REWIND: READ ‘DETROITISM’ BY JOHN PATRICK LEARY IF YOU HAVEN’T

Photograph by Yves Marchan and Romain Meffre courtesy Steidl.

John Patrick Leary’s essay, “Detroitism” explores the most common rhetoric that Detroit as a city and a symbol, often falls victim to—in addition to critically analyzing—the validity of ‘ruin porn’ which attempts to document but often exploits its history. Leary is a American literature teacher at Wayne State University in Detroit. The essay explores in-depth the shallowness of popular ruin pornographers, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, photographs from their book, The Ruins of Detroitas well as other popular photographers. He also outlines the three “Detroit Stories,” which are typical attitudes regarding Detroit news and media discussion:

1. The Metonym

Every week, it seems, brings another “Detroit Story” somewhere in the popular media: of laid-off auto workers, of the recently bankrupt auto corporations, tributes to hardy inner-city entrepreneurs, and more pictures of abandoned buildings. There are three principal conventions of Detroit writing in the major media. First, and most common, is the one that has the least to do with the city itself: the Metonym. In auto industry reporting, “Detroit” is a textbook example of metonymy, the trope in which a complex thing is replaced by a simpler, easily recognized equivalent: “10 Downing Street” for the British government, “Wall Street” for high finance, “Silicon Valley” for computer hardware, and so on. The substitution of “Detroit” for the auto industry bears within it an implicit, bitter irony, however, since the name of the city stands in for an industry that has largely abandoned it. “Detroit” can hold other, subtler meanings, too. For liberals, like George Monbiot in the Guardian newspaper, “Detroit” equals dirty industry and corporate welfare. His headline “Let Detroit die,” from a 2009 article that denounced the U.S. government’s loans to the Big Three automakers, sounded a bit callous if you happen to live or work here, and are therefore more often the victim rather than the beneficiary of pollution or corporate welfare. For rightists, “Detroit” also connotes unions and other bogeymen of urban Democratic politics. Thus, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer warned of “lemon socialism” once “the government owns Detroit,” a possibility almost as improbable in the literal sense as the People’s Liberation Army on Woodward Avenue.

2. The Lament

The second style of Detroit reportage I would term the Detroit Lament. The Lament turns from the purely rhetorical use of Detroit as metonym for something else to a more visceral depiction of the city’s scarred landscape, and occasionally, though only occasionally, its residents. The Lament is typically mournful in tone—elegiac at best and sanctimonious at worst. Because the Lament is thematically preoccupied with loss, of people, of buildings, of the always ill-defined “way of life” said to be nurtured by the old automotive economy and union wages, its primary subject is spatial: the empty lots, the derelict buildings, the overwhelming vastness of a city mutilated by freeways and marked by more vacant land than it can ever plausibly develop. For this reason, the Lament lends itself to the visual media, and for their elegiac emphasis on loss and decline we can classify Detroit Disassembled andThe Ruins of Detroit in this category. The Lament signals a fascination with what seems to be all that we have of our twentieth-century history (at least besides those war memorials): the brick-and-steel spectacles of the industrial age, out of which some explanation could be found for the present desperate predicament of urban America.

3. Utopia

The third major subgenre of the popular Detroit narrative is a backlash against the pornographic excesses of the Lament and is, at best, an attempt to find a new definition of urban vitality. The Utopians are well-meaning defenders of the city’s possibilities. Locally, they are often politically active, often young, and, it should be noted, often white. This class of Detroit story chronicles Detroit’s possibilities, with a heavy emphasis on art and urban agriculture on abandoned land. It can also take the form of human-interest stories about local entrepreneurs persevering amidst the destruction. Toby Barlow’s series of New York Times articles on bicycling and one-hundred-dollar houses in the city anticipated a gentrification-fuelled Detroit Renaissance that most honest observers must admit will never come. (If Detroit is really so full of possibilities, why do so many of the possibilities so closely resemble a cut-rate version of what western Brooklyn already looks like?) Despite their differences, the common problem with many of the Lamenters and Utopians is that both see Detroit as an exception to the contemporary United States, rather than as one of its exemplary places. Detroit figures as either a nightmare image of the American Dream, where equal opportunity and abundance came to die, or as an updated version of it, where bohemians from expensive coastal cities can have the one-hundred-dollar house and community garden of their dreams.”

The article was published online in January 2011 by Guernica Mag. It isn’t breaking news, but definitely worth the read. Leary touches on a lot of interesting points about the city’s past, present, and most intriguing, it’s future. Read the full essay here.

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