The city as canvas: Detroit, MI and the problem of American exceptionalism

Alison Fornell
May 24, 2014
We burn this city every day.
— Philip Levine, “Coming Home, Detroit” 1968

On 4 June 1896, Henry Ford took the first automobile test drive  through Detroit’s streets. In 1950, Detroit became the fourth-largest  American city, with a population of 1.85 million. In 1958, the Packard  Motor Car Co. closed its doors, remaining abandoned and shuttered to  this day. From 23 to 28 July 1967, the National Guard patrolled Detroit’s streets as a response to the race riots. In 2008, President  George W. Bush granted GM and Chrysler provisional bailout funds of  $17.4 billion. On 18 July 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy—the largest  American city ever to do so.

Detroit is, and has been for decades, in crisis. Its crisis is  economic, but it is also socio-cultural. We might look to the long  history of problematic race relations—spurred on and exacerbated by the  ‘white flight’ in the 1960s—and to the socio-economic divide propped up  by real estate corruption as pivotal facets of Detroit’s larger  problems. But I am most interested in the ways that the cultural  imagining and imaging of Detroit have both colluded in and reflected the crisis of the city.

For politicians, artists, bloggers and journalists, Detroit has long  been a canvas, a blank slate on which to project fantasies and anxieties  about the American experience. From its motto Speramus meliora; Resurget cineribus  (’We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes’) to Mayor  Archer’s 1998 proclamation ‘Let the future begin’, Detroit is time and  time again denied its place in the present moment and positioned as a  site of starting over, of renewal. The problem here concerns the plight  of post-industrial cities such as Detroit and the widespread cultural  propensity to deem them blank slates. Human complicity is  overlooked in favour of a focus on nature’s return and the slow crumble  of infrastructure, tied to ideas of the past or starting over.  The Detroit poet Philip Levine, however, reminds us in ‘Coming home,  Detroit’ that we are in fact accountable: ‘We burn this city every day’.  He ends the poem in the present tense as well—keeping us accountable,  every day, for the state of the city.

What has happened in Detroit is indicative of larger trends in  American cultural history: its mythical status and urban prairie  aesthetic allure have swelled so drastically in the American imagination  that the city has become less a place of historical and cultural  significance and more a canvas for the rest of the country—and the  world—on which to sketch a utopia (or dystopia), or a world-in-metaphor.  I argue that this tendency lies at the heart of American political  identity and has been the foundation for one of the greatest lies in  modern western history: American exceptionalism.

Thanks to its presumed status as a culturally blank slate, there  exists a long history of projecting fantasies and plans onto the city of  Detroit. As noted in TIME five years ago, ‘It’s the hopeful note  sounded by Detroit’s optimists: The approximately one-third of the city  lying empty or unused—an area about the size of San Francisco—is not  just an emblem of its corrosion but also the blank slate on which to  chart a path to renewal.’ This notion brings us into the all too  familiar territory of American ‘frontier’ rhetoric. David M. Sheridan  explores this problem in his 1999 essay, ‘Making sense of Detroit‘, which  tracks the history of frontier rhetoric in the Detroit area since the  arrival of Europeans on the originally Native American land. He presents  this argument within a larger framework of the history of utopic and  dystopic imaginings of the city—tying the idea of the frontier to ideas  of both utopia and dystopia.

Sheridan begins with the European grid put in place in Detroit to  ‘impose order’ on Native American space. After a catastrophic fire swept  through the city in 1805, Judge Augustus B. Woodward took on a utopist  project, according to Sheridan:  ‘In reading the spatio-historic text of Detroit, Woodward “discovers”  that all signs indicate a unique opportunity to instil a utopia: “Nature  has destined the City of Detroit to be a great interior emporium,  equal, if not superior, to any other on the surface of the terraqueous  globe.”’ Sheridan cites Woodward’s assertion that the fire returned the  city to frontier status: ‘As a blank slate of ashes, Detroit had no  means of “sticking” to the past.’ Detroit was hit hard during the 1929  stock market crash, suffered through the Great Depression, enjoyed some  redemptive but non-sustainable years in the 1950s, and was hit yet again  in 1967 with socio-political problems resulting in the race riots.  Historically, many have found ample opportunity to rewrite or reimagine  Detroit’s physical and cultural landscape—Detroit is seen as a city that  transcends history itself. Outlook magazine, according to  Sheridan in 1999, pegged Detroit as ‘the most modern city in the world,  the city of tomorrow. There is no past, there is no history.’

This kind of language and this sort of ideology are deeply rooted in American ideas of wilderness,  which the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines as ‘an area where the earth  and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a  visitor who does not remain’ (891). During the founding of America,  pioneers happened upon an apparent wilderness ‘untrammeled by man’ and  claimed it as their own, as a fresh slate on which to apply government,  social organisation and their own Euro-American cultural ideals. As  these pioneers travelled west, they appropriated more land from the  inhabitants residing on it, in the name of Manifest Destiny; in the name  of democracy. They deemed it ‘untrammeled by man’ in spite of the  long-time endeavours of Native Americans to shape and condition their  environment. And they committed atrocious genocide that American history  likes to ignore, because America is, after all, the ‘City on the Hill’,  the unique child of revolution, the land of the free. The imperialism  upon which this ‘land of the free’ was founded is overlooked in the name  of American exceptionalism. This land then became American  territory—land occupied by violence in the most fundamental sense  (William Connolly).

