Detroit: Science Fictional City, Land of Opportunity, Doughnut Hole

I don’t tend to think a lot about Detroit, but I stumbled across a couple blog posts/articles yesterday that made me ponder:

First, there is “The travails of Detroit” from the Financial Times of London— or more accurately, Cory Doctorow’s post on boing-boing about this article. In that post, Doctorow wrote this:

I was at Confusion, a science fiction convention in the Detroit area recently, and I got to thinking that Detroit may be the most science fictional city in the world — if sf is about the way that technology changes society (and vice-versa), then Detroit, the first New World, world-class city built around a high-tech industry that collapsed, is about as science fictional as it gets.

I am assuming– especially based on this Financial Times article– that Doctorow doesn’t mean a “science fictional city” like the “Futureworld” in his beloved Disneyland; I assume he’s talking Mad Max, Blade Runner, etc.

Conversely, on Mark Maynard’s blog, I came across this glass half-full article, “For Sale: The $100 House,” which is about how the collapse of the real estate market in Detroit is presenting itself as an opportunity for artists and other hipster/urban pioneers. Here’s a quote:

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

The truth is that Detroit has been “suddenly” transforming into a former shell of itself for about 40 years, and the comments on Doctorow’s post on boing-boing point this out. True, the slow decline of Detroit is about the failures of the auto industry, but it is also about race, about the rise of the suburbs, about a general population shift in the U.S. back to the south, etc. Besides, I’ve never quite gotten this dark/sci-fi/noir aesthetic of artsy photos of dilapidated and abandoned buildings of the kind featured in the Financial Times story or on the site“The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.”

The idea of turning a house that costs about the same as a souped-up desktop computer into an inner-city, eco-friendly, artists colony is appealing and even perhaps a little more realistic and unique than the idea of turning it into a dystopian movie set. It is interesting that the kind of forces that originally encouraged migration to the west– cheap land and few rules– are driving them now into the inner-city. Urban pioneers indeed. But it still probably isn’t going to improve the schools, bring a grocery store to town, raise the tax base, reform local government, etc.

In the the almost dozen years I’ve lived in Ypsilanti, I’ve been into Detroit-city about a dozen times tops– well, not counting the Computers and Writing Conference in 2007 at Wayne State, which is the only conference I’ve ever commuted to from my house. Ypsilanti is between Detroit and Ann Arbor and sometimes feels like a bit of a buffer-zone, but I never really think of myself as living in a suburb of Detroit, or even particularly close to Detroit. Granted, downtown Detroit is just 40 or so minutes away by car, but it seems a lot further than that.

Anyway, I don’t think Detroit is a sci-fi prototype and I’m not sure its cheapness alone means it is the next great investment for artists or others. I think it’s a bit of a doughnut hole, meaning the city of Detroit is a whole lot of “nothing” with a lot around it. I’ve been in downtown Detroit before on a Friday or Saturday early evening where it was a complete ghost town, while simultaneously, downtown Ann Arbor is packed with all kinds of folks. All the “good stuff” of Detroit is around it in the suburbs. The hole of Detroit is a blank.

Don’t get me wrong– Detroit-city is not without its many charms (DIA, Commerica Park, Ford Field, WSU, the Fischer Theater, Greektown, etc., etc.), and it’s not like Detroit is that unique. In fact, I would wager to say that most major cities in this country are more like doughnuts than not. Who goes downtown in Cleveland? Baltimore? St. Louis? Even a lot of Chicago? This is what suburbanization has done almost everywhere in this country. Though I will grant you that the nothingness of the hole of Detroit is more pronounced, perhaps because of the pronounced size and general goodness of the doughnut that surrounds this particular hole. There aren’t many urban areas in this country where the towns around that area are as known or more known than the main city itself.

In any event, I’m leery of signaling out Detroit’s state in the face of “high technology,” and I’m rooting for the the artists and other urban pioneers. But I have a feeling that the holeness of Detroit is remaining with us for a while.

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