by Scott Martelle
Chicago Review Press, 2012, 304 pp., $24.95Reimagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City
by John Gallagher
Wayne State University Press, 2010, 166 pp., $19.95
313: Life in the Motor City
by John Carlisle
The History Press, 2011, 256 pp., $22.99
Say Nice Things About Detroit: A Novel
by Scott Lasser
W.W. Norton & Co., 2012, 288 pp., $25.95
The numbers suggest a severe and irreversible decline: Detroit’s population plummeted from 1.85 million people in 1950 to 714,000 in 2010—a 60 percent reduction in 60 years. Of course, the once infamously deadly city’s murder rate, which peaked in 1987 at 686, or about 63 per 100,000 residents, fell as well, prompting mayoral candidate Stanley Christmas to remark in 2009, “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill.”
Scott Martelle quotes that line in Detroit: A Biography, and Scott Lasser uses it as the epigraph for his novel, Say Nice Things about Detroit. Other “mind-boggling” statistics Martelle presents concern unemployment, which exceeded 27 percent in 2009, and poverty, the condition in which roughly four in ten residents, and more than half of the city’s children, subsist. Those hoping to work their way out of penury confront a dearth of options, since the number of jobs dwindled from 735,000 in 1970 to fewer than 280,000 in 2005. During the second half of the 2000s, about two of every three children born in Detroit were to unwed women. More high school students flunk out than graduate. “These are not the seeds of a stable community”, former Detroit News reporter Martelle reasonably observes. Or as fellow journalist John Gallagher puts it in Reimagining Detroit, some might conclude that “a city where one in three people is out of work and one in two is functionally illiterate has passed the tipping point and is heading inexorably to ruin.”
Detroit renders its grinding devastation visible with a disintegrating cityscape that makes use of the word ruin inevitable. “Artists and photographers chronicling Detroit’s demise focus on the hard-to-resist images of the vast urban decay”, Martelle reports, “capturing ancient ruins in the making.” Typical of the resulting publishing mini-boom are books like Dan Austin and Sean Doerr’s Lost Detroit: Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins and Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled. Such tomes preserve images of once stately and grand, now perforated and dilapidated structures like the long-disused Michigan Central Station and automobile factories left to be reclaimed by nature or the homeless or both. One character in Lasser’s novel finds that when he thinks of the city of his youth he “felt he was considering ruins”, while another sees it as “a lot of crumbling, crime-soaked cement, vacant buildings, broken glass, depthless desperation and desire.”
Even the least nostalgic or sentimental of Detroiters can tire of such depictions, as Martelle recognizes: “Locals dismiss the worst of them as ‘ruins porn’, with all that implies. Degradation. A sense of victimization. Shame.” He says Time magazine’s year-long effort to cover the city delivered “little more than clichés about the place.” The project was called “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline”, and pictures by its photographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, can be seen in a hefty coffee-table art book called—what else?—The Ruins of Detroit. The book features, predictably enough, the dramatically devastated Beaux-Arts train station, broken windows, graffiti and all, on its broad covers. Perhaps awareness of residents’ sensitivities about pictorial sensationalism prompted Julie Reyes Taubman to assert, of her photographs gathered in Detroit: 138 Square Miles: “It is not a disgrace but a privilege and an obligation to listen to the stories only ruins can tell.”
etroit may have a shortage of jobs, but it has no shortage of stories. While state-of-Detroit stories regularly involve race, real estate and doleful economics, sometimes touching on municipal mismanagement and corruption, they differ in whether or not their tellers can discern a road from ruin. Proffering a long-term view (albeit in exceptionally condensed form), Martelle recounts how Detroit suffered several devastating setbacks after its establishment by a Frenchman named Cadillac in 1701—and recovered from them all. With beaver pelts and the like falling out of fashion, the trading post’s commercial importance had already started to wane when the British took it over in the 1760s. (Martelle sees the collapse of the fur trade as prefiguring the city’s subsequent ill-fated reliance on a single industry.) The British used Detroit primarily as a military outpost until losing it at the end of the Revolutionary War to the upstart Americans.
