Monday, May 14, 2012

Fun With Google and Detroit

I'm working on something. A project. A paper. A something. But it requires me to look at what people are saying about Detroit. So let's break it down.

Off the top of my head, from hearsay and conversation, I get a two important adjectives, both beginning with "r": requiem and ruins. Requiem because there is a belief that Detroit and all it stands for has arrived at that fateful part in the Requiem mass, the part where the drums are beating and the trumpets herald the end. Dies Irae, Dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla: Teste david cum Sibylla! The day is angry, heaven and earth, all is burning. So what is burning? More on that later.

Ruins enter the picture because things are falling apart. Much of the city is crumbling and it is easy for people to adopt that word. Blogger James Griffaoen of Sweet Juniper is very interested in this description of the city, writing about the Michigan Theatre Parking lot:
You've probably seen it in a movie or television commercial. It is arguably this ruined city’s most breathtaking ruin, beloved by photographers, journalists, and academics for the easy irony of Ford automobiles parking in a ruined theater on the site of the garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile. What's more interesting, I think, is how this building represents a sort of unintentional preservation. The thing about ruins is at least they're still there.
But if we are really doing some academicish evaluation of the city, then we ought to do something researchy. Let's go to Google. The reason why I choose Google for this high-level analysis is that Google puts a lot of time into trying to understand what people actually want to know about a specific subject. If organic Google search results are to be believed, individuals have very specific things in mind when they search for Detroit. Here's what my Google search produced as of May 1, 2012.
  • Known as the world's traditional automotive center, "Detroit" is a metonym for the American automobile industry and an important source of popular music legacies celebrated by the city's two familiar nicknames, the Motor City and Motown. (Wikipedia)
  • Once a thriving metropolis, no city in America more demonstrates urban decay than Detroit. (Source
  •  Delicious food, strolls along the water, architecture that transports you to a different time, thriving music scene, art ranging from folk to street to masters, and the history of a city that is inseparable from the history of this country. (New York Daily News
  • “This is coming to you,” declares Tommy Stevens, owner of a blues bar in Detroit. By that he means the decay, deflation, and defeat of the middle class that has comprised the last decade of Detroit’s history. (Slate
  • There’s something special about Detroit. It has always been a city of the future. (Slate
  • Detroit now owns a cityscape that is often described as post-apocalyptic. (New York Times)
  • Detroit is a city in terminal decline. (The Guardian)
  • Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first "post-American" city. (The Guardian)
So here we learn what may be burning by the idea that Detroit is a stand-in for many things. To say Detroit does not just mean the geographical location, or even the traditional histories associated with the city. While wikipedia is not the encyclopedia of record, it's crowd-sourced editing style is incredibly important to any analysis that tries to get at how people actually describe something. And in this case, Detroit is called out as metonym. According to Wikipeda, the metonym is about the auto industry and music, but read on to the rest of the quotes and you get another picture of what Detroit stands for. 

Mainly, Detroit stands in for something that is not working any more. It may be, as The Guardian describes, the place that abandons the American Dream. Or it might be the place that represents the future decline of the middle class. Or perhaps it is the location for the impending zombie apocalypse.

While the destinations of these metonyms is different, the themes are similar: Detroit represents something that is on its way out. Something that isn't working. Something that is being consumed. And if something is going away, dying, passing out of our minds, then it is clearly something we need to to come to terms with. Perhaps to mourn? Or more positively, to find acceptance in.

Although words are important, so is the visual and I'd like to pause on this image:

Hocking describes creating his Zigurat made of 6,201 wooden blocks in Detroit's Fisher Body Plant 21. Soon, the installation was destroyed by the EPA, which was clearing out hazardous things. The site is now somewhat closed up, though people still sneak in.

The immediate interest of this photo is to have what is generally an archaeological artifact, a zigurat, be built by someone in the present in a plant that is an artifact in its own. I first saw this at an exhibition at hte Detroit Institue of the Arts and I still cannot get it out of my head. The idea of intentionally creating an object that is associated with the past in a city known to be in ruins suggests interesting avenues on which to explore how history and the present merge together. What's more, zigurats are associated with ancient Mesopotamia, what we learned in high school was the cradel of civilization.

One interpretation of this work is to say that it describes a place that produces the civilization of an ending American Dream. It is a city that is both historical and desperately trying to escape it's history, to not be an artifact, but becoming one all the same.

Whither, then this discussion of Detroit?

If I were to frame this as an introduction to something more formal, I might offer up a thesis paragraph that reads thusly:

If we were to choose one place in which one might explore the political implications of American capitalism, liberalism, and political ambition, Detroit would be a good place to locate that discussion. When you first start exploring how people discuss Detroit, you learn that it is often a metonym for many things, the most traditional being the auto industry and music. The newer metonyms include the fall of capitalism, the consequences of slavery and segregation, and post-Americanism.

Within each of these is a distinctly political question: has the capacity for our democratic liberal ideals shifted and how are those ideals located historically and geographically.

Let's explore.

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