DETROIT: THE COMPOSITE CITY

By Andrew Lees

These days a Sunday afternoon in “The D” does not differ too much from a run-of-the-mill Monday morning. A few beaten up jalopies and corroded trucks glide Downriver on the sunken freeways. Traffic flow is glacial only on the Ambassador Bridge, where a convoy of trucks wait at the border with Windsor to enter the Great White North of Canada. The empty People Mover ghosts round the Downtown oblong heading for Bricktown and the Beaubien Passage. Closer to the river the beleaguered Ren Cen garrison is encircled by a no man’s land of neglect. Since I arrived on Friday I have not heard gun boom or even a police siren.

Unshaven, I set off from the MGM Grand Hotel to tramp the streets and search for the soundtrack of my adolescence. In Corktown, close to Slow’s Bar-B-Q and the McShane bus, a burnt out schizophrenic is drinking from a paper bag. On Michigan Avenue a tearaway on a Detroit Bike gives me the finger and shouts ‘Eh dude what a cocksucking whitey doin here?’

The Lafayette Coney Island Diner with its long zinc counter, chrome edges and bromide free service temporarily restores my faith in this rough and tumble place. I slump down at one of the laminated tables and order a coney with chilli fries and a Faygo pop. Served by a Greek waiter I am soon eating elbow to elbow with world-weary Detroiters. There are still a fair few natural democrats here determined to make a way out of no way, still punching above their weight. Most suffer in silence but one middle aged man in a tie-dyed T shirt and a grey beanie hat turns to me and says, ‘You can’t rescue Detroit you gotta be Detroit’.

The Greektown Casino is my next stop on this journey to the end of the night. An unhealthy candlelight, a total absence of clocks and a stale despair greet me. Lonely jaded smokers man a flashing conveyor belt of slot machines. The automatons have been assimilated into the cogs and levers of the machines. Tasters and roll ups, soft drinks served by hostesses and the sound of jingling coins keep the robots with feelings trapped in the machine zone. Henry Ford with his out-dated shift systems lost control of the money long ago but there is still profit to be made from crud in this city of my dreams.

Downtown, the Art Deco stacks tower above me like colossal tombstones as I hurry down the worn threads that link the freeways. Some of the old movie palaces and historic dollhouses on both sides of Woodward Avenue wait forlornly for re-development. Detroit’s last big box store is boarded up and the nearest Apple shop is twenty kilometres away in a strip mall. The hub is full of spectral departments and servers of meaningless warrants. No-one is dancing in the street but I had not given up yet in my search for a dog in snakeskin shoes who liked the obscure vinyl tracks those in the know call ‘cover ups’.

Around Campus Martius Park a new generation of white suburban infiltrators encouraged by ‘Isms,’ peach orbs, Alice in Wonderland chess boards and the illuminated orange-topped Qube building are doing their best to reclaim the ‘mean’ streets. As they travel between organic eateries and newly created lofts they clutch their smart phones and giant coffees to avoid any suspicions of empty handed idleness.

*

Relieved to be back at the boomerang tower of the MGM Grand I hire Thomas Bell of Speedlight Cars to take me for a spin. Thomas is massive, bearded and wears a slate blue suit with matching bow tie and pocket square. He doesn’t say much but when he speaks I pay careful attention. From behind his shades and royal blue Tam he informs me that laughter, not music is what keeps ‘The 313’ alive.

Before we set off for Gratiot Avenue I ask him to drop me in Midtown for a visit to the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the fifth largest gallery in the United States and home to the city’s crown jewels. I climb its impressive stone steps and walk through the deserted Italian Renaissance hallways to the Rivera Court. The almost life-size workers painted on its North Wall are depicted as vital cogs in the Highland Park factory wheels. Their broad shoulders changed the face of the earth forever and inadvertently annihilated Henry Ford’s rustic idyll. To the right of the Toltec guardians, in a panel set above a blazing furnace, Diego Rivera painted a Christmas parody of the Holy Family.

Over lunch at Fair Lane, his estate, Henry Ford told his Mexican guest that he was no more than a Yankee mechanic and that he bitterly regretted that his ‘poor mans friend’ had been turned by the advertising men into an object of romance and desire. The two men were both renegades, united by their passion for mechanical precision and technological beauty. In his memoirs Rivera enthused about his time spent observing the intricacies of the River Rouge car plant:

As I rode back to Detroit, a vision of Henry Ford’s industrial empire kept passing before my eyes. In my ears, I heard the wonderful symphony, which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men’s service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form.

Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo had arrived at Michigan Central Station from New York in April 1932 just four weeks after famished men had marched on the heavily guarded River Rouge plant. When Harry Bennett, the Stalinist bully who managed the Ford Motor Company, had appeared on the scene he was knocked unconscious by a rock. When tear gas failed to disperse the angry protesters the police had begun firing their guns. Five demonstrators were killed and as the Great Depression bit harder many of Ford’s Mexican workers were deported. Rivera, a committed Communist, bitterly regretted the failure of the labour movement to unite and defend itself but chose to omit the darker side of capitalism from his commissioned masterpiece.

Henry Ford made his fortune in Detroit but remained a country boy at heart. Loyalty, hard work, patriotism and family orientation were virtues he associated with rural agrarian life. To him the city dweller was a brave pioneer who had been forced to adventure into a terrifying uncharted waste. In one of his weekly columns in The Dearborn Independent he declared:

 Plainly, so it seems to some of us, that the ultimate solution will be the abolition of the City, its abandonment as a blunder…We shall solve the City Problem by leaving the City.

Linear communities dotted along highways, where mass manufacturing and farming would intertwine, were his futuristic vision. The city of Detroit was artificial and predatory. People often did not know their neighbour and he encouraged his functionaries to drive to work from the expanding suburban metropolis.

As we drive north up the Automotive Heritage Trail past the old General Motors building in Cadillac Place, I am still thinking of Henry Ford’s remarkable influence on the trajectory of this melodramatic city. By the time of his death in 1947 he had played a large part in making Detroit an industrial powerhouse with a population of almost 2 million – the fourth largest city in the United States. It was the apogee of the American Dream, the shining city on a hill. Detroit’s car companies dominated the global market and produced four out of every five cars manufactured in the United States. The Ford Motor Company alone was employing 100,000 workers who embossed, flanged, welded, stamp pressed, blanked and bent virgin steel six days a week. Ghostly flashes of light came from the ‘slave infernos’ where steam hammers tortured slabs of near molten steel. The foundry work was relentless and draining and mainly conducted by African-Americans. Slick subsidiary mega factories mass produced axles, gearboxes, screws and front and rear suspensions. Detroit was in the vanguard of America’s new machine age, an arsenal that would underpin the United States war effort.

In his article The Modern City – A Pestiferous Growth Henry Ford proclaimed:

The modern City, with its suppression of all that is sweet in its natural environment, its enforcement of artificial modes of living, its startling disparities of leisure and employment, its hideous extremes of self-conscious wealth and abject poverty, is probably the most unlovely sight this planet can offer; certainly it represents the most unwholesome condition that challenges our thought today.

Ford thought Detroit was a camp that had become stagnant, made up of any number of marginalised communities. A failure to mix the three great arts of Agriculture, Manufacture and Transportation had led to a destructive exclusiveness and antagonism. The city was covered over with asphalt, its pavements were crowded with people and the soil could not breathe. The monstrous depot built for the Michigan Rail Company in 1912 and separated from downtown by a streetcar ride through a slum, proved to be a white elephant, useful only as a point of disembarkation for his labour force. In his vision there would be no skyscraper columns or teeming insalubrious tenements blotting the American landscape. Prestige edifices like The Fisher and Guardian buildings were follies. Only “the mingling of the arts would restore economic balance and racial sanity”. In his vision the car would facilitate man’s desire to withdraw from society and recover his animal and natural self. A pastoral Jefferson world would guide social policy. 

Malevolent dragon smoke rises from the open manholes by the side of the road. ‘Piety Hill’ – as Woodward Avenue was once called – now seems to be in the grip of a diabolical curse. We pass a large gang of Outlaw bikers on Harleys heading Downtown. Tares now surround a constellation of temples with enchanting names like The Chapel of St Theresa of the Little Flower and Sweetest Heart of Mary. Other churches like the Martyrs of Uganda lie vacant and abandoned, stripped of their copper and stained glass. A forsaken convalescent home has been flagged with an amended red spray slogan,

                  Not

“God has ^ left Detroit”

Several years before the Rivera frescoes were completed, Henry Ford conceived an ill-fated scheme in which he attempted to create a New Jerusalem on the banks of the Rio Tapajós, 100km from the Amazon trading post of Santarém. In an area of elemental forest roughly the size of Connecticut, his people planted hundreds of Hevea Bresiliensis saplings in an attempt to bring profitable rubber production back again to the Americas. Ford hoped that this social experiment would have an added commercial dividend of loosening the British stranglehold on latex prices.

