Detroit is not alone

Dec 10, 2003 at 12:00 am

Hold onto your armchairs, tireless Detroit history experts, for this could send ripples through countless late-night debates on the state of the city and its rightful place on the globe: Detroit is not the planet’s sole victim of postindustrial abandonment and blight.

Despite perpetual discussion on why Detroit is singular in its pitiful, deserted yet wonderfully sublime condition, it turns out there are 370 major cities worldwide that have similarly hemorrhaged residents and businesses over the last 50 years, leaving buildings empty and economies in shambles. More than 25 percent of the depopulating cities are in the United States, and most of those are on the East Coast. In Eastern Europe, the fall of communism opened the gates for the masses to flood Western Europe. There are now 1.2 million abandoned apartments in what used to be East Germany, which suffers a 15 percent to 40 percent vacancy rate and 20 percent unemployment, according to government statistics. The crisis has become an obsessive matter of debate for Germans, who are eager to find fast solutions, while the government is spending billions of Euros to shore up deserted cities and demolish their abandoned structures.

In England, meanwhile, more than half the populations of Liverpool and Manchester have split since the 1930s, leaving huge pockets of poverty, segregation and blight.

Those musical locales should consider themselves lucky. Carthage and Babylon disappeared entirely. Rome had 1.5 million people in the 1st century A.D., and fell to 30,000 residents 300 years later, before resurging to 3 million in the 1970s.

The point is that Detroit is merely one of many major cities throughout history that people have just up and left, for one reason or another.

Urban “shrinkage” is a fairly normal global phenomenon, says Philipp Oswalt, a German architect and writer. He should know. Oswalt is curator of a massive international art project called Shrinking Cities that is putting a magnifying glass on six metropolises, including Detroit, that are losing or have lost populations at great rates. Currently, Detroit ranks 40th globally in percentage of residents lost in the last 50 years, according to the group’s statistics.

“Detroit is not better or worse than other places,” says Oswalt. “It’s just different.”

Based in Berlin, Oswalt’s Shrinking Cities is a tremendous undertaking that aims to come up with remedies — specifically, artistic and profound architectural solutions — to our problems.

To Oswalt and to his team of artists and architects, shrinkage is not a negative thing. On the contrary, Oswalt sees the shrunken city as a template for the city of the future, a canvas on which creative minds can develop new and better ways of living.

Oswalt has brought together a team of more than 100 artists, architects, designers and researchers to study Detroit; Manchester; Liverpool; Ivanovo, Russia (just north of Moscow); and Leipzig and Halle, Germany. The project will culminate with a massive exhibit of photographs, sculpture, installations, videos and paintings in Berlin in September 2004, and a large publication of findings and projects. It is hoped that the exhibit will travel to the other cities involved.

In addition, Arch+ architectural magazine, a project sponsor, will publish articles and hold an international competition so that architects can implement Shrinking Cities proposals. Most “interventions” are planned for Germany, where the government is on board, but participants hope that Shrinking Cities will result in tangible projects in Detroit and other featured cities.

“We don’t just want to look at the problems,” says Oswalt. “We want to take action.”

And while government support of such an endeavor might sound alien to Americans, the German government-funded Federal Cultural Foundation is spending 3.3 million Euros (just under $4 million) on Shrinking Cities.

“We’re honored and flattered to be involved in this international project,” says Howard Hughey, press secretary for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who didn’t know of the project until he got a call from Metro Times. “If they come up with some creative ways to recycle space and to revitalize our city, that’s a good thing.”

Hughey says he hopes the project gives a fair and balanced representation of Detroit, but says he’s excited about the possibilities.

“There are pockets of our city that need revitalization. It is what it is. We have over 50 years of decay that we have to address,” he says. “If they come up with some good ideas, that’s totally a good thing, in terms of helping us in our overall everyday efforts to rejuvenate the city.”

Despite the opportunity for active intervention in Detroit, the main goal of Shrinking Cities is education. For as is the case here, denizens of shrunken cities are loath to talk about their predicaments with outsiders. And residents of regions surrounding shrinking cities simply, well, shrink away from the issue. Oswalt says many residents of shrinking cities are surprised to learn that depopulation is pandemic.

