It’s been challenging to think about how I talk about Detroit since I’ve arrived back in London. A lot of the time I have struggled to find words that do it justice. It’s very arresting, of course, to talk about the bleakness of the deserted city, the trauma people have lived through evidenced in the burnt out or boarded up, collapsing houses, the empty sky scrapers, windows staring dark and blank out over the empty streets below.
But if I over-emphasise the devastation that I’m not doing justice to the good things I saw there, the urban farms, the small businesses, including some great restaurants and coffee shops, including Germack in Eastern Market, the thriving art and music scenes. But then when people say they have heard really great things are happening in Detroit, I feel alarmed at the prospect of skipping over the extent to which the city bringing forth those things has been – and still is in many parts – in a state of absolute wreckage.
What’s also stayed with me is a comment John Gallagher who I met in the Russell Street Deli made in his book Revolution Detroit suggesting that while many Americans tend to look down on the city as a basket case, it’s possible that this could be the future for the whole of America. Some of the people I met in the US shared that sense of precariousness. Adam, who lead the cycle tour in San Francisco, said he feared that city could go the way of Detroit if the tech industry succumbed to the advances of India and moved their operations there.
The possibility that Detroit isn’t a one off and instead might act as a fore-runner with much to teach others about reinvention of the city prompts me to question even more the nature of the recovery I saw. While I’ve heard it said that the city represents the end of the American dream, I didn’t see enough to understand if what is emerging is challenging the precepts of that original dream or simply aiming to replace it with a new re-worked version. Do people see it as another cycle of capitalism, is it just a case of remaking a life based on old assumptions and principles, or are people going to the roots and foundations in order to fashion something new?