Little of this early history endures in meaningful ways; just a few street names remain. “In fact”, Martelle says, “the first event that has left a mark on the current city didn’t come until 1805. And it nearly killed off the city.” He is referring to the fire that destroyed almost every building in the frontier town. Earlier in the year, Congress had established a new territorial government for the Michigan Territory, and President Thomas Jefferson appointed its leaders, which included judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward, who adapted Washington, DC’s “spoke-and-hub” street layout and gave his own name to the avenue that still runs from the Detroit River, across Eight Mile Road (Detroit’s northern border) and into the suburbs. The all-consuming fire preceded what Martelle dubs Detroit’s “first renaissance.”
The opening of the Erie Canal twenty years later made that renewal possible and set Detroit on the road to industrial prominence. The canal connected the Great Lakes, the massive system of waterways surrounding Michigan, with the Atlantic Ocean. The state’s agricultural bounty funneled through the city and made its way over the canal to New York City. “By 1836”, Martelle writes, “more than a decade after the Erie Canal opened, Detroit was in the throes of a wave of massive business speculation and growth.” Its population grew from less than 10,000 in 1837—the year Michigan joined the Union—to more than 45,000 by the time the Civil War started in 1861.
Though still relatively small, the black population also grew, and Detroit became a key Underground Railroad station. (Michigan abolished slavery when it achieved statehood.) Slave hunters tracking runaway slaves into Detroit came into conflict with abolitionists and free blacks, revealing “racial fault lines that have never gone away.” One disturbance in the 1830s prompted Lewis Cass, a former territorial Governor and then the Secretary of War (whose name still appears on street signs), to send troops to quell racial disturbances—the first time U.S. military forces were used for this purpose. Mob violence related to a racially charged court case in 1863 initiated what Martelle calls “a pattern for rioting and occupation by military peacekeepers that would be repeated in generations to come.”
Another pattern also became established around this time. War worked for Detroit, or rather, it put the city to work. Michigan’s agricultural output doubled during the Civil War, but more than just grain moved over the Erie Canal. Metal works and other factories in Detroit began producing lances for Union troops as well as stoves, forged iron, smelted copper and railroad cars. Though lumber was the largest industry immediately after the war ended, the state and its largest city had already started shifting decisively toward heavy industry.
It didn’t take long for one industry in particular to assert its dominance. In 1910, when Detroit’s population approached half a million, more than half its workers labored in manufacturing, and roughly 5,000 of them built automobiles. By the start of the Great Depression, the metropolitan area’s automotive industry (including Ford’s facility in nearby Dearborn) employed 158,000 of Detroit’s 1.6 million people. High wages, typified by the $5 per day Henry Ford had made the standard by World War I, lured people to the city. Labor shortages during the war attracted blacks in particular to Detroit, which by the 1920s had essentially become a single-industry town, with all the risk that entailed. “The automotive industry was one of the key girders of the American economy”, Martelle observes, “and when the economy collapsed [in 1929], Detroit fell with it, attaining a level of economic paralysis worse than most of the rest of the nation—establishing a trend that continues into the twenty-first century.”
Yet with World War II, the “Paris of the West”, as Detroit self-flatteringly became known in the 19th century, became the “arsenal of democracy” in the 20th. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford converted from making cars to making war matériel, and such production drew still more workers. From mid-1940 to mid-1943, nearly half a million people, mainly African Americans and women, migrated to the city.