“Shrinkage is negative, people don’t like it,” he says. “There’s a fear to be stigmatized. But it’s not to be avoided.”

Oswalt says Detroit was included in Shrinking Cities because it’s an extreme example of sprawling suburbanization, though there are many other examples in America and Europe. Detroit was an attractive candidate because Oswalt was familiar with the city’s art and architecture, particularly the work of Kyong Park, a Detroit/New York City artist whose installations examining Detroit blight have traveled to galleries worldwide. Park is one of three curators of Detroit’s segment of the project.

But most of all, Oswalt — like many Germans and Berliners in particular — sees Detroit as a kindred spirit, a mystical place of great music, art and architecture, a postindustrial apocalypse that is as much a rich breeding ground for creative minds as it is a victim of media maligning. The techno music born in Detroit is famous in Berlin, where there is more than one dance club dedicated to the Motor City’s minimal, raw beats.

For all these reasons, Detroit’s raunchy reputation fascinates Germans, says Oswalt.

“We want to investigate why this happens, this negative marketing of Detroit,” says Oswalt. “It’s the same issue we have in Germany. It’s not so unfamiliar to us. On the one hand, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Everything is fine,’ and it’s not. On the other hand, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Oh, it’s terrible,’ and it’s not.

“For me, it’s almost like American culture needs this kind of negative place. If not Detroit, it would need to be invented. If it wasn’t Detroit, it would be somewhere else. Murder City and so on, that was used consciously and unconsciously in the American mind. In science-fiction movie production in the 1980s, you had Detroit as this evil place, this place that movies were supposed to take place in, obviously Robocop. The movie pretends to take place in Detroit, based on this image of negativity.”

Yet even in Berlin, there’s an understanding that some people embrace the image, even cash in on it — even if they don’t live in Detroit.

“To us,” says Oswalt, “it’s kind of funny — and [also] among pop culture youth — if you look at people like Eminem, they play the card of coming from such a rough place. They use it to prove their credibility. In the context of youth culture, it becomes a plus point, to be from Detroit.

“It is something to be understood and addressed. We hope we can do this in the project. It’s not only about the physical shape of the city. Cities are shaped in your mind.”

Mitch Cope, a Detroit artist, director of the Tangent Gallery, and another curator for the Detroit end of Shrinking Cities, (along with Park and Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy), says Germans’ fascination with Detroit was clearly evident in his recent trip to Europe for a Shrinking Cities conference.

“Germans in general have been obsessed with Detroit, mainly because they were afraid that certain towns in Germany were going to end up looking like Detroit,” says Cope.

Cope was part of a panel discussion in Manchester about how cities can or should market themselves to bring in visitors. Cope points out that Manchester, England, marketed its music renaissance in the 1980s, with such bands as the Smiths, and that musical branding is credited with lifting the city out of economic crisis. When asked how Detroit is branding itself, Cope says he brought up Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s “Cool Cities” initiative.

“They all just cracked up laughing,” he says of the Europeans. “They thought that was the funniest thing. I’m not exactly sure why.”

Cope says Germans are versed in the legacy of Henry Ford.

“They call it Fordism, this whole industrial philosophy of working, and how it’s failed, or they think it’s failed. They call Shrinking Cities a post-Fordism. Fordism is a big topic in Germany. They talk about it like it’s an everyday word.”

Park cites industrial capitalism and world economics as causes of Detroit’s state.

“These cities represent perhaps that there are limitations to capitalism, and problems of capitalism,” Park says. “These places are the point and place of capitalism. The question is, what would be the benefit of these cities to the world in the ideology of capitalism, evolution, modification or extinction. These are the debates.”

Shrinking Cities could have a great impact on Detroit. Or, like other impressive research done on the city, it could go largely ignored. Cope, at least, is optimistic.

“To me it’s a very contemporary way of looking at art and society. It’s progressive,” he says. “A lot of it comes out of a frustration, for the Germans, and all the people involved, a frustration with people not taking more things into consideration. We’re trying to be as thorough as possible and to focus on a few ideas, and focus on them comprehensively.”

Exhibit Detroit

“You don’t have to lock your car, you’re not in Detroit anymore,” says Mario Facione as I park at his Milford abode. He sits down in his home office, surrounded by pictures of NASCAR stars and Republican politicians. He points to a picture of President Bush and says, “I thank God every day that this man is president.”

