Detroit; City of Hope

ImageCopyright Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre 2010

A few months ago I stumbled across Yves Marchan and Romain Meffre’s excellent photographic essay “The Ruins of Detroit.” http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/ The striking image of Michigan Station (above) is stark, visionary and yet tragic. Many of the other images capture faded grandeur, buildings spirally inwardly towards the earth, frozen ballrooms and dentist surgeries. I found myself fascinated by the decline of the place; the structures left in the wake the former Automotive capital of the USA. 

There is much of Detroit in its heyday that reminds me of Victorian England; more in a cultural and political sense than in design. The desire to show pace, creativity and power; buildings rising ever higher to match the aspirations of the day. The station above is a little like the recently re-opened Kings Cross in London; the context for both cities markedly different. There is something even more striking about them now standing empty, silent tributes to a long lost magnetism; the consumer fuelled rat-a-tat race for larger and greater just ran out of gas.

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The 1965 references to “new horizons, vision and growth” in the following (failed) Olympic Bid http://youtu.be/RNnh9ws8Apg captures the drive (deliberate pun) of the day. I find buildings without people in fascinating; a snapshot of human history with the world around them moving on apace. 

Julian Temple’s excellent  “Requiem for Detroit” http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00rkm3y/Requiem_for_Detroit/ fills in many social history gaps. Workers from the South flooded in as agriculture declined; the City was designed on the basis of racial segregation. The tale is underpinned by the spirit of the pioneer. At best pioneer spirit showed a relentless desire to create and progress; at worst it was a rootless transitory process – squeeze every drop of value out and then get back on the horse to the next opportunity; don’t look back. 

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There are several groups devoted to preserving the heritage of the city and learning lessons from the past, I particularly recommend a look at the work of http://detroiturbex.com the care and civic pride is tangible.

On the 18th July this year, Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the largest municipal filing in US history with an estimated $18-24 billon worth of debt. The population has decreased from a shade under 2 million citizens in 1950 to 713,000 in 2010. In my ignorance I had no clue municipalities could go bust. Detroit has gone from boom to verge of oblivion inside sixty five years. The pace of growth is mirrored by its’ decline; what goes up must come down.

I feel a sense that the rules for Detroit from this point forwards are in the air. There is a sense of expectation to see what arises from the ashes. @danslee recently told me about http://detroitsoup.com/ a grass roots initiative for communities to drive improvement activity by investing in soup and ideas.  http://www.detroitmarkets.org/ are a group that increase access to healthy foods by supporting local growers and entrepreneurs and create public spaces where residents can connect. Urban farming is a growth industry with land in abundance. Many people are working hard to park mass industrialisation in the past and create local alternatives together. Whatever the answer is I suspect it won’t be cars.

As one resident puts it in Requiem: “The old American dream is dead, we are in the process of creating a new one. It is happening here in Detroit; city of hope.” Nice one Grace Lee Boggs, (pictured in the middle below); I like your style. I have never been to Detroit but am drawn to it; I would like to wander through the buildings and history then warm myself up over $5 worth of soup. @mattbowsher1

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