Monday, September 5, 2011

The Narrative of Detroit

Last week, The Awl published a story on Detroit by Willy Staley. Staley takes as his jumping off point an article from Guernica by John Patrick Leary titled "Detroitism". The author accepts Leary's division of the Detroit narrative into Detroit as utopia and Detroit as lament - he leaves aside the idea of Detroit as metonym (or so it seems). The utopia narrative is centered around young (mostly white) Detroiters involved in the arts and urban farming who see Detroit as the idealized vision for the future. Detroit as lament centers around ruin porn; the photos of Detroit as it crumbles.

The Awl critique then departs from Leary to suggest that Detroit as utopia denies authenticity of Detroit as lament. The classification of the lament as pornographic by the utopia advocates, Staley worries, denies the fact that Detroit is in decline. Right-sizing of the city, Saley writes, is the recognition that Detroit has shrunk and it admits that something must be done. Right-sizing is the process of bulldozing abandoned buildings in the city in an attempt to encourage the remaining population to center in the parts of the city that still have population. Ruin porn shows us why this must be done.

Leary's article adds shading to Staley's account. The article brings in some analysis that is useful, especially when Leary writes how photos of Detroit as ruined do not identify the origins. They are moments in time that just show the wreck and do not fill in the gaps of what actually happened to the city. The narrative of Detroit as metonym is also important and something that Staley would have done well to dwell on for a moment: how is it that the name of Detroit stands in for so many of our fears and hopes?

Staley wants to say that ruin porn is not pornographic at all; indeed, it is useful, but I disagree. I think Leary says something more useful when he draws out some descriptions of Detroit's ruins as an "American Acropolis." As Athens is the metonym for democracy, Detroit is the metonym for the decline of a number of things that have yet to be settled: capitalism, classical liberalism, modernity.

What the ruins of Detroit do not identify is critical and Staley too easily leaves this critique of ruin porn aside: they are a moment in time that has no past and no future. They are, just as the Acropolis has become, romantic. I wrote about this in my last post about Detroit - the romanticizing of ruins is just as white-washed as the utopian vision of Detroit. Staley dislikes the fact that young, white urbanites come to the city to fix it with their dream, and the implied (but not spoken) part of this is because it does not recognize the non-white visions of the city. I am perfectly accepting of this assumption - there has always been a bit of a "white man's burden" to some of the movements in Detroit. What I would like Staley and others like him to be a bit more suspicious of are these photos - what do they not recognize? What do they not say?

Staley's article is a worthwhile read, and so is Leary's, but like all of these discussions of ruin porn, I think there is an unwillingness to discuss the past. Leary says that ruin porn gives us means to memory, but I disagree. I think the memory is tricky and too willing to endear itself to the metonym of Detroit as center of (white) capitalist endeavor.

What it comes down to is this: Detroit as metonym is dangerous and when Staley leaves that narrative behind, he accepts it and abandons the complexity of what Detroit represents. Athens was never democratic in the way we romanticize it; Socrates proved that, so how can we de-romanticize Detroit?

Things I read while writing this:
"What's Really Pornographic? The Point of Documenting Detroit" by Willy Staley in The Awl
"Detroitism" by John Patrick Leary in Guernica

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