And then Detroit burned once again. Steaming tension between black and white residents—in the form of whites complaining about living or working alongside blacks and objecting to blacks taking “white jobs”, a problem exacerbated by Ford’s use of blacks as strikebreakers—boiled over in the summer of 1943, when a tussle between black and white amusement park-goers sparked a “full-scale melee among several hundred” people. In a three-day period, 34 people were killed, 433 more were hurt, and millions of dollars of property damage was done. As had happened before, the military came to squelch the violence. “It was the worst race riot in modern American history”, Martelle says in Detroit, “an unenviable record that lasted nearly a quarter century until fundamentally unchanged living conditions led to a similar uprising in the summer of 1967, when Detroit topped its own vicious record.” This time, 43 people were killed, more than 1,100 were injured and 2,000 buildings were burned.
The city never revived, and Martelle evinces skepticism as to whether the redemptive narrative of dreams, wealth, abandonment and recovery that describes much of Detroit’s history can continue. “The 1967 riot—or rebellion, as local political progressives and many African Americans came to call it—was a pivotal moment in the modern trajectory of Detroit”, he claims. “Nearly a half-century later, areas destroyed during those five days remain undeveloped, and the clash between black frustration and white political and cultural domination continues to reverberate through the city and suburbs.” Indulging a tendency to generalize that somewhat undermines his reliability, Martelle continues: “To whites, it affirmed racist perceptions of inner-city blacks; for blacks, it gave credence to perceptions that government institutions—including police—weren’t concerned with their well-being.”
erhaps Detroit’s last great fire really was its last and no phoenix will arise from ashes long gone cold. The 1967 riot didn’t cause the flight of whites from Detroit. That had already started. Ironically, the very things that endowed it with muscular strength—cars—contributed to its withering, as they, and the freeways built to accommodate them, made it easy for people to live farther and farther from the city center. But what Martelle calls a “revolt” did accelerate the process. As Coleman A. Young, a state senator in 1967 and later the city’s first black Mayor, put it: “The riot put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could.” (Via gamesmanship Martelle admires, Young managed to keep the Detroit Red Wings playing hockey in the city, rather than following fans, as well as the Pistons and the Lions, to the suburbs. The Lions eventually returned, to a new stadium, Ford Field, across the street from a recently built ballpark for the Tigers.)
Just as devastating, however, was an early wedge of globalization that opened up the U.S. car market to serious foreign competition. In 1973, the year Young, the self-proclaimed Motherfucker in Charge, was elected mayor, U.S. automakers cranked out more than 12.6 million vehicles. By 1975, car and truck output dropped below nine million. Martelle thinks the 1973 Arab oil embargo had a lot to do with this, but he is mistaken. There was no serious shortfall of deliveries in the United States due to the vertically integrated nature of the international oil business; it is a seemingly indelible myth that there was. There was instead panic among tank-topping consumers and widespread malfeasance among a dysfunctional Federal energy bureaucracy. But Martelle is right to note that the city was greatly affected by the election of a mayor whose “willingness to point out racism by both individuals and institutions made him a lightning rod for whites fearing a ‘black takeover’ of Detroit.”
What happened next was plain to see. People and jobs disappeared faster than abandoned houses and factories could be torn down. The 2009 bankruptcy filings of Chrysler and General Motors could have been redundant nails in a coffin already firmly shut. In any case, the bailed-out automakers’ returns to profitability and their addition of jobs in 2011 didn’t give Detroit the economic diversification Martelle insists it really needs (and not all those new jobs were in the city anyway).
Economics don’t tell the whole story, of course. Many residents of Detroit and its paler suburbs insistently, indelibly draw in the 21st century the color line that W.E.B. DuBois said, in The Souls of Black Folk, was the defining problem of the American 20th century. Rare is the issue not viewed through the prism of race. Even photographically documenting decaying buildings looks to some like the cynical exploitation of a predominantly black city’s misfortune. (For an authentic Detroit experience, try this intellectual experiment: Go into a diner or a bar and eavesdrop on conversations about local politics, or anything local, really. Almost certainly, racially homogeneous groups will tell themselves what it is that black people or white people do or think as a group.)