His Brazilian plantation labourers were well-paid and lived in pre-fabricated houses not that different from the homes of his Dearborn workers. There was a medical outpost and a community swimming pool. In return for these privileges they were required to wear corporate nametags, survive on a wholesome Soya bean diet and lead God-fearing lives. In what little spare time they had they were encouraged to square dance in the community hall and attend poetry readings. Fordlandia (originally known as Boa Vista) was welcomed by the Brazilian Government, despite her concern about a potential American takeover of the Amazon.

But a lack of consultation with botanists led to a blighted rubber crop. Disillusionment soon set in and some of the Ford rubber tappers rebelled against the evangelical puritanism and sailed down river to an island euphemistically called Innocencia, where they got drunk on cane rum and fornicated with Indian women. Ford then tried to improve productivity by bringing in workers from Barbados, which led to a riot by the locals. An eventual relocation to more fertile black soil one hundred kilometres downstream led to a modicum of success but the reopening of the Far East plantations in 1945 led to the demise of both Fordlandia and the newer community at Belterra. Henry Ford’s ‘Green Hell’ was finally over and natural recolonisation of the Amazon forest began in earnest. 

Back in Detroit, Ford’s doomsday prophecy was also coming to pass. The Ku Klux Klan dictated housing policy at City Hall where the slogan ‘Keep Dearborn Clean’ was interpreted as ‘Keep Dearborn White.’ Ford’s many black labourers, translocated from their homes in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley on the east side in order to make way for new roads, now lived in segregated cottages in the municipal suburb of Inkster. Ford tried to reduce costs and exploit cheap new labour pools by hiring underemployed farmers in water-powered Village Factory ventures well outside city limits.

Beyond the four parallel historic streets of Edison-Boston and the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, I get my first view of the sadness of the Motortown wreckage. Here on Manchester Avenue, the sons of slaves from the Jim Crow South, the rednecks from Appalachia and the unemployed from every corner of Europe had once worked for the Ford Motor Company. A chain link fence, a shuttered row of no-go taped up warehouses and the downmarket Model T Plaza shopping strip is all that is left of the once genteel Highland Park city. The decomposing eight-storey, high-ceilinged workshop from where the Tin Lizzies rolled out straight onto the Detroit streets now houses the Ford archives.

Fifteen minutes down the road we arrive at the Model T heritage site on Piquette with its museum of vintage cars and Henry Ford’s secret office. A few months earlier an urban explorer in search of hidden treasure had found a mummified corpse in one of its derelict hulks. Nothing remains of Dodge, Regal and Cadillac but the vacant Fisher Body and Autocar Service buildings are still here. Dereliction vigilante teams are clearing the adjoining charred Studebaker/E-M-F plant for guerrilla food production. Among the colourless motorways and vacant lots Thomas helps me search for the old Ukrainian, African-American and Arab communities, the tragic former world of three seasons and the ghost of Dodge Main. The gates of Chevrolet Gear and Axle are chained up but I can see through the shattered glass windows the floor where the cast-iron wheels spun and the giant presses drew breath in the choking heat. Close by is the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility, the largest solid waste incinerator in the United States, disposing of the city’s shite and venting a death stench of polysyllabic chlorinated carbons over Poletown.  

Directly in front of us on East Grand Boulevard lies the trussed concrete steel corpse of the Packard automotive plant, a lawless square mile of overgrown wasteland where scrappers, feral dogs, vampires and crazed hipster artists roam amongst the bonfires. One or two small auto repair shops hang on in the crumbling fabric. Thomas points to a shack with an aerial perched on a drooping corrugated roof, the home of Alan Hill, a blessed 68-year-old retired automobile worker who now prays and tinkers with iron in the black dust of the ruins.

