I’m here in Detroit to participate in a film directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo). The other day we performed the song “This Must Be The Place” with band and string section while the camera made a complicated move and a living room set rose up and traveled over our heads. A stunt woman sat strapped in a chair reading a magazine as if nothing odd were happening. This was shot in the Majestic Theater, where I played in the mid-aughts, and it was packed with extras that were instructed to groove and applaud wildly after we finished the song. We were so pleasantly shocked that we all broke into big smiles as if their response were genuine. We’re so easily fooled.
Anyway, this gives me a week in Detroit, with some free time to look around. A lot has been and continues to be written about Detroit, a handy living symbol of America’s industrial decline and of the human and urban effects of the recent crash. It’s also a symbol of various attempts to revitalize a town on the ropes, including building urban farms; renovating communities; starting arts programs, and creating incentives to bring some much-needed life back.
In my Bicycle Diaries book I wrote about riding in Detroit when I was here on music tours, and about what an amazing sight it was. On one ride, from the old downtown out to the suburbs where our show was, I passed through an almost abandoned city center, through areas of empty factories and boarded-up housing and interstate highways that allowed commuters to never see most of what their city was becoming.
Others have written about this town as well—and there’s an amazing photo book called Disassembling Detroit by Andrew Moore. One of the iconic images in that book—the once glorious and ornate Michigan Theater, which is now a parking lot—will serve as a set piece in Paolo Sorrentino’s movie. Transformers 3 is also shooting now, both in the former central train station and downtown. The train station is massive and vacant; imagine in NYC if Grand Central and Met Life behind it were both completely abandoned, windows out, wind and birds passing through.
You can see right through it!
As I ride around town on this trip I pass mile after mile of residential neighborhoods in which most, or at least half, of the houses are simply gone, while others are boarded up, burnt out and one or two are still inhabited. This isn’t in the suburbs or rural countryside—this is close to downtown:
In the picture below you can see the Renaissance Center, a downtown showpiece, in the background. To the left is a completely abandoned area of housing projects.
On Google Maps you can see what it looks like from the air: block after block with only one or two houses each.
Pity the poor mail carriers, who often only have one or two houses per block.
This is a city that still has an infrastructure, or some of it, for 2 million people, and now only 800,000 remain. One rides down majestic boulevards with only a few cars on them, past towering (often empty) skyscrapers. A few weeks ago I watched a documentary called Requiem For Detroit by British director Julian Temple, who used to be associated with the Sex Pistols. It’s a great film, available to watch on YouTube, that gives a context and history for the devastation one sees all around here. This process didn’t happen overnight, as with Katrina, but over many many decades. However the devastation is just as profound, and just as much concentrated on the lower echelons of society. Both disasters were man-made.
Part of Henry Ford’s brilliant idea with the assembly line meant that by breaking down the making of a car (a complicated piece of machinery) into miniscule jobs, he could hire unskilled (and cheap) labor to fill his factory. The original place where he first built a car was on the site of the Michigan Theater, which now houses a parking lot. The marquee boasts of an acre of seats.
Mark McNamara, production manager for Playing the Building, along with the crew from Paolo’s film, installed my piece as a kind of strange background for a scene in his movie.
There are numerous explanations for how this movie-palace-turned-parking-garage came to be. The multiplexes in the suburbs took moviegoers away from these theaters, but this one had hit hard times before that. White folks were leaving the city center for the suburbs long before multiplexes became common. The car, and the highways the car and oil companies lobbied for, made that migration possible. Though the auto industry started here, the more successful it became, the more it destroyed the place that nurtured it. This theater, after many incarnations (one was a venue to watch live hockey games on a screen!) eventually gave up, and when the need for one more parking garage superseded any possibility of renovation there was talk of tearing it down. But it turned out it was cheaper to leave it up and simply gut it—and besides, it seemed that removing it would put the integrity of the building next door in peril—so here it remains. At least the Romans didn’t do this, though they did probably sell off all the valuable statuary that wasn’t tied down.
