If there’s one city that should be the poster child for post-industrial collapse, it’s Detroit, the decline of the car industry there followed by a corresponding decline in population which in turn meant that huge parts of the city haven fallen into disuse, its suburbs returning to wilderness. Pictures of the city shows an urban core that looks like a set from Mad Max, combined with suburbs that are slowly returning to prairie. Things have gotten so bad you can get houses for $100 or less even, but even then rarely find buyers. The city is broke, industry has moved away and new employers are wary to move in. It’s not an unique story, plenty of industrial cities in Europe and America both suffered the same fate from the sixties onward, as their industries lost the competition with emerging industrialising nations in Asia, but Detroit was hit much harder than any other city, had further to fall. The current recession hasn’t helped either.
But as Aaron M. Renn shows in an excellent overview post on New Geography, this collapse offers opportunities as well:
But as with Youngstown, one thing this massive failure has made possible is ability to come up with radical ideas for the city, and potentially to even implement some of them. Places like Flint and Youngstown might be attracting new ideas and moving forward, but it is big cities that inspire the big, audacious dreams. And that is Detroit. Its size, scale, and powerful brand image are attracting not just the region’s but the world’s attention. It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit.
Disasters, whether slow moving ones like Detroit or much faster ones, like in New Orleans, always offer opportunities for radical change, either positive or negative. They provide an empty canvas on which a sufficiently determined government or visionaire could imprint their vision. In his post Renn contrasts two conflicting ideas for the redevelopment of this empty space. One is a topdown vision still largely vapourware because neither government nor business is strong enough and interested enough to contemplate implementing it:
One natural response is the “shrinking cities” movement. While this has gotten traction in Youngstown and Flint, as well as in places like Germany, it is Detroit that provides the most large scale canvas on which to see this play out, as well as the place where some of the most comprehensive and radical thinking is taking place. For example, the American Institute of Architects produced a study that called for Detroit to shrink back to its urban core and a selection of urban villages, surrounded by greenbelts and banked land.
The other is an already existing, bottom-up movement as people, both local and newcomers, adapt to the possibilities of all the empty spaces and realise that the city government can’t stop them. It’s a typically American vision, individualistic and libertarian:
In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because the hand of government weighs less heavily.
As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age.
Neither vision really appeals to me, I must say. Both deny Detroit its identity as an industrial city, as a Black city, both ignore the actual inhabitants of the city in favour of utopian dreaming. Detroit deserves better than to be a hipster experiment or some sort of centrally planned monstrosity. True renewal needs to come from the people who actually live in the city, with their input and consideration for their wishes.
There is of course a certain libertarian appeal to d.i.y. urban renewal, but the question how much the people involved help create a true community and how much it’s just trustafarians dicking around.