We're not new here: a weekend in the Motor City with a band who know it best
In 2010, documentary filmmaker Julien Temple made Requiem For Detroit?, informing my image of the Motor City. Before then, Detroit to me was Motown and Iggy & The Stooges. I knew that it was once the centre of the automobile industry but I didn’t care much about that. In terms of modern-day Detroit, I hadn’t given it a second thought. It turned out that neither had anyone else – not even a United States that had prospered so much from its capital boom and cultural legacy; not even the suburbs of the city just a few miles away.
Temple’s film is an excellent one, and more respectful than others have been in ghoulishly recounting Detroit’s traumatic last century and decline. It’s important that the question mark in its title is noted, and the documentary ends on hopeful footage of residents farming crops on the city’s countless empty lots. And yet, Requiem For Detroit? is incapable of not stoking the singular image of the city. It can’t help but stick to a script that’s been copied and recopied by every newspaper article about Detroit in the last 15 years, probably because the story is so good, by which I mean it’s unbelievable.
It always starts with Henry Ford’s first mass production line in 1913 and the genie that it let out of the bottle; the birth of consumerism and common aspiration and how the motorcar built Detroit quickly and crushed it slowly. Along the way the city experienced mass migration from the South, bringing with it poisonous racial prejudice that’s never gone away, ‘white flight’, the Great Depression, two fuel crises that put paid to the city’s cash cow of American-made cars, spiralling poverty and the crack epidemic of the 1980s that destroyed so many inner-city black neighbourhoods across the United States. Even the good times (the rapid expansion of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler into the 1920s; the lucrative illegal liquor that flooded the city from Canada in the 1930s prohibition era – 75% of the entire country’s supply) would serve to torment Detroit, building it up to knock it down.
But most important is how the story of Detroit always ends – with a city abandoned. With hundreds of homes burnt out and bulldozed. With one house in every three derelict. With nature reclaiming the sidewalks of entire blocks unoccupied for decades.
We’ve become gleefully fascinated by this image of Detroit; morbidly pleased that a place like this should exist in our lifetimes – a real life movie set of a post-apocalyptic, post-capitalist America. One look at the dramatic shape of Detroit and it’s easy to see how the rigidly desolate image of the city has become king, however insensitive it encourages us to be towards it and the thousands of people still living there.
It would be dishonest to say that the intensity of abandonment is overstated; the shock of it not so great; the prairie hum of the cicadas and crickets in the expanses of misplaced long grass not out of context and strange. And yet, of course, Detroit as a ruin is only part of its reality.