What Does Detroit Mean?

If you’ve heard any news about the economy or dying cities, you’ve heard of Detroit. Detroit is both the beacon of recovery because of its penchant for urban farming and art and is also a warning about the worst that the American dream can create. Read on to see what Detroit really means these days.

The Spirit of Detroit

Detroit has long been a symbol, whether it’s of good jobs through the auto industry, the violence of racial divisions, or the absolute destruction of late capitalism on livelihood and family. It is known as violent and crumbling but also as the proving ground for innovative ideas like urban farming.

Detroit’s role as a symbol of decay is best visualized in the Time Magazine photo-essay by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre called “The Ruins of Detroit.” The sub-title of the essay is “Detroit’s Beautiful, Horrible Decline,” which, to me, says everything: let’s rubberneck this wreck and at the same time romanticize the past. In case you haven’t seen it, the photo essay includes everything from shots of a ruined, grand theatre to an abandoned dentist’s office, chair ready to clean the teeth of a ghost.

These photos, which are known derisively as “ruin porn,” turn the city into a destruction destination. Here is where you will see what the promise of the auto-industry created: greatness and ruin. It is a warning to those who would create a new industry – not all of it lasts. There is, of course, the romantic aspect. It’s a bit like visiting Rome: look at the great things we have built! Look how beautiful a city can be.

The romantic ruin is perhaps the most troubling symbolism of Detroit, because it washes over disturbing historical facts, not the least of which are the racial divisions that still scar the city. The ruin porn is all about the attractive past: the one that involved auto-baron money and good jobs for factory workers. It is not about the ugly part, the part that led to riots in the ’60s and that still involves terrible poverty for Detroit’s black residents.

Detroit’s more positive symbolism comes from the waves of young people who have moved into the city. The biggest

Photo courtesy of Angela Anderson-Cobb on Flickr.

movement here is that of urban farming. I’ve done my share of volunteering on an urban farm, and the people involved with this practice seem to carry a far more balanced view of Detroit’s history. They understand the good and the bad and want to overcome the violence of both.

Of course, that’s not to say that the urban farming movement is a unicorn; it’s got its own problems: many involved are not necessarily from the city, and there is a sense of interlopers coming in to impose what they think is best on the residents of the city. There are of course city residents who are working from within (the Georgia Street Collective is perhaps the best known).

Urban farming is a strong symbol of Detroit and one that I prefer to the ruin porn because it has more balance.

Of course, any article on what Detroit means today cannot be written without mentioning Slows Barbecue and Phil Cooley: the two together represent the young professionals reviving the city and the idea that a city in decline can come back when you allow enterprising young people to take advantage of cheap property. Also, Slows is delicious, and I think that Phil Cooley is a boon for the city.

What does Detroit mean to you? Or if it means nothing, what does your city mean?

By [E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

5 replies on “What Does Detroit Mean?”

This is great.

I am from St. Louis and about a year ago I saw a documentary about a failed housing project (Pruit-Igoe) and one of the pieces of archival footage put St. Louis third on a short list of dying cities. Detroit and Cleveland were 1 & 2. Your article makes me hopeful, because perhaps the St. Louis will move towards efforts to rebuilding and recovery. Though I highly doubt it. Recovery requires attracting young ambitious people to do the job. St. Louis isn’t very attractive, to me, as a young resident. Very few neighborhoods have public transit and there are very few places with entry level jobs in booming industries. There are very few jobs period.

The aforementioned documentary made me cry. This is my city, even if I hate it most of the time and I want to see it shine. But I’m not holding my breath or waiting around for it to boom again, I plan on moving elsewhere after graduation. Maybe someday I can give back to my city.

Great piece. It reminds me of what’s going on in Asbury Park, NJ these days. Commerce is getting better and the music/art community is a really amazing thing to participate in. That said, I used to live there; I remember why my family moved. So when people talk about “improvements” in a self-congratulatory manner, I’m struck by the reality that the reasons I moved are still there. It’s a great place to hang out in as long as you live somewhere nicer and safer. The upswing also has a fairly defined expiration date. The well-to-do kids who moved into the downtown district a few years ago WILL move out once they decide to get married and have children.

There’s a weird push-and-pull between old-timers who don’t want to let go of crumbling relics and corporate types who will bulldoze anything to make needed money. Sorry for the post-jacking but the timelines of “secondary” cities fascinate me.

I moved to Detroit at the beginning of August and I can’t be happier to be here. To me this city has and represents everything that Seattle doesn’t have or represent – when people talk about the activist movement here, the change that’s happening or in the making, it’s actually happening. It’s not just a bunch of talk in a liberal paradise populated by activist and guilt-ridden liberals – it’s a city that makes and plan and then actually implements it. More than that, though, is the sense of community in Detroit that I’ve never experienced in any other city I’ve lived in. From the moment I got here almost every person I’ve met has been genuine, caring, and willing to contribute whatever is necessary to better the community as a whole and not his or her individual purse. That being said, there are definitely a lot of things Detroit needs to work on. I came here through Teach For America (a program that has a whole host of problems that I won’t get into at the moment), and from what I’ve learned about DPS it’s pretty clear that the education system is in a lot of trouble. I also experienced an extraordinary amount of harassment when I attempted to run errands on foot and was surrounded and harassed by a group of young men at a bus stop the one and only time I’ve attempted to use public transportation here. The obviousness of the poverty line in conjunction with the boundaries of the suburbs is also extremely worrisome, and the wealth of suburbs like Grosse Pointe (especially when compared to the poverty in Detroit) is particularly disgusting. Regardless, I am incredibly excited to be here at this time. I’ve heard people refer to the current climate as the Detroit Renaissance and I think that’s true – there are so many good things going on in Detroit right now and I look forward to being a part of them in the upcoming years.

Interesting article. I heard or read something a few weeks ago that discussed the economic revival immigrants from Middle Eastern nations have brought and continue to bring to Detroit. I wish I could find a link somewhere, but I cannot.

Anyhow, stories on Detroit fascinate me. I think we’re witnessing something very unusual in high-speed motion right now.

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