The City as Canvas: Detroit, MI and the problem of American exceptionalism

Illustration by Salma Zavari

          We burn this city every day.

          Philip Levine, “Coming Home, Detroit” 1968


On 4 June 1896, Henry Ford took the first automobile test drive through Detroit’s streets. In 1950, Detroit became the fourth-largest American city, with a population of 1.85 million. In 1958, the Packard Motor Car Co. closed its doors, remaining abandoned and shuttered to this day. From 23 to 28 July 1967, the National Guard patrolled Detroit’s streets as a response to the race riots. In 2008, President George W. Bush granted GM and Chrysler provisional bailout funds of $17.4 billion. On 18 July 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy—the largest American city ever to do so.

Detroit is, and has been for decades, in crisis. Its crisis is economic, but it is also socio-cultural. We might look to the long history of problematic race relations—spurred on and exacerbated by the ‘white flight’ in the 1960s—and to the socio-economic divide propped up by real estate corruption as pivotal facets of Detroit’s larger problems. But I am most interested in the ways that the cultural imagining and imaging of Detroit have both colluded in and reflected the crisis of the city.

For politicians, artists, bloggers and journalists, Detroit has long been a canvas, a blank slate on which to project fantasies and anxieties about the American experience. From its motto Speramus meliora; Resurget cineribus (’We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes’) to Mayor Archer’s 1998 proclamation ‘Let the future begin’, Detroit is time and time again denied its place in the present moment and positioned as a site of starting over, of renewal. The problem here concerns the plight of post-industrial cities such as Detroit and the widespread cultural propensity to deem them blank slates. Human complicity is overlooked in favour of a focus on nature’s return and the slow crumble of infrastructure, tied to ideas of the past or starting over. The Detroit poet Philip Levine, however, reminds us in ‘Coming home, Detroit’ that we are in fact accountable: ‘We burn this city every day’. He ends the poem in the present tense as well—keeping us accountable, every day, for the state of the city.

What has happened in Detroit is indicative of larger trends in American cultural history: its mythical status and urban prairie aesthetic allure have swelled so drastically in the American imagination that the city has become less a place of historical and cultural significance and more a canvas for the rest of the country—and the world—on which to sketch a utopia (or dystopia), or a world-in-metaphor. I argue that this tendency lies at the heart of American political identity and has been the foundation for one of the greatest lies in modern western history: American exceptionalism.

Thanks to its presumed status as a culturally blank slate, there exists a long history of projecting fantasies and plans onto the city of Detroit. As noted in TIME five years ago, ‘It’s the hopeful note sounded by Detroit’s optimists: The approximately one-third of the city lying empty or unused—an area about the size of San Francisco—is not just an emblem of its corrosion but also the blank slate on which to chart a path to renewal.’ This notion brings us into the all too familiar territory of American ‘frontier’ rhetoric. David M. Sheridan explores this problem in his 1999 essay, ‘Making sense of Detroit‘, which tracks the history of frontier rhetoric in the Detroit area since the arrival of Europeans on the originally Native American land. He presents this argument within a larger framework of the history of utopic and dystopic imaginings of the city—tying the idea of the frontier to ideas of both utopia and dystopia.

Sheridan begins with the European grid put in place in Detroit to ‘impose order’ on Native American space. After a catastrophic fire swept through the city in 1805, Judge Augustus B. Woodward took on a utopist project, according to Sheridan: ‘In reading the spatio-historic text of Detroit, Woodward “discovers” that all signs indicate a unique opportunity to instil a utopia: “Nature has destined the City of Detroit to be a great interior emporium, equal, if not superior, to any other on the surface of the terraqueous globe.”’ Sheridan cites Woodward’s assertion that the fire returned the city to frontier status: ‘As a blank slate of ashes, Detroit had no means of “sticking” to the past.’ Detroit was hit hard during the 1929 stock market crash, suffered through the Great Depression, enjoyed some redemptive but non-sustainable years in the 1950s, and was hit yet again in 1967 with socio-political problems resulting in the race riots. Historically, many have found ample opportunity to rewrite or reimagine Detroit’s physical and cultural landscape—Detroit is seen as a city that transcends history itself. Outlook magazine, according to Sheridan in 1999, pegged Detroit as ‘the most modern city in the world, the city of tomorrow. There is no past, there is no history.’