I am interested in the ways these ideologies manifest themselves in  image making and art practice. In particular, I am interested in the  photo-blog: a popular cultural form that highlights the ways certain  kinds of image making can contribute to the denigration of  place-specific culture and history. In addition, more traditional  examples of artistic photography lend themselves to a critique of image  making of Detroit. Amateur photographers and writers have found an  audience and forum in the internet, and blogs and photo essays have  begun to sprout up left and right. A popular site for Detroit  photography is Sweet Juniper!,  a blog created by two self-proclaimed ‘yuppies raising their kids in  the most dangerous city in America’. As the blog highlights, there  exists a powerful impulse to dwell and ruminate on the abandoned homes  that inhabit the city, from downtown to the outer neighbourhoods.

In the summer of 2009, Jim Griffioen posted his first blog article  with seventeen images of the ‘unintentional greening’, to use Wendy S.  Walters’s term, of Detroit. Paralleled with Griffioen’s images are his  personal thoughts on the phenomenon. The next summer, following feedback  from many fans—including Alan Weismann, author of The world without us—Griffioen  posted more images, which he subsequently decided to put up for sale.  The images on his blog are simple: basic photographs of houses that are  overgrown by nature, sometimes by the ivy that once gracefully adorned  the exterior of a Victorian mansion; sometimes by the uncontrollable  weeds of nature that overwhelm when neglected. He calls these abandoned,  nature-ridden homes ‘feral houses’. Griffioen defines feral as: ‘reverted to a wild state, as from domestication. Our word feral comes from the Latin root fera, or “wild beast,” but it also has a connection to another Latin word, feralis, literally: belonging to the dead. He proclaims, ‘Now these houses are feralis. They belong only to the dead.’

The fetishisation of decay is made apparent in such instances of  cultural production. Many characterise this widespread urban decay, in  cities from Detroit to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as a product of  post-industrialisation. Daniel Bell coined the term post-industrial in his 1973 work The coming of post-industrial society, describing a post-industrial economy as  a generalisation that refers to the shift from a manufacturing or  industry-based economy to a service-based economy. This shift,  indicative of post or late capitalism, accounts for the very process of  unintentional greening in cities like Detroit. As Walter Benjamin  prophesised in the early 20th century about Paris, ‘With the  destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments  of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’ (Paris, capital of the nineteenth century,  109). And it is these ruins—the now crumbled architecture of a once  thriving manufacturing and automobile capital—that act as the ghosts  that drive the mythical quality and allure of Detroit’s landscape.

Griffioen’s blog highlights a distinctly American phenomenon of  idealising the past, but not fully realising it. It also highlights a  markedly American disillusionment with nature and wilderness. While it  might evoke sentiments of ‘purity’ and ‘renewal’, in the case of  Detroit—a city with an unemployment rate oscillating around 30%—nature  represents death and decay, neglect and abandon. These houses have  cultural significance; yet, we dwell on the beauty of the juxtaposed  nature and architecture. It is hard to argue against the idea that these  images are awe-inspiring or striking, but they are also horrific  reminders of what can happen when capitalism implodes. These  images prophesise an eerie future and reflect a negligent past. And the  emptiness they embody highlights a deeper problem in American cultural  rhetoric, as Sheridan explains: ‘Unfortunately, empty space is rarely  available in the real world; more often, “empty” is merely a convenient  construct of the utopist. In his eagerness to move from past to future,  the utopist proscribes the present moment, dismissing it as either  nonexistent or worthless.’ What we presume to be wilderness, as  emptiness ready to be civilised, might not actually be empty, but  replete with meaning, history and even people. Sheridan’s analysis seeks  to uncover the very foundation of American political identity and  cultural projection by pointing to the very real but often neglected  implications of American exceptionalist discourse: ‘For American  settlers and creoles, as for most utopists, the problem was that native  peoples often failed to conceive of themselves as blank slates and were  therefore unwilling to participate in the utopian project.’

Indeed, the phenomenon of the photo-blog highlights the conceptual  reality of deeming Detroit a canvas: a blank slate, a site for poetic  ruminations, a space on which to project fantasy and anxiety. As I have  noted, this tendency is indicative of a larger theme in American history  that has driven American domestic policy, foreign policy and cultural  identity: American exceptionalism. With this concept of the blank slate,  of renewal, Detroit has also been subject to utopic projections—and  these projections, I argue, are embedded within the image making so  prevalent in Detroit today.

