It’s unclear when we look at Detroit today whether we’re seeing the last spasms of America’s industrial past, or a harbinger of the nation’s urban future. But what is clear is that this is what the abject collapse of an industrial society looks like.
Like many, I was surprised and saddened when the US Census Bureau announced in March 2011 that Detroit’s population had decreased by 25% since the 2000 census. I knew it was bad, but THAT bad? Thankfully, Scott Martelle has provided an in-depth and highly-readable history of the city and how it evolved from a swamp to a boom town to a ghost town, all in under 300 pages. Martelle tracks the birth of Detroit to a 1701 expedition to establish a hunting and trading outpost and follows its political and social history up through the present day. We get just enough historical context to give a clear understanding of how the city evolved without getting stalled in the details of a legitimately fascinating story. Because what I really want to know is how Detroit ended up as the city it is today; I don’t have time to learn about the War of 1812 or the nuances of the auto industry, as interesting as those may be. As a journalist, Martelle makes an early disclaimer that he didn’t set out to cover every angle of Detroit’s history, and thoughtfully provides an extensive bibliography for further reading. Music and sports are barely mentioned, and that’s ok. The auto industry and labor unions are featured as major players, but serve only as a backdrop for digging into the root of Detroit’s problems: class and race struggles.
Peppered in between chapters on the city’s history are mini-biographies of Detroiters, lending a personal context to the real-life effects of the decline. My favorite was about a guy who bought an old mansion and is fixing it up. Living in the Bay Area where there are small bungalows for sale for a million dollars, it’s dreamy to think about buying a mansion for the price of a new car. Until you understand how decidedly un-dreamy the reality of Detroit is. People work hard to eek out a living, and fight hard to keep their city from getting swept away (or bulldozed) by neglect and abandonment. With these people in mind, the trend of “ruins porn” in art photography – documenting the extreme decay and dilapidated scenes of former wealth and beauty – seems grotesque and intrusive, like making eye contact with survivors of a spectacular car wreck as you drive by. (see, for example, Detroit Disassembled) It’s fascinating and heartbreaking, just like Detroit.
What’s so different about Detroit that this could have happened? Turns out, not that much. A few bad choices and missteps over the years and Detroit became the poster child of urban decay. Martelle doesn’t set out to solve the problems, but simply lays out Detroit’s history for better understanding. With Detroit as an example, the hope is to prevent it from becoming the norm for post-industrial American cities.
Check the BPL catalog for this title: Detroit: A Biography