As both Martelle and Gallagher note in passing, conspiracy theories and paranoid thinking abound. Perhaps as much as the automotive industry’s breakdown, this special regional habit hinders civic self-improvement. “Until the sharp barbs of racism are dulled, Detroit will not revive”, Martelle damningly declares. He grasps for a positive perspective but the closest he can come is commending the current mayor, Dave Bing, for recognizing that Detroit can never again be what it once was and seriously considering sealing off sections of the city, letting them become uninhabited meadows, and diverting city resources to areas with sufficient concentrations of taxpayers to support them. He might also have said that at least Detroit, unlike Cleveland, doesn’t have a river apt to catch fire.
In contrast to Martelle’s resignation over Detroit’s apparently irreversible “population collapse”, Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher sees shrinkage and those urban pastures as potential boons. Both journalists see Detroit’s collective mindset as potentially crippling: for Martelle, clinging to racial fears and resentments is the problem; for Gallagher, concluding that getting smaller is a curse instead of an opportunity is the hurdle the city’s remaining residents need to clear. “A smaller city creates the canvas to become a better city”, Gallagher asserts (the emphasis is his). Possible advantages he lists in Reimagining Detroit include affordability, community-mindedness, Earth-friendliness and shorter commutes, possibly by means other than those damned, troublesome automobiles.
etroit does not fully deserve its status as the emblem of urban abandonment in America. Other cities, such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Buffalo, have lost similar percentages of their populations since the mid-20th century. Gallagher grants that the scale of vacancy, the overwhelming sense of abandonment, does distinguish Detroit. Yet in his view this really has to do with the types of buildings that once stood on many of those since-emptied spaces. While plenty of inoperative automobile plants remain standing, including Packard and Fisher Body plants designed by architect Albert Kahn, others have been razed, leaving astonishingly large holes behind. (On its own, the Packard plant takes up 35 acres. The facility, which hasn’t produced a car since the 1950s, became a magnet for photographers like Scott Hocking, one of eight whose works were featured in the Detroit Revealed exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts that endeavored to present a fuller, more nuanced take on the city by showing working and shuttered factories, as well as the actual people and inhabited neighborhoods usually conspicuously absent in ruins porn.) Further, many of those houses constructed during the decades of influx were not built to last. While “there are good houses throughout Detroit”, Gallagher points out, “there are also many quickly built houses that have not withstood time.” Many have been demolished, often for unrealized development projects. As a result, close to one third of Detroit’s approximately 138 square miles (the equivalent of the area of Boston) stands vacant.
Rather than cause for despair, Detroit’s emptiness should spark creative thinking and innovative urban planning, Gallagher contends. The city’s vast tracts of unused land won’t be filled by humming factories, it’s true, but they could be used for urban agriculture. Wide streets like Woodward may never again carry the volume of traffic for which they were constructed, so why not put them on “road diets”? They could be narrowed and made easier for pedestrians to cross, or reconfigured to make room for bike lanes, or reworked to include landscaped medians—any or all of which would make Detroit a more livable place, in Gallagher’s view. Those lots where houses once stood could be transformed from trash-filled eyesores into pocket parks, maybe enhanced with art, or even used for geothermal wells.
Skeptics might find it hard to resist mocking Gallagher for promoting things like community gardens and prettified traffic roundabouts as cures for the kind of ills Detroit suffers, especially when his prose turns New Agey. (Public art in vacant spaces can “fill up some of the vacant spaces in our souls” and “by mending our broken landscapes, we make an act of faith in ourselves”, he exults in his more hippie-ish moments.) Even so, he doesn’t wear rainbow-colored blinders or miss the dark forest by looking at a few fragrant flowering trees. He acknowledges that no improvements, even small-scale ones, will happen without jobs. “A hundred years of depending upon all-powerful Ford and General Motors and Chrysler has left Detroiters ill-prepared for the rigors of a twenty-first century marketplace”, Gallagher concedes. “Detroit has plenty of smart engineers but damn few entrepreneurs.” (John Carlisle, a reporter for the city’s alternative weekly paper, the Metro Times, finds entrepreneurs of all types, but Mr. Bow Tie, who specializes in polishing car headlights, Jay Thunderbolt, who operates a strip club in his living room, General Laney, who runs the last legal gun dealership in the city, and the other assorted characters profiled in 313: Life in the Motor City are not quite the kind of businesspeople Gallagher has in mind.)