The Chilean-born photographer Camilo Jose Vergara perhaps best  exemplifies the co-habitation of the artistic impulse and the utopic  renewal impulse. Vergara has been capturing images of American decay for  almost twenty years, collected in his books The new American ghetto (1995) and American ruins  (1999). He has become fascinated with Detroit as a space of American  ruin: ‘I left Detroit thinking what we have now is perhaps the closest  we are going to get to an American Acropolis’ (The new American ghetto,  225). He has famously photographed the abandoned Michigan Central  Railroad Station, constructed by Warren and Wetmore in 1913 (Camilo J.  Vergara, 1999, ‘Michigan Central Station, Detroit’). Vergara  characterises the unintentional greening of Detroit as the creation of a  ‘green ghetto’: ‘urban spaces which have been abandoned for so long  that the “wilderness” has begun to reclaim them […] In many sections of  these ghettos, pheasants and rabbits have regained the space once  occupied by humans.’ Along with envisioning a ‘ruins park’ to attract  people to the city and to honour the ruins of a fruitful history,  Vergara is a proponent of urban farming. He imagines a renewed Detroit:

Declining cities could learn from the Middle Ages. Michigan Central  Station and a few dozen surrounding acres of former parking lots and  railroad tracks should be turned into an abbey or monastery. Government  or foundation money would help a group of monks to stabilize the ruin  and establish living quarters in it. I envision local farmers willingly  cooperating, assisting the monks in setting up their farm, chicken  coops, and barnyards. I see strawberries growing between the rails along  the train tracks; I see lambs and cattle grazing on the overgrown  parking lots, and goats on the roof and staring out the windows.

At first glance, these intentions and ideas seem beneficial and  productive. Vergara seeks to make something of nothing, as it were. But  this is the very problem at hand: what is presumed to be nothing is actually something.  The ruins of Michigan Central not only represent neglect but also  indicate widespread struggle, hardship and decline. Vergara suggests  that Detroit revert to a kind of retro-futurism with his suggestion of  learning from the Middle Ages—thereby participating in the very tendency  to situate Detroit not within but without history and the present tense  as such. This kind of rhetoric suggests a problematic attention to the  utopic, associated with frontierism. Vergara’s dream—while  hopeful—nevertheless colludes in the harmful utopic imagining to which  Sheridan points and which has dictated Detroit’s position in the  American socio-political landscape and cultural imagination.

Photographers of Detroit have brought to our attention the visual  devastation that has overcome the city. Through their mediated images of  the city, people who have never been to Detroit have come to know it as  a nightmare landscape. As Sola-Morales explains in ‘Terrain vagues’, an  article analysing the aesthetic pull of urban decay and the epistemic  function of this pull, ‘our gaze has been constructed and our  imagination shaped by photography’ (119). As the acclaimed works of  Vergara highlight and as the local allure of photo-blogs such as Sweet Juniper!  suggest, there exists a visceral fascination with the phenomenon of the  unintentional greening of Detroit. Pheasants now roam the streets,  grass and shrubs spurt up through the concrete and asphalt of once  functioning communities, trees grow through the foundation of abandoned  homes, bursting through the roof towards the sun. The New York Times and the Guardian  have dedicated many inches of print to the subject and have inspired a  few innovative types to move back. But what the present  moment—bankruptcy, the appraisal of the Detroit Institute of Art’s  collection—more prominently suggests is a complicated relationship with  the image and with historical time: how the image, as such, affects both  historical memory and, in a sense, memories about the future, which  have indeed been projected onto Detroit. There is a deep and sad  nostalgia attached to the interpretation and dissemination of these  images and processes of image making that complicates memory and  imagination, recollection and projection.

Such considerations recall the French theorist Guy Debord’s  theorisation of modern society’s relationship to the commodity, to  history and to urban planning. Debord’s analysis of the bourgeoisie’s  influence on the conception of time and its subsequent deconstruction  fits into an analysis of Detroit and its situation on the cusp of  historical reality and cultural imagination: ‘By discovering its basis  in political economy, history became aware of the existence of what had  been its unconscious. […] Though ever-present in society’s depths,  history tended to be invisible at its surface’ (105). Indeed,  Detroit—the city of mass production, of the automobile—functions as such  a spectacle, and these images themselves, I argue, participate in the  invisible nature of history, of time itself, on its very surface.  Moreover, the image making associated with Detroit has also rocketed the  city into a kind of symbolic realm, acting as a signifier for distress  and devastation rather than the signified, the city itself—indeed, this  problem pushes linguistic boundaries and complicates meaning production  and formation. As the Detroit scholar Kevin Boyle has said, ‘Detroit has  long been a city of extremes. In the first half of the twentieth  century, it became modernity’s great tool room, its vast industrial  complex the envy of the world. Since the late 1960s it has become the  nation’s symbol of urban decay’.

I would like to end where I began, with Levine’s poem. He sums up in  so many words the crux of the problem at hand: we burn this city every  day. The city doesn’t burn on its own: the destruction of infrastructure  and the resurgence of nature are a result of poor management and the  problematic ideological underpinnings inherent in American political  discourse. Indeed, Detroit exists as it does because of the inevitable  implosion of capitalist structure. And the problem of Detroit as  frontier is perpetuated in our fetishisation—a psychoanalytic and, in  Marx’s terms, economic concept—of decay as blankness. This fetishisation  exists less in our lived experience of the city and more in our  imagination of it, fuelled by the very framing incited, in this  instance, by the camera’s lens: the problematics of exceptionalism  realised.


All by
Alison Fornell