Train in Vain: Detroit, the discarded city
by Dr. Nick Dunn, Principal Lecturer at the Manchester School of Architecture.
âI’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalmâ
Iggy & the Stooges, Search and Destroy, 1973.
What happens to our cities when the money runs out? Itâs an interesting and important question in these post-crash times and one becoming more and more relevant as Western cities especially implode under the failure of capitalism.
With such thoughts in mind, Detroit is an incredible place â in several senses of the word. Dramatically emptied out as those with the money abandoned it, urban deprivation and social inequality ran riot (literally in 1967), and the Big Three car manufacturing companies eventually withdrew from the inner city, Detroit has erased itself with no need for Iggyâs toxic heart to destroy anything. Increasingly and frustratingly framed as the post-apocalyptic landscape du jour, with itinerant explorers capturing their cherished âruin pornâ centre-folds, a situation further exacerbated by the mediaâs ghoulish fascination to depict the city as deleted scenes from The Road â no people, no hope, no future. Is this true?
Yes and no. There are many projects and people trying to make things better through community initiatives, urban farming, creative re-use, welfare support etc. as exemplified by the Heidelberg Project. But there is also massive desolation, poverty and desperation wherein land vacancy is the prime characteristic of space and the nature of architecture itself comes into question? Do we really need more buildings to make somewhere better? Can the Guggenheim effect, so striking and seductive when performed in Bilbao, simply be copied and pasted anywhere? No. This isnât what cities need anymore. In a city where some properties are so worthless that owners simply lock the door and permanently walk away, they need communities to be effective stakeholders in order to positively affect change in the urban environment. What is certainly doesnât need is the People Mover, a speculative inner urban transit system built to consolidate further investment in Downtown that unlike the light-rail transportation never came.
Detroit is as unique as it is real but donât let that fool you. As Jerry Herron as noted, âDetroit may be emptied out, then, but it is hardly over, nor will it be anytime soon, precisely because of the questions that this city/not raises.â And that is precisely the point. Detroit is certainly âthereâ, thousands of miles away from many of us, a clutter of disaster porn imagery and much-publicised crime and deprivation statistics. But it is also âhereâ and everywhere, representative of many other places in the US and, increasingly, Europe. Sure, the segregation and specific economic withdrawal patterns may not be have been replicated globally, but the complex issues of social inequality, dearth of economic activity and plain indifference stalk our streets and communities like never before. Its time to get organised.