Looking Back, Looking Forward: Notes on Detroit

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By National Building Museum Curator Deborah Moore Sorensen

Detroit’s contraction over the past several decades has been like its expansion in the early 20th century: of a scale unlike any other American city. The notes offered here provide some context for the two Detroit photography shows, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara and Detroit Disassembled: Photographs by Andrew Moore, at the National Building Museum.

In 1995, urban documentarian and self-proclaimed “archivist of decline” Camilo José Vergara proposed that Detroit pursue a radical form of anti-development in its struggling downtown. Namely, that “a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis…[transforming] the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.” Not surprisingly, his idea angered many Detroiters—from residents experiencing the city’s decline firsthand to city officials and developers eager to find some use for the city’s increasing number of abandoned properties. In a New York Times follow-up (“A Tribute to Ruin Irks Detroit,” 12/10/95), a Detroit building owner deemed Vergara’s idea “an insult to America, to what America stands for.”

Only the upper portion of Woodward’s “hub-and-spoke” plan actually came to pass. By 1830, a more business-friendly street grid was planned for the area south of Michigan Avenue. Source: Unsigned map, “Plan of Detroit,” 1807, from American State Papers, Public Lands Series, Vol. 6. Washington, 1860, page 270. http://archive.org/stream/americanstatepap06unit#page/n299/mode/1up

At the time of Vergara’s proposal, the now-restored Book-Cadillac Hotel was empty (built 1924), as was the David Stott Building (built 1929, partially reopened 2011), the Metropolitan Building (built 1925, still vacant), the Statler Hotel (built 1915, demolished 2005), and the enormous flagship department store of The J.L. Hudson Company (built 1911, demolished 1998). All of these local landmarks are (or were) within blocks of one another in the city’s downtown core—a compact area filled with historic districts that are home to more than 100 significant 19th- and early-20th-century structures. The 1807 plan for this historic heart of Detroit—crafted by Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward following a fire that leveled most of the Michigan Territory’s capital in 1805—was inspired by Pierre L’Enfant’s symbolic design for the city of Washington, with its wide diagonal avenues radiating from central starting points. The destructive fire of 1805 led to the city’s adoption of a motto still quoted today, “Speramus meliora: resurget cineribus” (We hope for better things, it will rise from the ashes).

By the late 19th century, spurred by the city’s success as a manufacturing center and its strategic location, this French-founded military outpost was being celebrated as the “Paris of the West” for its booming financial district, luxury hotels, growing number of cultural institutions, and grand homes in Brush Park. Detroit’s reputation was not the only thing growing. In the first quarter of the 20th century, when the lure of auto industry jobs first beckoned, its population tripled. And through a dramatic process of annexation led by real estate developers, the city spread from 40 to 138 square miles between 1915 and 1926. New homes, libraries, schools, and churches were built across the city in support of a population that appeared to be on an endless trajectory of growth.

Then, like the residents and companies in so many other American cities at mid-century, Detroiters with the means to do so left the city for the suburbs beyond. The city’s population decreased nearly as rapidly as it had grown, only without a parallel reduction in land mass (Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston could all fit within the city’s borders). Voids appeared throughout the city, sparking a process of disinvestment and abandonment that continues. The loss of Detroit’s deeply-rooted factory infrastructure, in particular, devastated the city that had developed in direct relation to the expansion of its automotive and related industries.

In 1993, two years before Camilo Vergara’s “immodest proposal,” Detroit ombudsman Marie Farrell-Donaldson presented her own “Management by Common Sense” proposal to the city council. Taking into consideration the city’s annual deficit, declining tax base, and inability to provide basic services to a widely dispersed population, Farrell-Donaldson proposed that entire swaths of the city be fenced off, or “mothballed,” and officially abandoned. Residents would be relocated to more densely populated areas, where they could be placed in housing stock already owned by the city. As Farrell-Donaldson explained, “…we know that just cutting back on services is not the answer…We’re talking about rightsizing the city to correlate with our budget.” In her eyes, the plan would help “put together a stronger, more viable city.” Although ideas presented by Farrell-Donaldson had taken cues from the City Planning Commission’s distressing Detroit Vacant Land Survey of 1990, her proposal was nonetheless deemed a “bizarre notion” and dismissed by members of the city council and Mayor Dennis Archer. Even so, the proposal to downsize Detroit caught the media’s attention and contributed to a growing awareness of the challenges facing the Motor City.

Nearly twenty years later, more city blocks have returned to nature, albeit in a much less organized fashion, urban farms have taken root and inspired similar actions in other post-industrial cities, and different proposals have been put forward recommending both consolidation and greening of the city. In 2010, Mayor Dave Bing announced a new plan that would shrink the city by 30 percent, using an aggressive demolition and redevelopment strategy. In words that echo Farrell-Donaldson’s earlier plea, Bing stressed that “we don’t have enough resources on the human side or the financial side to continue to support every neighborhood in the city of Detroit.” The resulting “long-term” and “short-term” efforts outlined in Bing’s Detroit Works Project are being watched closely, as signs of positive change are appearing on the ground.

Meanwhile, and in its own way, Vergara’s desire to see downtown turned into an “urban Monument Valley,” has also come to pass. The widespread circulation of Detroit imagery has attracted artists, academics, and other interested individuals who seek out the locations captured in photographs posted online by Flickr users, preservationists, and many professional photographers. Urban explorers are documenting the city’s abandoned sites with dramatic imagery and offering wonderfully detailed architectural and social history lessons, on sites such DETROITURBEX, Lost Detroit, and the original Fabulous Ruins of Detroit (now DetroitYES). For those interested in having a more direct experience, urban safaris are advertised, during which participants visit sites on photography expeditions. Detroit-based filmmakers along with others from across the U.S. and abroad have similarly been drawn to document conditions in the city (last April the Detroit Free Press counted 16 documentary productions filming in the city).

As photographer Andrew Moore concludes in his essay “The Phoenix and the Pheasants,” in the exhibition catalogue Detroit Disassembled, “given the topsy-turvy narrative of the city, it’s not surprising that the same people who originally settled Detroit have now returned to gaze in awe upon it. As Americans have gone to Europe for generations to visit its castles and coliseums, it is now the Europeans who come to Detroit to tour our ruins.” Today, there are many ways to view the complicated past and compelling present of Detroit. Whether as “shrinking city, “urban pasture,” or “ruins park,” what remains to be seen is how all of these aspects, along with other creative efforts to reimagine and revitalize Motown, will combine to create the Detroit of the future.