*

“Destination Anywhere” by the Marvelletes is playing on WOM-SEE radio. Thomas, who has not said a word since I got back in the car, comes out with “Berry Gordy produced music like Henry Ford shaped metal”. I reply, “Without the brand new beat of Tamla where would the Beatles have been?” Gordy, the founder of the Tamla Motown record label, had modelled his ‘Hits Factory’ on Fordism and his personal experience on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line:

At the plant cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line, brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records. I wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist – a star

The River Rouge plant had subjugated the skill of each worker to produce an end product far greater than the sum of its component parts. Gordy’s trick was to create a brand that retained artistic individuality. Tamla Motown’s crossover groove was far greater than the sum of its component parts and its narrative of pleading love and magic was soon calling out all over the world. The Funk Brothers and the Andantes had the whirring beat of the Rouge in their veins. It was quality controlled and market tested with a phenomenal hit rate. Hitsville USA’s echoing blaring horns, clinking chains and pounding jackhammer signature was perfect up-tempo car radio music and by 1964 the whole world was partying and cruising down West Grand Boulevard. ‘Where did our Love Go’ by the Supremes was even played by Mission Control at Houston to the astronauts aboard Gemini. Detroiters were proud of their city and thought the good times would never end.

*

In 1967, after the Algeria Motel Shooting and the ensuing 12th Street ‘guerrilla uprising,’ Berry Gordy, the creator of ‘Motown Mocha’ with its soulful choruses and unforgettable hooks, looked down the road and didn’t like what he saw. Detroit was in deficit for the first time and within a few years he had moved his Record Corporation to Motor Bubble West (Los Angeles), the last refuge of the pink Cadillac. Detroit was dancing in the street and now felt more like Innocencia than Fordlandia.

The ‘City of Champions’ had become seedy, overgrown and dangerous. White families fled, literally overnight. Its street lights had gone out and its overworked and underfunded white police force were slow to respond even to homicides. Estate agents were having a field day securing properties at panic prices through techniques such as ‘blockbusting,’ which bribed young black families to move into segregated white areas. The ‘Big Three’ (Ford, Chrysler and General Motors) seemed increasingly incapable of changing tack, persistently falling back on tried and tested but outmoded practices. Escalating oil prices were making gas-guzzling cars with V-8 engines less attractive even for rich Americans. As Detroit’s manufacturing base died a lingering death, so did its elm trees, from a crippling disease spread by Dutch beetles that left its once shaded residential avenues stripped of foliage and littered with rotting timber. Grand River south of Joy had hardly a blade of grass. The Republic of New Afrika was burning in the rain, a murderous Canudos surrounded on all sides by a white noose and a broken American dream.

I started to think of the Michael Heseltine inspired trees, the saplings of regeneration planted after the Toxteth riots in 1981 to calm the anger. Rag and bone birthrights, slavery, and the opening of the Erie Canal tied the largest black city in the United States to the banks of the Mersey. Liverpool had kept its eyes fixed on the distant horizon, watching and waiting for Detroit’s rescue call. It was now primed for Afrofuturistic electronic drum trax and a new machine aesthetic. Machine Soul turned anger and rage into a rare beauty and brought a glowing future out of a chilling past. A dreamy otherness now kept a generation of negative, white, unemployed Scousers sane. Detroit Techno’s repetitive cadences and sophisticated minimalist melodies were the ideal soundtrack for the M62. Electronic technology had unleashed a liberating dreamworld and blown away the last vestiges of Northern soul. The new Voodoo music was on the edge of forever. It was what Ford and Rivera had dreamed of, euphony created by an equal partnership between machine and man.

*

On ‘Gra-shit’ (Gratiot) Avenue near McNichols, secreted away between the party stores, fast food joints and beauty parlours, Thomas pulls up and points out a middle aged black man, sitting on a crate in a parking lot under a solitary tree. Next to him is a sign saying ‘WHAT IT DEW lawnmower repair and sales ’. Behind him two hangers-on sit waiting like red kites for easy pickings. “That guy works six days a week in the summer, charges a flat 45 dollar fee and usually has the job done in an hour.  On a good day he gets through twelve machines but bro, does he put up with some shit,” says Thomas.