Anyway—Ford’s innovation meant he needed lots and lots of unskilled cheap labor, and lots of folks from the South heeded the call and migrated up here, and to other midwestern cities. While there are Polish, Irish and other enclaves, Detroit and other cities became largely African-American—and gave the world Stevie Wonder, and Techno music was born in African-American gay clubs. Iggy and the Stooges, the MC 5 and many others became the dissenting voices, an underground culture that still has a legacy here. Here is a video of Alice Cooper performing on a TV show in Detroit, as freaky a bit of performance art as one might see anywhere (thanks dangerous minds.)
Artist Mike Kelley, who comes out of that movement, will stage an event involving a mobile home this Saturday. The side of a mobile home is made to look like his childhood home here, and it will travel along Michigan Avenue to that former address and also act as a food bank giveaway center.
In the boom years, when the auto industry was king and GM was the largest corporation on the planet, the city flourished. Is it any wonder there is practically no public transportation infrastructure here? Or that the train station was abandoned? Or that the boulevards and later the freeways allowed whites to colonize the farmlands beyond the city limits—eventually creating a city with a working class tax base. You can’t fund great schools, infrastructure and public transportation with only taxes from working class folks.
During the boom years this didn’t strike home, of course, as even workers, now unionized, were saving up and owning their own homes and building communities and neighborhoods all over town. The auto industry may have been slowly losing ground to Japan, but hell, they were still number one—back then. There was money to experiment and to be bold. Mies Van der Rohe built lovely housing in Lafayette Park, glass-walled townhouses in a park like setting, the trees somewhat mitigating his severe aesthetic.
Actually, and no surprise, it didn’t look like this when it got built—the trees were spindly planted twigs then, and folks said this project looked like a whole bunch of tacky motels. They were sort of right. But thanks to the wisdom and foresight of the landscaper it evolved into something special. Not so the rest of Mies’ development—the proto strip mall and apartment tower were models for an evil architectural meme that has yet to be stamped out.
(Above photo from Wikipedia)
The art institute commissioned Diego Rivera to do murals—of glorious autoworkers, naturally….with some scary looking bosses overseeing them. On one side we see images of the fruits of industry providing medicine and other benefits while on the other side we see gas bombs being manufactured.
There were race riots in ’43 when blacks, who were guaranteed equal employment opportunities building tanks, airplanes and contributing to the “arsenal of democracy” felt that they were discriminated against in both employment and housing. The riots lasted 3 days; federal troops were called in and 1,800 people were arrested, 85% of whom were black. That riot began with a fistfight between a white man and a black man in Belle Isle park—the park designed by Olmstead, who also designed New York’s Central Park. (Most of his design here wasn’t carried out)Wealthy whites used to live in town, in areas like Indian Village, with streets of still beautiful houses, once worth millions, that now go for 100-200K. You can get some for less, if they’re in serious need of repair or burned out.
I was told that after the race riots of 1967 the original homeowners pulled up stakes and moved to Grosse Pointe, Dearborn and further out. In those riots, which lasted 5 days with a toll of 43 dead, the army was called in. The riots were set off when police raided an after-hours club where folks were celebrating the return of a Vietnam vet. Everyone in the club was arrested. Maybe the party and venue were quasi-legal—but hey, even if you were against the war, let folks celebrate their buddy getting back alive. 2,000 buildings were destroyed and snipers even pinned down national guardsmen in the Ford hospital. It was urban warfare—a second civil war in the making.
So the current Detroit on the ropes isn’t just the result of a single blow: this city took multiple hits, and was in the unfortunate situation of also having one principal industry. I look around and realize that any other town with one main company is similarly in peril, even if they’re doing OK at the moment, or think they are.
