As a kid in rural British Columbia growing up during the advent of cable television, it seemed a bit odd that our cable company, like many others across Canada, would choose to carry American television stations not from the closest American cities such as Seattle or Spokane but from far-off Detroit. Detroit television was where I spent much of the 1980s; everything came on three hours earlier than the local stations so I could watch my daily unhealthy dose of prime-time and late-night programming without having to stay up late and oversleep for school the next day. Especially interesting was the news (I can still to this day name every member of the turn-of-the-‘90s WDIV News 4 team by heart- Dwayne X. Riley, anyone?); it seemed so foreign and morbid and infinitely interesting to a kid that lived in a place where someone having their video camera stolen made the front page of the newspaper. It created a lifelong fascination with Detroit that persists with me to this day.
Much has been made over the past few years (decades, really) of the decline and decay of the once-booming metropolis of Detroit. During the first-half of the 20th century, Motown was the economic workhorse of the United States; its automotive sector second to none other on the planet. Fuelled by the rise of the automotive age, the Fordist methods of economic production employed in the factories in and around the city required large amounts of high-wage, non-skilled labourers to populate assembly lines. Lured to the region as a result were hundreds of thousands of workers from the southern US and Europe. The city exploded in population from just under 286 000 in 1900 to nearly 1 850 000 by 1950. With the population boom came the construction of countless numbers of Gilded Age- and Art Deco-style houses and skyscrapers.
As with most secondary industries, the methods of production over time became more advanced and streamlined, decreasing the need for such large amounts of labour. Racial tensions in the city itself combined with the development of commuter economies and relocation of much of the automotive industry to suburban areas prompted the flight of hundreds of thousands of residents from the city. Initiatives such as New Detroit and Detroit Renaissance sunk billions of dollars along the riverfront and in downtown Detroit, but residents and businesses continued to flee the city as unemployment plunged into the mid-teens (the 2000 US Census reported the per capita income of Detroit as US$14 717). By 2007, one was hard-pressed to even find a single supermarket in a city that, while depleted, still contained around 900,000 residents. In a city located in the middle of North America’s industrial food belt, residents were forced to either buy expensive foodstuffs at corner store or products of dubious quality at discount retailers.
Thankfully, not all is lost in Detroit. In fact, the convergence of urban decay (approximately 33,000 vacant homes plus another 100 km2 of vacant land) and the increased cost of food has prompted some residents and community groups to begin farming the vacant land. Groups like these have helped to keep families fed by providing healthy food choices at little or no cost while also engaging the community at large, building bonds within neighbourhoods and getting residents involved in community revitalisation efforts. Detroit still has an awful lot of work to do (Mayor Dave Bing caused quite a stir earlier in 2010 when he announced a plan to relocate residents away from blighted areas in an effort to shrink the city so as to make it more governable; the plan includes bulldozing up to 12 000 structurally unsound buildings), but at least a dialogue is beginning to take place.
In the meantime, urban explorers and photographic essayists are finding a goldmine of territory to explore in the decaying skyscrapers, overgrown sidewalks and collapsing houses still to be removed. The amount of abandoned land is so great that in some locations, one is challenged to even find a building in one’s line of sight. The landscape seems eerily similar in parts of Detroit to many of the small, semi-abandoned towns that dot the Canadian Prairies (how ironic that the small-town decay that arose from the decline of family farming on the Prairies produced a landscape that looks similar to the urban decay of Detroit which itself may give rise to an agricultural boom). See if you can tell which of the Google Street View photo captures at the bottom of this post (below ‘Further Reading’) are of locations in Detroit and which are of locations in the Prairies.
Corley, C. (2007). No More Supermarkets? Major Grocers Flee Detroit. Radio interview transcript. Washington, DC: National Public Radio. Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=12477872. Accessed 26 July 2010.
Darden, Joe T. et al. (1987). Detroit: Race and Uneven Development. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Farley, R. et al. (2002). Detroit Divided. New York: Russell Sage Educational Publications.
Shuman, M. (2004). Import Replacement. In Wheeler, S.M. and Beatley, M. (eds.), The Sustainable Urban Development Reader, 171-178. London: Routledge.
Time Magazine (2010). Assignment: Detroit. Available at http://www.time.com/time/detroit/. Accessed 26 July 2010.