Touring Detroitby Theodore Hamm
Takin’ pictures of the ghetto? a local woman asks me.
Um, well, yeah, I reply.
What you see I don’t see?
I’m interested in the way the natural landscape is recovering the manmade one.
Detroit, as I saw in my first visit there this past October, is a landscape of decay. It’s a tourist attraction only for those privileged enough to be curious about such conditions. The bus tour I took clearly was not the first to pass through the city’s many forgotten neighborhoods. On several occasions, men standing on the street waved to the bus as it moved along.
As noted by one of our guides, Thomas Sugrue, whose book Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996) is the definitive work on Detroit’s post-war history, there are 60,000 vacant lots within the city. Many more houses await destruction, with signs on the door reading “no gas,” meaning they won’t detonate when the wrecking ball hits. A friend says that one of his colleagues just bought a house for ten grand on the city’s impoverished Eastside.
A sorry state indeed for what was once the thriving capital of industrial America. As Sugrue explains, the decline began in the supposedly booming 1950s, when automakers—supported by federal government policy—began fleeing union wages and started moving jobs first to the suburbs, then to the south. Left behind was the city’s growing African-American population, which was barricaded inside the inner city by both a hostile white working class and an equally segregationist city administration.
Unlike New York, Chicago, and even Cleveland, Detroit today is not a site of rampant gentrification. Attempts to revive the city’s downtown over the past 25 years are a study in failure. In the late 1970s, there first came the Renaissance Center, a towering, uninviting corporate convention enclave on the river. Somehow the foot traffic inside the compound never extended to the area surrounding it. More recently, the stadium strategy has been deployed, resulting in the impressive Comerica Park. No activity on the nearby streets there on a sunny Saturday afternoon autumn, either. And as for the new casinos that are sprouting up in various spots across the city, the jackpots will surely stay indoors there as well.
“Why doesn’t the government do something about this?” a German woman passionately, though naively, asked about the neighborhood desolation we saw so much of on our tour. A hearty round of snickering filled the bus. We all studied American culture, but most of us lived in the States and thus were more familiar with its customs. In the era of big government, federal highway and housing policy helped build the suburbs; amidst the current wave of privatization, a proposal for large-scale state economic intervention in an abandoned inner city would surely be sneered at, laughed off. A city like Detroit, made up of 83 percent black residents, now exists as a tourist destination only for connoisseurs of the urban wasteland.