DETROIT.


Once a thriving industrial city, today, Detroit is known more commonly for its bankruptcy, a city in constant state of urban crisis. Where cattle once grazed vast swaths of populated 'Ribbon Farms' along the Detroit River and uniform plots complied with the perfection of the 'Jeffersonian' Grid (far before the administrative town outgrew the population and its demands), today, democracy in the city endorses a double delusion: Social Mediation and Urban Remediation. For years, dwindling between hopeful myth and naive illusion, Detroit, as an urban and industrial centre, was continuously supposed as "too big to fail". But, in an unaccepted reality, Detroit had failed long ago. It had failed with its emergence as a poly-centric industrial town, it had failed with its intolerance to racial differences and it had failed in its attempts at socio-political stabilization. However, the fourth-largest city in the country continues to live in the hope that its vibrant days, against all logic, will somehow return; no longer discussing whether Detroit will be fixed at all, but instead about when Detroit will be fixed.

Settled as a city in 1701, Detroit's story of continual, although sporadic, 'urban decay' begins with a devastating fire in 1805, followed by an almost Washington-like street plan with monumental avenues and traffic circles, fanning out in a radial fashion from the Campus Martius Park in the heart of the city. Beginning during World War I, and continuing for several decades thereafter, African-Americans arrived in Detroit in unprecedented numbers, a part of "The Great Migration" from the agricultural southern states to the industrial northern cities. The comparative unequal citizenships, increasing racial violence and the decision to endorse a "separate but equal" doctrine combined to crush African-American hopes of true emancipation. And so, Detroit lived in two realities; the social discontentment that was reflected in Frieda Kahlo's depression-era paintings of Detroit and the industrialisation of the city, depicted in the murals created by Diego Rivera. The latter, of course, were inspired by the transformations brought about by Henry Ford, whose automobile industry, Highland Park Ford Plant, in 1910, revolutionized not only automobile manufacturing, but virtually created the concept of the assembly line and mass production. These innovations were soon adopted by rival automobile manufacturers, most of whom, were headquartered in the Detroit metropolitan area, establishing the city's fame as the world's motor capital. The development of the automobile industry led to rising demands for labour, and between 1900 and 1930, the city's population soared from 300,000 to over 1.5 million, pushing the boundaries of the city outward. The population boom led to the construction of housing blocks across the city, aimed at the middle-class auto-workers. Soon, Detroit was de-centralised, almost entirely an industrial economy, functioning as a conurbation of cities within a poly-centric city. One sees in this, a moment in the history of the city, where decision-making fell out of the hands of urban designers and planners and into that of capitalist players, indifferent to the needs of the urban landscape in terms of its spatial and social development, directly resulting in a disconnect between the population and urban growth.

The city of Detroit, because of its strength as an automobile manufacturer, was ideal for a rapid transition for the handling of the production of weapons and vehicles of war during the World War II. And so, factories halted the production of automobiles for civilian use and began rapidly producing tanks and bombers. This saw the second surge of "The Great Migration", wherein, workers from the south further moved to Detroit to join in the war effort. But with this, the disconnect between the city and its administration as well as the factory complexes and the city proper only widened. In its reappraisal of racial and economic inequality in modern America, Detroit, a prosperous industrial city, became a site of persistent racialized poverty. The rising new ghettos were solidified by changes in the urban economy, labour market and racial and class segregation - a reality that became psychological as much as it was physical, hence, hard to change. As stated by Henri Lefebvre in 'Writings on Cities', "As industrialization begins, and capitalism in competition with a specifically industrial bourgeoisie is born, the city is already a powerful reality." Needless to say, Detroit's reality, its urban decline, became an evident invention of its social programs and racial fissures. A city, already fiercely divided by race, was further devastated by the exodus of its industries. Urban neighbourhoods, where white working-class homeowners mobilized prevented integration, while blacks tried to move out of the crumbling and overcrowded inner city. Weaving together the history of workplaces, unions, civil rights groups, political organizations, and real estate agencies, the roots of its ultimate bankruptcy were a hidden history of racial violence, discrimination, and de-industrialization. Lefebvre claims, "the generalization of commodities by industrialization tends to destroy it by subordinating the city and urban reality which are refuges of use value." His segregation of agriculture and industry, economic production and social life as "two 'aspects' of an inseparable process that have a unity, and yet are conflicting" aptly describe the urban condition of Detroit. In that sense, no other city in the United States of America had undergone such a dramatic level of population decline, abandonment, and urban decay. Detroit was dying. It had already seen the "first period" of "industry and industrialization assault, ravaging pre-existing urban reality, destroying it through practice and ideology" and its "second period" of "urban reality, to discover that the whole society is liable to fall apart if it lacks the city and centrality", was soon to follow.

While politics is a key factor in the functioning of a city, social politics can lead to the 'mis-functioning' of the city. Of the cities with majority African American population, most cities suffered an appointment of an "emergency manager" to tackle financial control. This meant that more than 50 per cent of the African-American population in the state lived in cities without mayors and city councils appointed by the people. With social tensions rising in the city, seen in the cases of Dr. Ocean Sweet or the Sojourner Truth Homes and the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, unrest was foreseeable. Further, the redevelopment of the Lafayette Park by Mies Van der Rohe, which caused the demolition of the African-American neighbourhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, only further aggravated the tension. The racial riots, with the backdrop of Olmsted's Belle Isle Park, in 1943, were only inevitable. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the city, and, today, the population is less than half of what it was in 1950. Needless to say, such a dramatic "un-densification" affected every realm of the city; factories closed, jobs disappeared and residents decamped. The middle and upper classes vanished in search of suburbs and other cities, leaving behind a massive lower class with no means to maintain a city that had become twice the built-size it needed to be. In 1969, Detroit was declared the poorest city in the country. Physically, psychologically, socially, financially, Detroit was bankrupt.

Today, not only is nearly half of Detroit's 138 square mile area vacant, beautiful architecture is left with no hope of use. There is simply not enough demand to sustain the amount and character of architecture. To overcome this aftermath of a failed industrial economy, the variable being the social adaptation to industrial decline, very different and clearly improvising from the Fordist idea of the union between industry and agriculture, the Hantz Farms has acquired an amendment of Detroit’s zoning ordinance to allow for the creation of 'urban farms' of uncapped size in the core city. As William Cronon claims in 'Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West', "The country produces that without which the city could not live." He goes on to say, "However much city and country might oppose each other in the rhetoric of moral economy, however much reformers and protesters might try to use the one as a tool for criticizing the other, each creates the other, so their mutual transformations in fact express a single system and a single history." With plans to merge the city and the countryside once again, Detroit appears to be discovering its "third period" (in Lefebvre's terms), of "finding or reinventing its urban reality, but not without suffering from its destruction in practice or in thinking".


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© 2017 by SHALMALI WAGLE.