November 9, 2012
Illustration by Tom Gauld
By MARK BINELLI
For decades, a succession of city officials has struggled mightily to rebrand Detroit’s battered image. Their ideas have included casino gambling, an ’80s festival mall, new ballparks, hosting a Formula One grand prix, hosting a Super Bowl, even commissioning (this was Mayor Coleman Young, in 1984) Berry Gordy (who fled Detroit for Los Angeles by the early 1970s, taking the entire Motown operation with him) to write a city theme modeled after Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York.” Another member of the Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr., was conscripted to handle the vocals, but sadly, Gordy’s song, “Hello, Detroit,” failed to burn up the charts.
But now much of the attention being showered upon Detroit from the trendiest of quarters comes, in no small measure, thanks to the city’s blight. Detroit’s brand has become authenticity, a key component of which has to do with the way the city looks. Does fixing the very real problems faced by Detroiters, I began to wonder, mean inevitably robbing Detroit of some part of its essential Detroitness?
This is not exactly a question of gentrification; when your city has 70,000 abandoned buildings, it will not be gentrified anytime soon. Rather, it’s one of aesthetics. And in Detroit, you can’t talk aesthetics without talking ruin porn, a term that has become increasingly familiar in the city. Detroiters, understandably, can get touchy about the way descriptions and photographs of ruined buildings have become the favorite Midwestern souvenirs of visiting reporters.
Still, for all of the local complaints, outsiders are not alone in their fascination. My friend Phil has staged secret, multicourse gourmet meals, prepared by well-known chefs from local restaurants, in abandoned buildings like the old train station; John and his buddies like to play ice hockey on the frozen floors of decrepit factories. A woman who moved to Detroit from Brooklyn began to take nude photographs of herself in wrecked spaces (thrusting the concept of ruin porn to an even less metaphorical level). And Funky Sour Cream, an arts collective originally from New York, arranged an installation of little cupcake statues in the window of a long-shuttered bakery on Chene Street. A few days later, the bakery burned down. People debated whether or not this was a coincidence.
Meditation on ruin is a long and noble tradition. In Renaissance Italy, antiquarians like Leon Battista Alberti and Poggio Bracciolini began to promote the study and preservation of Roman ruins, which, to that point, had been unsystematically pushed aside as the city expanded. According to Alberti’s biographer, Anthony Grafton, they also “made fun of those who became too depressed” about the ruins, like poor, oversensitive Cyriac of Ancona, who “seemed to mourn the fall of Rome with excessive emotion.”
My grandfather, who traced our family origins back to Florence, insisted we were related to Leon Battista Alberti, also a Florentine and a prototypical Renaissance man: playwright, poet, architect, painter, astronomer, lawyer and prizewinning horseman. And thanks to the efforts of proto-preservationists like cousin Alberti, many later generations of painters and poets continued to meditate on the transitory nature of man’s greatest achievements in the shadow of once-majestic edifices like the Baths of Caracalla, built in the early third century by a Roman emperor and pretty much destroyed by the sacking Ostrogoths roughly 300 years later.
Perhaps not incidentally, Michigan Central Station, the best-known Detroit ruin — a towering 18-story Beaux-Arts train station with a lavish waiting room of terrazzo floors and 50-foot ceilings, built in 1913 by the same architectural firms that designed New York’s Grand Central — was modeled after the Baths of Caracalla. After the station closed in 1988, a developer talked about turning the building into a casino; the current owner, Manuel Moroun, had discussed with Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration selling the station to the city as part of a plan to turn the place into police headquarters and police museum.
Mostly, though, Moroun has allowed the station to molder. Sitting nearly a mile and a half from the high-rises of downtown, Michigan Central looms like a Gothic castle over its humbler neighbors on Michigan Avenue. It’s hard not to think of it as an epic-scale disaster that seems engineered to illustrate man’s folly — as if the Titanic, after sinking, had washed ashore and been beached as a warning.
In the Detroit essay in “Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It,” Geoff Dyer visits Michigan Central Station and runs into some tourists photographing the place. In a funny exchange prompted by one tourist’s remarking on how bustling the train station must have been at the height of Detroit’s production, Dyer disagrees, arguing:
Ruins don’t encourage you to dwell on what they were like in their heyday,before they were ruins. The Colosseum in Rome or the amphitheater at Leptis Magna have never been anything but ruins. They’re eternal ruins. It’s the same here. This building could never have looked more magnificent than it does now, surrounded by its own silence. Ruins don’t make you think of the past, they direct you toward the future. The effect is almost prophetic. This is what the future will end up like. This is what the future has always ended up looking like.