Eight Mile Road is an eight-lane road that runs east to west for thirty kilometres, lined with cemeteries, bungalows, strip clubs and a few run down businesses. It is still the boundary between black and white, the haves and the have nots. Off the main drag many of the wooden single-storey houses are derelict and boarded up. There are gaps where neglected properties have been torched on Devil’s Night. Pushers, rip-off artists in Superfly suits and muggers still skulk the emptiness. Coyotes have been seen wandering through the prairies. A wedge of honking Canada geese fly in from Baffin Island to graze on the edgelands.

We make a sightseeing stop at American Jewellery and Gold. The eleven-mile ride from Poletown has taken less than 15 minutes. Outside on the forecourt a man in a cowboy hat is talking up the virtues of his beaten-up Lincoln in an attempt to raise enough money for a Honda ride on mower. He shouts “I am Detroit” to emphasise his pedigree. Thomas tells me that Les Gold, the owner and star of the Hardcore Pawn television show, now has more pawned grass cutters than plasma televisions.

In one of the bereft zones someone has painted on the side of a bombed out crack house: ‘Baltimore Murder Capital of the World.’ Most of the residential streets are empty in the afternoon but a gas station back on Eight Mile has prowlers hanging around near the barred grille. In the pockets between the neighbourhoods there are signs Detroit is rising again from the ashes. Urban Decay has become Detroit’s new engine, a prerequisite for its natural evolution. Healthy lines of lettuce and Italian basil cultivated by guerrilla gardeners, fish farms in empty truck depots, and silver birch plantations tended by knowledgeable young foresters are transforming its 40 square miles of non-human wildness. Henry Ford’s maxim that failure is the opportunity to begin again only more intelligently is Detroit’s new white vibe.

Twenty miles out now and still on a four-lane highway, we wind through wooded parkland, past vast stretches of manicured grass. Independence Township and Romeo resemble hillbilly rifle camps where wolverines and northern bears are known to prowl. Birmingham has a fresh, raw expensive look with stylishly decorated mansions and fancy drive-in restaurants. There is an odour of new money and plenty of Pashmina Princesses in Bloomfield Hills. This verdant terrain dotted with ornamental lakes provides its denizens with security and exclusivity. In the bourgeois utopias that comprise Oakland and Macomb Counties an irrational sentimentality for the historic Detroit neighbourhoods hangs on in many families. They follow the headlines in the Detroit Free Press with a mixture of anger and sentimentality, pining for the glory days like jilted lovers and still wanting to control the agenda.

Their parents had followed Henry Ford’s advice to leave the city and had constructed segregated red barn communities with schoolhouses, general stores and chapels amidst the cornfields. Over time, sterile business parks and struggling enclosed shopping malls sprouted up and in many areas gradually engulfed their log cabin idyll. In the rush-hour the feeder roads coming off the Chrysler and Edsell freeways are choked with commuter traffic. These manufactured suburban dormitories have no history and leave no traces in the mind. For most of their displaced residents who have dragged the hard drive of the city behind them, downtown Detroit might just as well be a Red Indian Reservation.

Back in Indian Village there is talk of the best way to avoid white clover and crab grass infestation. A monoculture preoccupied with cylinder and rotary mowers has grown up around Corktown. A man with a pathological fear of tall grass is mowing the lawn of a deserted house. Viridescent postage stamps help to keep up appearances and impose shape and meaning in the bereft districts. Swathes of Detroit now smell of freshly mown grass. Although manicured lawns are a divine American sacrament, here in Detroit I have come to associate them with bad karma. The city is embroiled in a Manichean battlefield where the hydroponic lasagna beds and the impromptu dinner parties held in the derelict mansions of the long departed are expressions of goodness and darkest suburbia with the lawnmower as its symbol the evil kingdom.

Late in the afternoon close to the Dequindre Cut, there is a soundless hum that reminds me of Liverpool’s Otterspool Promenade, the garden suburbs of Wavertree and the parkland estate of Grassendale. There is no need for space travel here by the river, among the timeless grey shadows. Detroit gives me time. I could be anywhere. This city’s human potential is spread out in a vast silent market where its emergent past meets its unknown future. Just before my departure I hear that Gus Mills, the lawnmower repair man on Gratiot, had been stabbed to death. Today I read that Donald Trump had been to the Detroit Economic Club and stood in front of the Ford bosses and pronounced, ‘If you close the car plants I’m going to put a 35% tariff on those cars when you send them back and nobody will buy them.”


A earlier version of this piece appeared on Empty Mirror.

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