting, bored young men and non-existent public infrastructure and you might see something else stirring in the rubble.
The place that once knew itself, that the whole world knew of, before the ruins.
MotorCity firing its warning shots across the assembly line; journeyman or doowop, plaintive or prettified. But a sound which would reverberate far beyond the Michigan. And though baleful southern memories are but a whisper away, plant and machinery, dreams and destinies are forged in a northern soul.
Perhaps Detroit is a future shock, somehow teleported to the present as a warning to the rest of us? Its slow motion collapse a bellwether for those who choose to take note; a cautionary tale for that far greater majority still seduced, even in the midst of this global economic crisis, by the false promises of neoliberalism: that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, they should continue to have faith in ‘the markets’; or in the ability of unregulated capital to magically act as a social good in and of itself; but above all that they should throw their lot in with the nebulous world of ‘financial services’ in the absence of any credible alternative to laissez-faire capitalism. As if there truly is a consensus, a la Fukuyama of old, that what we are witnessing today is ‘The End of History’ occasioned by the global triumph of capitalism. And in this version of history, Detroit is apparently what happens when a city holds onto the belief that there may be another way. It is held up as an exemplar of why resistance to unfettered capitalism is futile; its sad decline another kind of warning shot across the boughs of any potential dissent.
Put another way, though, and Detroit might just offer a sneak-preview of all our metropolitan futures. As a blueprint for the vindictiveness of late capital when faced with opposition, the more so when it is a grass-roots response to the everyday humiliations of ruthless state authority. Or as a test case for how entire populations, once tagged, like D-Fens in ‘Falling Down’, as surplus to requirements (‘not economically viable’), are effectively removed from the historical record.
In the case of Detroit, the shrinkage of the state in terms of social provision as well as the commercial evacuation of the downtown area, along with its primary tax base, might almost be viewed as a form of ‘collective punishment’ meted out by local government to its dissident citizenry, notably the predominantly black, working-class inner city: a community and a locale which many have argued never recovered from the devastating rioting by which it was wracked in July 1967, which left more than 40 dead and 400 injured as well as around 7,000 people in custody and over 2000 destroyed buildings. The longer-term damage has been far greater, though, and in the last decade alone, Detroit has lost 25% of its entire population, such that the city might be better described as ‘post-apocalyptic’ rather than simply ‘postindustrial’. Its empty lots, abandoned houses and derelict multistoreys evocative of nothing so much as the vicious body count secreted away by Chris and Snoop in the boarded up execution chambers of ‘The Wire’. Or the off-the-grid killing fields of feuding druglords in Walter Hill’s ‘Trespass’. And whilst the claret is spilled and the deals go south in the notional television and filmic badlands of Baltimore and St.Louis, the point is that Detroit got there first; had its abandonment issues long before HBO; taught everyone else how to be. Especially how to be a fuckup. And fucked. But that’s not all.
Somewhere in its slow motion collapse, Detroit’s blueprint can also be dusted off for clues as to the present. And as ever, in its recent history, the city continues to address both method and madness which has far outgrown its Michigan roots. To that end it is not really a stretch to see something of a Detroit ‘default’ in the wholesale disgust firing the currently leaderless ‘Occupy’ movement; a revulsion too far at taxpayer-funded bank bailouts followed by stringent austerity measures, discovering in its DNA the outrage of the after hours’ drinkers toasting the safe return of two local Vietnam Veterans when Detroit police gatecrashed the party in the early hours of Sunday, 23 July, 1967. This was, after all, a raid which lit the touchpaper for the nights of looting, arson, police brutality and the sight of tanks rolling down 12th street, which followed. An insult too far to collective bonds already strained to breaking point by the disproportionate reach of the military draft in inner city black communities. As well as by the ongoing economic immiseration of such communities.
In the thousands of online forums, live streams and Twitter feeds backing up the ongoing anticapitalist campaigns, are those discernible traces, beyond the gap year radicalism, of genuine concern about what a meaningful notion of life, love and community might actually entail in a world beyond branding? Of the need to stand up for such ideas, even, perhaps especially when the forces ranged against them are so unrelenting? And isn’t there just something very, well…Detroit ’67 about that?
So yes, peer into the shadows and as your eyes grow accustomed to the murk, make out those other figures rising from the rubble, arcing fitful lines from Martha Reeves to MoodyMann. Iggy’s there too, and so is John Sinclair; and of course, Derrick May, Juan Atkins and the techno pioneers who came of age just as Reaganomics raked the city’s infrastructure to the bone; a foretaste of later scavengers who would pick clean the carcass of abandoned public buildings for the scrap or resale value of their copper pipes. In the half-light, so many ghosts of Detroit’s past and present; monochrome remainders, witness to the endgame of neoliberalism. A wry smile, too, for theirs are not always unhappy accounts; this is not an entirely unwelcome collapse. At times like this, in its iron clad will, as borne out in the refusal of its ‘remainders’ to acquiesce with the developers or the financiers, the city seems to rediscover something of its older spirit. The Hemingway adage that ‘style is grace under pressure‘ could almost have been written with the charred wreckage of MotorCity in mind. But stylish it is, daring to dream beyond the delusional philosophy of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ and in so doing embracing another kind of renewal in the cracks. Literally, figuratively, a return to the land and the exponential growth of the urban agriculture movement. As the visionary voice intones at the end of the film, ‘Requiem for Detroit’:
‘How could I not live this way before?’