Detroit does have some enterprising citizens, of course, and they’ve gotten some encouragement. Gallagher cites TechTown, a “business incubator” at Wayne State University (where many of the experts he relies on teach). By giving both practical assistance and cultivating a culture of entrepreneurship, TechTown has spawned several successful startups since its establishment in 2003. Gallagher also sees signs of life in employee-owned cooperatives like the one created by Albert Kahn, the architect behind some of those photographer favorites (including operational factories like Ford’s River Rouge Plant, an object of special interest for Detroit Revealed photographers Michelle Andonian and Moore, who also included images of it in Detroit Disassembled). Further still, he promotes so-called social enterprises like the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop on Woodward that is actually run by Goodwill Industries, an organization that directs profits from Cherry Garcia sales not to investors but to its ventures for helping the poor.
Gallagher also escapes the Pollyanna tag by confronting a problem Martelle mostly skirts: intentional or unintentional governmental mismanagement. Both reporters mention Kwame Kilpatrick, the former mayor whose perjury regarding a sexual affair led to a Federal prison stint and the 2009 special election that Bing won (beating the quipster Christmas). Only Gallagher goes on to look beyond lies about sex to the larger problem of pervasive corruption that Kilpatrick came to embody. As of early 2012, Kilpatrick’s doings while in office were the subject of Federal investigations concerning racketeering, extortion, bribery, fraud and tax evasion that could result in decades of prison time in addition to that time he has already served for hiding finances to avoid paying restitution promised as part of a plea deal related to the original scandal.
Kilpatrick was not alone or exceptional—only sadly representative. Detroit, says Gallagher, may be “the only big U.S. city to be left almost entirely dysfunctional by its failings.” Some of those failings, such as a bureaucracy incapable of efficiently or effectively managing all those vacant lots, may not be deliberate, but they hobble the city all the same.
Nevertheless, Gallagher doesn’t believe that rubble and ruins represent Detroit’s destiny. Just as emptiness looks to him like opportunity, ineptness suggests openings for innovative thinking. As he puts it in an essay for the Detroit Revealed catalogue: “Detroit, the nation’s most abandoned big city, stands ready to serve as the world’s biggest laboratory for trying new urban ideas.” He doesn’t anticipate these will be easy to implement but thinks they’re feasible. Its inviting prairies lead him to conclude, with a straight face, that “Detroiters may yet say, as Dorothy did when she woke up back in Kansas, ‘There’s no place like home.’”
Although plainly aware that the title of his novel will strike many readers as plainly absurd, Scott Lasser doesn’t go for cheap laughs at the city’s expense in Say Nice Things about Detroit. Like Gallagher, he takes seriously the notion that people might want to make Detroit their home. Despite the scarcity of potential victims, Lasser does cook up a (rather contrived) murder plot, but the story really centers on a former suburbanite’s decision after years elsewhere to move back not only to the area but into the city itself. Everyone David Halpert tells responds with varying combinations of astonishment and incredulity that a white person would want to live next door to black people. “Odd, he thought, how hard it was to get beyond skin color.”
Yet David will not be deterred by “the racial striation of his city or the expectations of its citizens”, and he believes he made the right decision. Lasser not so subtly links David’s bid for a new start to his town’s potential for one. “Since moving back he’d found himself rooting for Detroit, reverently waiting for it to rise in some miraculous resurrection.”
