Detroit – Cultural Prodrome

Detroit : Cultural Prodrome

Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus
We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From the Ashes

Driving around Detroit you feel as if you have entered an exclusion zone. Yet there was no war, there was no radioactive meltdown and only mighty fragments from the past remain, trapped in the present with no hope for the future. You can point your car in almost any direction (other then Grosse Point) and only find economic and social devastation everywhere you look on par with what you would find in the developing world. It leaves one wondering how this could happen to one of the most prosperous and innovative cities in the United States which brought us mass production assembly lines, the automobile and Motown records. We are aware of how this happened over a protracted period, so I won’t pour over it in this piece in much detail. My expectation of Detroit before visiting was one of unlimited blight, however when I left three days later I held a much different and less pessimistic view of the city mostly because of the impressions citizens made on me.

Almost everything about the city is awe inspiring for all the wrong reasons. My first impression of Detroit was seen from the back seat of a van by a local who took to driving us the first evening we arrived. After seeing the less dysfunctional side of the city downtown and the Fox theater we headed to Highland Park. Highland Park is the one side of Detroit I think very few people, particularity photographers venture. At night sections of this once prosperous suburb give the feeling of traveling back in time to the forties to bombed out cities like Dresden. Buildings are burnt out, ruins remain and there is virtually no one around. Most sections of the area are pitch black since the city could not afford to pay for it’s utilities, and the silence instead of being relaxing is rather unnerving. Other drivers don’t obey traffic signals, you don’t see any police either and get the feeling you are on your own in a parallel universe if anything goes wrong. You remain on edge, out of your element with a heightened awareness and anxiety that amplifies the already overwhelming sensory inputs you have from the charged environment around you.

Highland Park is one of the few places in the world I have been where you get the sense you are completely alone apart from squatters, bikers and scrappers who you see intermittently. Another day, early in the morning figuring the bright sunlight on a nice Sunday morning might change this impression, I headed out with a friend to see the Yellow Pages building just off the expressway. Even though it was bright and sunny the whole area still seemed dark, depressing and desolate just as it was in pitch darkness from the night before. In fact, it was worse seeing it in the light of day because that’s when it really hits you that there is almost no one living here. Driving around a bit it seemed this impression wasn’t entirely accurate as people were living in some of the houses that looked abandoned and scrappers were making good use of the morning to steal whatever was left of the Hostess plant. Highland park seems to have two types of businesses, one being storefront churches and the other is biker bars which were both open, but I’m not sure for who because I didn’t see anyone walking the whole morning I was there. Emptiness takes on new meaning here and the desolation and despair seen here is the worst you will find in the city. It’s definitely worth seeing and experiencing first hand, especially if someone is interested in Detroit and visits the regular derelict ‘ruin porn’ locations. Highland Park is the ‘off map’ experience you would get tourism would ever be an option here.

The rest of Detroit is quite different, and where you do find people in most residential neighborhoods people are surprisingly warm and friendly. I wasn’t expecting to speak to anyone and assumed from my experience with homeless people in my own city that people only wanted money (and demanded it aggressively) and I didn’t find this to be the case in Detroit. If people came over to talk they talked enthusiastically about their neighborhoods, recommended other places to look at, asked for food, drinks or money quite graciously. Local residents all over the city were busy on a warm spring Saturday afternoon boarding up neighborhood houses, mowing laws in parks and hanging out just as they would elsewhere. I was left with the impression that most seemed to be getting by and making the best of their individual, unfortunate situations rather then being crippled by depression or fleeing elsewhere. I became quite curious about this and began thinking about how some people have the ability to look past the negative and not allow it to cripple their lives as much as everything around them has crumbled.

Great swaths of urban prairie run throughout the city, from houses that were demolished long ago and where trees and gardens now grow maintained by locals who didn’t flee from the city. This combined with the topography of the city, which is very flat makes you feel as if you are driving through the countryside for moments before you get back to more populated neighborhoods. Even months later I find myself thinking of Detroit more then any other city I have visited in North America. Detroit leaves more questions then answers, leaves you wanting more and continually asking the questions of how did this happen and why, and wondering if it is a social and economic anomaly or rather the way of the future. I guess only time will tell but the people of Detroit have a pride in their city I haven’t seen in more prosperous places where ‘pride’ has become a commodity itself.