One wonders, if the federal government mandated that the car companies must build planes and tanks and all sorts of other stuff during the war, why these same companies couldn’t have been similarly diverted from building Hummers and SUVs to building trolleys, urban transport, high-speed trains and other bits of infrastructure we all could all use. Hybrid and electric cars, even—it took the Japanese and others to show the way in those cases. Well, I guess the political will wasn’t there and the SUVs were still being hawked to willing customers. Why mess with a good thing must have been the thinking.
The domination of the city by one industry, the riots, the nearsightedness and collapse of the car companies and now the financial crisis—all contributed to what one sees here. But this city is not alone. It’s just more iconic and extreme in what’s happened to it. On my last tour we saw acres of abandoned warehouses in downtown St Louis and much of the main street in central Cleveland is boarded up.
On the plus side—and there is one—folks here are now open to a re-think, and to new approaches and ideas, wherever they come from. There is maybe less red tape, as everyone wants things to improve. There’s unity on that at least.
When we arrived we biked out The Heidelberg Project, a few blocks where abandoned houses have been turned into impromptu artworks by Tyree Guyton, who enlists school kids and others to help maintain and modify the façades. One house was covered with baby dolls. Others are mixture of signs, detritus and paintings.
We biked on. Almost all the folks on the streets were black, and most seemed to be wandering, alone, stunned. We stumbled on the Packard plant, once the home of the most successful luxury car in America. The plant is huge, covering 80 acres, and the city wanted to raze it. But they weren’t clear on who owned it! They thought it was owned by a man named Dominic Cristini who, it turns out, is serving a prison term on drug charges in California. That research was revised when a company named Biosource sued an art gallery for removing a Banksy from the property—thereby revealing themselves, or one Romel Casab, as the owner. Casab is therefore responsible for demolition, or something. God knows what toxic shit is in there.
I’m not sure if Casab is responsible for cleaning things up, though I’ll bet the city would love if someone else would assume that debt.
Speaking of debt, it seems that recently GM, post-bailout, split themselves in two. One part is, they hope, a keeper and somewhat profitable, and is called GM, the other part is abandoned, unprofitable, toxic and debt-ridden…and it’s been christened the Motors Liquidation Company. If you can carve off your cancerous debt-ridden toxic half you can then stand tall and pretend that your new self is viable, and maybe even profitable—and doesn’t owe anyone any money. See, we’re not bankrupt anymore! We don’t need (or want) the government to be telling us what we can and can’t do, or how to run our business. I don’t believe this for a minute.
Anyway, scavengers snuck into these plants and stripped out the valuable materials—the copper first and eventually they bring in welding gear and take out the steel girders and supports, causing parts of the structure to collapse. Sadly, this means these buildings can’t come back as loft apartments, art centers or anything else. Should someone get the belatedly smart idea that a new industry could rise from the ashes of these ruins, it won’t happen in these buildings.
One passes by massive abandoned condos and apartment buildings. In New York City these days we see empty condos—shiny victims of the boom and subsequent crash—symbols of the bubble and its craziness. But these buildings are different. Some of them are at least 50 years old, some are grand and elegant, and they tend to look as if everyone just left one day, walked out (kicked out more likely) and now the wind blows through the glassless windows. Why are all the windows gone?
In another universe these empty apartments would be offered to the destitute and the homeless as cheap housing. But in a city where more than half the population has left, maybe there just aren’t enough bodies to fill these things anymore.
In one neighborhood I came across a flock of pheasants, calmly grazing on seeds in the fields between houses. In some places these would be hunted for sport or food. A local artist has a line of T-shirts featuring Detroit wildlife. I heard that a dad was about to take his kid hunting on the upper peninsula (UP) where they would encounter wildlife, but the kid’s first glimpse of a pheasant was in central Detroit.
It’s a great city for biking. Not much traffic, and flat—apparently there were some hills but those got smoothed out to create more arable farmland. Right now the weather is gorgeous, sunny, but not too hot. There’s an event on Saturday morning called Tour De Troit; it’s a 30-mile group ride with beer at the end. It’s not a race.