Facione is a boisterous, friendly man who is bursting with opinions. The “homeland security” worker, who collects confiscated material from airports and border crossings, recalls how his uncle, from the old country in Italy, was attacked by two robbers at his family’s home of 50 years, located off Livernois in northwest Detroit. After that, the patriarch, a concrete worker and leader in the Detroit Italian-American Association, moved the family to Dearborn in 1968, selling his renovated Detroit two-story for a song.

“I miss Detroit,” Facione says between emotional rants about what happened to his hometown. He thinks it went from an idyllic city of neighborhoods, where people took care of each other and kept things clean and beautiful, to a city devoid of integrity, safety or ethics. (Though he concedes that perhaps the city didn’t take care of all of its residents back then.) Facione says it’ll take a businessman as mayor to turn Detroit around.

“I’d love to move back. But if my daughter came to visit me, and she was driving home with her three kids in the car, I’d have to think, ‘Is she going to make it? Is she going to make it home?’ You have to be realistic.”

Everyone in metro Detroit has heard confessions like Facione’s. But his story is one of many getting collected for a Shrinking Cities project called “Old House/New House” (one of 10 projects that will represent Detroit in the international exhibit). Milford resident James Cope, a construction manager and father of project curator Mitch Cope, is finding suburban residents who left the city, recording their stories and photographing their new houses as well as their old houses in Detroit. Then Cope is taking the suburbanites to their old Detroit homes, where they hope to meet the current residents.

I follow Facione on his 45-minute drive to his boyhood home, on Wittingham Street. The current residents aren’t in, but the garage in the back is filled with debris and trash. The street and the house look pretty nice, though not as landscaped as Facione remembers.

“This was the most beautiful garage,” says Facione, shaking his head. “You should have seen it. We worked on this for a year.”

There’s no guarantee that Facione’s story will make the cut for the final exhibit. Shrinking Cities is in the “gathering information” stage. Once that’s complete, by February, the development of Detroit’s art projects for the final exhibit will get honed. There are many details to hammer out.

Each city in Shrinking Cities has its own curators who decide what will be included in the 10 projects, designed to illustrate causes and effects of depopulation, and potential solutions.

The question is, as always: How will Detroit be represented? Detroit’s projects are as fascinating as they are disturbing (see accompanying stories). Besides “Old House/New House,” one looks at the phenomenon of an estimated 1,000 graves that have been moved from Detroit cemeteries to the suburbs. Another looks at Detroit’s urban agriculture projects, and at neighborhood groups that have taken control of their own city services, in a sense, privatizing them. Another project will examine Devil’s Night, with a look at why in 1984 the number of reported fires ranged from 200 to more than 800, and why in recent years the number of fires on Devil’s Night was lower than the average number of fires in the city on any given night.

In this there will be a challenge, as with any Detroit tale or illustration, to project the truth in its proper context, weighing the positives and the negatives, the causes and effects, without falling into tired stereotypes. And, none of the major participants putting the Detroit end of the show together is a city native, though Mitch Cope and others live here now.

Architect Dan Pitera, the third curator for Detroit’s contributions, says everyone involved is intent on highlighting some of the many positive things under way in Detroit.

“We’re trying to find a way to capture a snapshot of what Detroit is like now, and the potential that Detroit has. That’s the key thing,” says Pitera, a Philadelphia native who’s been doing art and architecture projects in Detroit since 1999. “How do you handle the lost population and look at it as not a negative? We’re exploring these issues. The bottom line is that Detroit is not as bad as people have made us out to be. The negative side of Detroit is the media outside of Detroit that makes it look so bad.

“The German government, yes, it has selfish reasons, they want to help themselves, but they want to help the other cities too.”

Pitera says his research shows the city still loses people daily. But he believes a light burns brightly in Detroit, for any to see who look. He hopes to fuel it.

“When cities shrink, it’s an opportunity for change,” he says. “When a house burns, it’s a canvas to work on. That’s what we are going to explore. Detroit has endless possibilities.”


Read more about Shrinking Cities:

Which one is Detroit?

Kyong Park and his talking house

Ghetto palm

Detroit's contributions to Shrinking Cities

Contraction action

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]