Detroit's Comeback: A Realistic Possibility?
Is Detroit really going to come back? Should we believe Eminem, Chrysler, and all the hopeful folks who are resisting a state takeover of their finances? Or is the scale of the devastation too great in what was once one of the country’s richest and largest cities—and is now a landscape of ruin?
I do not have a crystal ball, but one thing is certain: Detroit is coming back as art. That might be a larger message. Cities all over the world are being reborn as facsimiles of themselves, their monuments to industry and transportation turning into shopping malls and arts centers that peddle, first of all, the aura of heroic production and movement. On a practical level, it has been artists who have pioneered urban regeneration almost from the day that term came into being, with lofts and galleries proving infinitely more effective than public housing or massive developments built in place of razed slums at bringing life back to the city.
But Detroit, as a recent visit showed me, is a case apart. It is a city that has always celebrated the culture of making things in visual form, from Diego Rivera’s murals equating the making of a car with the creation of the universe in the Detroit Institute of Arts, to Cranbrook, the only real surviving school to come out of the Arts & Crafts movement, to the Henry Ford Museum, with its collection of farm implements, industrial objects, and the Dymaxion House. That was the point of the now-famous Chrysler ad, shown at the 2011 Super Bowl: Detroit matters because it makes things, and those things show how they are made, and showing you that is exciting.
In reality, Detroit has become the place to celebrate the unmaking of things. It has become the capital of ruin porn, exemplified by Julie Taubman’s recent book of luscious photographs of the city’s destruction. It is the lack of any finish to cover how things were made and the incompletion of disused buildings that makes this peculiar beauty. It is the glory of isolated fragments of beauty, and the contrast between the blandness of modern fast restaurants or cars with the half-pediments and partial pediments that gives force. Detroit has become our modern-day Pompeii, reminding us not just of the beauties of past civilizations, but of our own mortality. Detroit is becoming a beautiful skeleton holding a mirror up to us so as to reveal our inner makings.
The most famous and evocative art I found in the city was still the Heidelberg Project, six blocks of abandoned or semi-derelict houses that the artist Tyree Guyton has turned into urban collages covered with the remains of life all around the area and strung together with small shrines of shopping carts, children’s toys, car parts, and plastic implements. He is, however, no longer the only one. All over the block after block of abandoned neighborhoods, artists are turning houses you can buy for as little as a few hundred dollars into arts projects. When I was on an arts-grant panel not too long ago, it became almost a cliché: Here comes another artist who wants our money to buy a house and turn it into installation art.
But maybe Detroit should become installation art. Certainly it no longer functions as a city, and the mayor has been desperate to let go of vast tracts of land that he can no longer afford to service. A city into which Paris could fit several times over now has 700,000 inhabitants, and many of them live between the remains of industry, renascent nature, and arts projects that act as nodes of attraction.
Certainly some of this activity is beginning to attract the kind of loft-living, café-visiting, creative industry types that have brought life back to many downtowns. The scale of Detroit, however, is daunting: between the Heidelberg Project and the cluster of activity around the Museum of Contemporary Art, located in an old car dealership, is almost three miles of, shall we say, potential. From there to the restaurants and lofts around the abandoned Michigan Central Train station is another three miles. There are other dots on the map, but they remain isolated moments of hope, beauty, and art.
If there were any logic to our world, we would take the opportunity to turn Detroit into the largest landscape park in the world, dotted with the kind of cultural moments that energize our greatest urban parks. Instead of lawns, there would be new prairie. Instead of museums or zoos, there would art projects. But the messy reality is that those three-quarters of a million people still live there. Also, legacy institutions such as hospitals and universities still are there, so the future will not be as clear-cut. It will be messier, grittier, and more confusing–like most modern art.