3,000 folks joined this thing—they could have gotten more people but I was told the police said that without more cops they’d have to cut it off there. The ride began in the morning at the abandoned train station. Sometimes I sensed that folks here have gotten used to how things are, while we out-of-towners stare at the massive abandoned buildings with our jaws dropped.
After the ride a few of us attempt to hook up with the Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead as it heads out Michigan Ave, but it has a flat tire and bent rim from going over a curb and is stuck outside our hotel:
Back at the contemporary art museum I watched 45 minutes of a video by Mike Kelley and a woman named Laura that mixes views of this house heading out Michigan Avenue with interviews of the denizens of that street. What a bizarre world! A man who lives with giant pythons and does collages of faces made of genitalia. A place that used to made audio books on vinyl for the blind (one novel consisted of 70 some disks that they’d send to you.) One area is filled with transient motels, filled with prostitutes, drug dealers and poor folks with their children who have lost their homes. Mike the Ham Man has a business on Michigan and the Highwaymen motorcycle gang has their headquarters there as well. Laura reports that when filming in a strip club a man offered her $50 to leave. A massive burial ground was discovered next to a former mental institution—with no names, just numbers.
Later, there were drinks and dinner at a wonderful downtown joint with hodgepodge decor called D’Mongo’s, where ex-mayor Coleman Young and many others hung out. I thought it was a nice coincidence that out of the kitchen came this young man who spelled the other piano player—and he was vamping more or less on one chord—while in the background is avant-garde musician Tony Conrad, mostly known for making music that’s one note.
Just outside this establishment they were cleaning up remnants of sets for Transformers 3, which were scattered over a 4 block area: bits of blown up street (made of Styrofoam), burnt out cars and smashed signage. A slightly more extreme version of Detroit.
Of course, one never saw the actual transformers during their shoot, as those will be made on computers in post. One afternoon I saw the cars that would “transform” but that’s all. I guess the actors and extras have to “use their imaginations”.
Further downtown is a iconic development called the Renaissance Center, a John Portman designed fortress next to the river. (See my other post on Portman and Atlanta.) Toby Barlow, the writer and advertising executive, said that when Warhol was here he asked to be photographed with “that statue” in the background. Here’s the statue he was referring to:
Inside, it is now a hotel and GM showroom, but the overall impression is that of a very cool concrete dystopian future. It’s like the move Logan’s Run…except that GM execs aren’t terminated when they reach 30.
Like D’Mongo’s, there are lots of hidden jewels in this town: Avalon Bakery, Kings Books (I got some first editions), Eastern Market and The Polish Yacht Club—which is neither, it’s not even near the water. It’s a restaurant, and a comment on Yelp said “not a date place and will not impress anyone”, but it was still highly recommended.
Jenni asked, “Are there other towns that have been hit so hard that have come back?” Both Michael Morris of Artangel and I replied “Glasgow”. It was known as having the worst slums in Europe back in the day, and I remember visiting my grandparents and all the buildings were grimy black, from soot. That city hasn’t come back as an industrial powerhouse it once was (steel and shipbuilding) but as a cultural hub. Life is good there now, and the city is cleaned up and nice to look at.
Other cities have used culture to bring life back—Morris mentioned Bilbao—but to be honest, so much of Detroit is simply gone, vanished, that that kind of revitalization is hard to imagine. Bilbao was a smaller town, even if it was a dump. However, one can imagine that if the city center here can become more of the focus then a much smaller town with vibrant life might emerge. Forget much of the urban sprawl (or turn it into farmland) and see if the wonderful stuff can be encouraged and supported. Again, it could be arts and theater and music that spurs some of that—there were 3 movies and a TV show shooting when we where there; Matthew Barney was preparing a large scale performance involving molten metal not too far away, and local artists and musicians have always gone their own dark ways here—so the interest is there. The skies here are bigger than in New York.