Meanwhile, the nonfictional Detroiters John Carlisle portrays seek something more mundane: survival. 313 (which takes its name from the city’s telephone area code) spotlights people like Patricia Duff, who struggles to keep her floral arrangement business going even after her store burns down and her husband and partner succumbs to dementia; a group of men who make their home in the old Packard plant; Pete Kithas, who since the early 1960s has run a barbershop inside a police uniform and equipment supply store; and the Tipton family, who, out of financial necessity, continued to live in a ravaged apartment complex after the landlord abandoned it and scrappers stripped most units of metal and anything else they could sell.
In Carlisle’s Detroit, residents and business owners are special simply for staying put. (And, like many of Lasser’s characters, he shows particular curiosity about whites who remain.) In Detroit, Martelle inserts a few chapters on individual Detroiters between the statistic-laden main chapters on macroeconomic forces and historical tendencies, but the result is a peculiar imbalance. By devoting space to (mostly white) people who did nothing more remarkable than buy and live in houses in blighted areas or to a bar owner for whom he once worked, Martelle makes all the more glaring the comparatively scant attention paid to arguably more impactful people—like Ossian Sweet, the black physician whose 1925 challenge to racist deed restrictions ultimately involved armed defense of his home against a mob of white neighbors, or Barry Gordy, the Motown mastermind. (As Lasser’s David Halpert muses, the city’s music is no less significant than its sputtering automotive industry.)
Carlisle, unlike Martelle, makes no attempt to explain how Detroit ended up as it did. In contrast to Gallagher, he doesn’t weigh alternative methods of amelioration. Instead, he looks at what it’s like for usually anonymous Detroiters to live amid the ruins, and hints that what it takes to make it is endurance, tenacity and high tolerance for uncertainty. A dash of eccentricity helps, too.
ince nothing resonates like personal experience, I’ll end on a personal note. As someone who remembers, back during the early days of the Young Administration, owning a “Say Nice Things about Detroit” T-shirt (the earnestly intended one with blocky yellow letters and a red heart dotting the last “i”, not the one showing a man holding a gun to a puppy’s head that Lasser describes), someone who finished high school in the Murder City’s bloodiest year, someone who lived for several years on Cass Avenue, someone who studied at Wayne State, and someone who chose to return to the city after a decade and half in places that didn’t routinely prompt people to wonder aloud why anyone would live there, I find that most efforts to convey what Detroit is really like only hint at the place’s peculiar appeal.
I don’t mean that such attempts get things literally wrong, though it warrants mentioning that the neighborhood Lasser’s protagonist moves into, patting himself on the back all the while for moving into a black neighborhood he believes most whites would avoid, actually contains some of the most opulent mansions in southeastern Michigan and is one of the more stable neighborhoods in the city. Any truly comprehensive view of Detroit, whether photographic or textual, would need to include more liquor stores, car washes, churches, beauty salons and barber shops—all of which the city has in abundance—than any of the books considered here do.
More importantly, perhaps, Detroit boasts some remarkable structures and thriving cultural scenes that might surprise outsiders whose impression of it have been unduly shaped by ruins pornographers. Detroit’s a filthy, fascinating, dying and deadly place that many people hold dear and believe will come alive yet again despite powerful evidence to the contrary. It’s a place of poets where much of the populace can’t read. Its essence can’t be captured in any single book or photography show. This isn’t a criticism, especially since it’s probably true of all places, even less complex and perplexing ones. Besides, Martelle aims not to cover every aspect of the city but to chart its economic development and challenges, which he does, if in occasionally awkward fashion. Gallagher sets out to describe not the city’s past or even its present; he thoughtfully ponders potential paths to a remote, sunnier future. Photos like those in the Detroit Revealed exhibit offer more varied, less distorted glimpses of the place than those of ruins alone.
So will Detroit get smaller but better, or just smaller and poorer, its wide streets emptier and meaner? I can’t say. I do know that there’s no place else like it.