It’s true. While vacationing in Rome, after I had spent about a year back in Detroit, I certainly didn’t find myself mentally restoring the Senate or the various temples or filling out the scene with centurions and charioteers. But the past was nonetheless on my mind, the past of Keats and Shelley, when a consumptive poet could wander among these same ruins without the security guards and throngs of German tourists — a time when the ruins were still ruins, but desolate, abandoned, free of all caretakers, not so horribly crowded.
But in Detroit, the tours go on, in an unofficial capacity. One afternoon at the ruins of the 3.5-million-square-foot Packard Plant, I ran into a family from Paris. The daughter said she read about the building in Lonely Planet; her father had a camcorder hanging around his neck. Another time, while conducting my own tour for a guest, a group of German college students drove up. When queried as to the appeal of Detroit, one of them gleefully exclaimed, “I came to see the end of the world!”
One evening, in a warehouse and occasional performance space in Eastern Market, I attended a talk on the ruins of Detroit. The speaker was Jim Griffioen, a 30-something white guy with a scruffy beard, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. He writes the thoughtful local blog Sweet Juniper, which centers on his life as a stay-at-home dad in Detroit. Before moving back to Michigan (he grew up in Kalamazoo), he worked as a lawyer in the Bay Area, but he quit his job to write and take care of his children. His wife practices law, and on the blog, he describes his family as “just two more yuppies raising their kids in the most dangerous city in America.” Close to 200 guests packed the warehouse.
On Sweet Juniper, Griffioen has posted a number of ruin shots: “feral” houses almost completely overgrown with vegetation; a decommissioned public-school book depository in which trees were growing out of the piles of rotting textbooks. But he apparently possessed a special license to publish such images, because he spent much of his talk denouncing lazy out-of-town journalists who use Detroit’s ruins as a convenient recession-year symbol for the end of the American dream. (In fact, Griffioen coined the term “ruin porn,” in an interview with Vice magazine.)
During the question-and-answer period, a stylishly dressed African-American woman in her 50s stood up to make a contrarian point: that devotees of ruined buildings should be aware of the ways in which the objects of their affection left “retinal scars” on the children of Detroit, contributing to a “significant part of the psychological trauma” inflicted on them on a daily basis. Glancing around the audience — there were four other black people — she went on: “I don’t want to insult anybody. But when you talk about how ‘we’ need to take this city back, I look at this room, and I’m not sure what ‘we’ you’re talking about.”
After the talk, I introduced myself to the woman, whose name was Marsha Cusic. She grew up in Highland Park, but her father, Joe Von Battle, had been in the music business in Detroit, running a much-loved record shop on Hastings Street. She agreed to take me on a driving tour of the Detroit of her youth.
We met on a Sunday afternoon. Cusic drove us by the rough location of her father’s original store, on a long-paved-over stretch of Interstate 75 that runs past Mack Avenue. Later, we passed the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount, which was the center of the 1967 civic unrest. Cusic’s father’s second record store was just a few blocks south.
“Everyone likes to point to the riot as the moment everything went wrong in Detroit,” Cusic told me. “But you have to understand the idea of a nodal point. It’s the same way a teakettle heats up and heats up, and only at the very end does it whistle. It’s easy to look at the riot as that nodal point, but really, you’re ignoring all of the heat that came before.”
We detoured into Highland Park, onto a handful of attractive residential streets lined with immaculate bungalows. This was where Cusic grew up. When her family moved in, she said, the area was almost entirely white, primarily automobile executives. Eventually we ended up in Corktown, the formerly Irish neighborhood adjacent to the old train station, which has become a tiny pocket of gentrification. Cusic pointed out a chicken coop in an urban farmer’s backyard. “Chickens in Corktown,” she said. “Some of these neighborhoods, they’re turning back into what people left behind in the South.”
We passed a couple of young white guys with beards standing on a corner, waiting for a light to change. “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit — like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything,” Cusic said. “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project,” she continued. “It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”
We stopped for lunch at a little French bistro. Cusic told me she had a grown son who moved to Los Angeles for work and a sister in Atlanta. Cusic still hadn’t visited her sister and had even been reluctant to go out west to see her son. She doesn’t fly, and besides, she joked sardonically, if she left she worried she wouldn’t want to come back.