All thriving cities are alike; every dying city is dead in its own way. Places like San Francisco, New York City and Austin may not have the same architecture or attractions, but they share an atmosphere—a feeling that what happens here matters. These are the cities where youth and all its attendant beauty congregate like ants on a dropped popsicle, drawn there by some migratory urge ingrained in them during adolescence. The scenery will change and the demographics will shift, but wherever you go in this bustling substrata of society, that sense of purpose stays. Nashville and Seattle might be two drastically different places in terms of political leanings and cultural proclivities, but the core of each city is filled with the same basic hope that comes from knowing you’re desirable. Thriving cities are like quivering lipped lovers so engrossed in the possibilities of one another that they forget to dwell on their partner’s faults and foibles.
Dying cities have no possibilities. Well, technically they do have possibilities, but they’re all just gradations of horrible that nobody can bear thinking about for too long. These are places where the older generations live in the past and the younger ones don’t acknowledge the future. As their former glory slowly seeps out into the suburbs and beyond state lines, the brick and mortar remnants of their lives remain as an ever present reminder of what they’ve lost, like folds of excess skin hanging from the arms of people who’ve had successful lap band surgery. What makes one dying city distinct from another is not so much what they lost, but how they lost it. A person can only be born in a couple of ways, yet there are an infinite number of ways to die. So it is with cities. The main difference is that where people only get one shot at death, cities die in increments. Each death digs a little deeper—exposes the rot a little more clearly. A factory may die one day, a neighborhood block the next. Death eats at cities bit by bit in such a way that the still living sections see their death foretold in the decay creeping toward them.
Like many of its rust belt brethren, the city of Detroit has been dying every day for more than four decades. Each morning, Detroit awakes chained to the burned out hulls of the auto factories that once gave it life, an American Prometheus waiting for that day’s atrocities, drinking in the morning because it knows it won’t have a liver by nightfall. Greek myth tells us that Prometheus provided humanity with the basic buildings blocks of modern civilization. He taught us medicine and agriculture. He endowed us with the knowledge of science, mathematics and the written word. He also gave us fire. So it was that Greek immigrants descended upon Detroit at the turn of the century and, along with men and women from every crevice of the western world, built a city with those gifts. They came closer than any other place in our nation’s history to fulfilling the promise of the American Dream and validating the belief that effort and outcome were proportional in nature. I don’t know which one caught fire first, the dream or the city, but after 45 years of burning there ain’t much left but embers.
The first time ever saw Detroit close up was in 2007. This was right before the bottom dropped out on the Kwame Kilpatrick era and the country found out that Detroit’s mayor had been using the city’s coffers as his own rainy day fund (it rained a lot) and ushering political sex scandals into the digital age by sexting his chief of staff with taxpayer funded cell phones and then lying about it under oath. It was also about a year before the big three automakers were cold-cocked by the recession and flew to Washington on their private jets to ask Congress for billions of dollars to stave off bankruptcy, but without a tangible plan of what they were going to do with the money. However, at the time I visited, I had trouble imagining how Detroit could get much worse.
A buddy of mine had driven us into Detroit from Ann Arbor in a half-assed attempt to try and catch a Sunday afternoon Tigers game, but mainly we were going just to drive around and see how bad things actually were in The Motor City. We pulled off I-94 at an exit about 3 or 4 miles away from the stadium and decided to take “the scenic route” into downtown. I wanted to see the spot where the 1967 riots started, so we turned down Rosa Parks Boulevard in my friend’s beige Nissan and made our way over to the corner of 12th and Clairmount. When we got there, we found that there was really no there, there. The intersection looked no different than any of the intersections we had passed on the way over. It took us several minutes of searching to find anything acknowledging that this little piece of land served as the flint that set Detroit ablaze and marked the beginning of the city’s end: in front of an empty, overgrown park was a rock containing a small plaque commemorating the tragic events that had originated there. Across the street was a vacant lot surrounded by vacant houses and vacant storefronts.
Where we went from there, I really couldn’t tell you. There was nothing around to serve as landmark; nothing to differentiate the varied manifestations of misery that were flashing past us. Some blocks would have long stretches of occupied houses and some blocks held nothing but squatters and the charred husks of houses that used to be. In places, the lawns had been left to grow for so long that they made two story homes look like ranches floating atop a sea of grass. For the most part, the only business to be found came in the form of liquor stores, fast food joints, payday loan sharks, gas stations and pawn shops. We had stepped into some unwritten Cormac McCarthy novel—a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial wasteland consuming itself from the inside out. The thing is, we could step out of it whenever we wanted. Currently, Detroit is the exception and not the rule, but that might not be the case for long. There are some people who are adamant that Detroit is leading the way in failure just as it did in success. The long slow death of Detroit has produced a thousand Cassandras shouting at the top of their lungs from caved in rooftops that this is our future—this is our fate. They may well be right, but no one inside the beltway is really paying them any mind. Dead men tell no tales and dead towns grease no wheels. The only time the living tend to listen to dead is when they become dead themselves.