This kind of language and this sort of ideology are deeply rooted in American ideas of wilderness, which the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’ (891). During the founding of America, pioneers happened upon an apparent wilderness ‘untrammeled by man’ and claimed it as their own, as a fresh slate on which to apply government, social organisation and their own Euro-American cultural ideals. As these pioneers travelled west, they appropriated more land from the inhabitants residing on it, in the name of Manifest Destiny; in the name of democracy. They deemed it ‘untrammeled by man’ in spite of the long-time endeavours of Native Americans to shape and condition their environment. And they committed atrocious genocide that American history likes to ignore, because America is, after all, the ‘City on the Hill’, the unique child of revolution, the land of the free. The imperialism upon which this ‘land of the free’ was founded is overlooked in the name of American exceptionalism. This land then became American territory—land occupied by violence in the most fundamental sense (William Connolly).

I am interested in the ways these ideologies manifest themselves in image making and art practice. In particular, I am interested in the photo-blog: a popular cultural form that highlights the ways certain kinds of image making can contribute to the denigration of place-specific culture and history. In addition, more traditional examples of artistic photography lend themselves to a critique of image making of Detroit. Amateur photographers and writers have found an audience and forum in the internet, and blogs and photo essays have begun to sprout up left and right. A popular site for Detroit photography is Sweet Juniper!, a blog created by two self-proclaimed ‘yuppies raising their kids in the most dangerous city in America’. As the blog highlights, there exists a powerful impulse to dwell and ruminate on the abandoned homes that inhabit the city, from downtown to the outer neighbourhoods.

In the summer of 2009, Jim Griffioen posted his first blog article with seventeen images of the ‘unintentional greening’, to use Wendy S. Walters’s term, of Detroit. Paralleled with Griffioen’s images are his personal thoughts on the phenomenon. The next summer, following feedback from many fans—including Alan Weismann, author of The world without us—Griffioen posted more images, which he subsequently decided to put up for sale. The images on his blog are simple: basic photographs of houses that are overgrown by nature, sometimes by the ivy that once gracefully adorned the exterior of a Victorian mansion; sometimes by the uncontrollable weeds of nature that overwhelm when neglected. He calls these abandoned, nature-ridden homes ‘feral houses’. Griffioen defines feral as: ‘reverted to a wild state, as from domestication. Our word feral comes from the Latin root fera, or “wild beast,” but it also has a connection to another Latin word, feralis, literally: belonging to the dead. He proclaims, ‘Now these houses are feralis. They belong only to the dead.’

The fetishisation of decay is made apparent in such instances of cultural production. Many characterise this widespread urban decay, in cities from Detroit to Baltimore and Pittsburgh, as a product of post-industrialisation. Daniel Bell coined the term post-industrial in his 1973 work The coming of post-industrial society, describing a post-industrial economy as a generalisation that refers to the shift from a manufacturing or industry-based economy to a service-based economy. This shift, indicative of post or late capitalism, accounts for the very process of unintentional greening in cities like Detroit. As Walter Benjamin prophesised in the early 20th century about Paris, ‘With the destabilizing of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled’ (Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, 109). And it is these ruins—the now crumbled architecture of a once thriving manufacturing and automobile capital—that act as the ghosts that drive the mythical quality and allure of Detroit’s landscape.

Griffioen’s blog highlights a distinctly American phenomenon of idealising the past, but not fully realising it. It also highlights a markedly American disillusionment with nature and wilderness. While it might evoke sentiments of ‘purity’ and ‘renewal’, in the case of Detroit—a city with an unemployment rate oscillating around 30%—nature represents death and decay, neglect and abandon. These houses have cultural significance; yet, we dwell on the beauty of the juxtaposed nature and architecture. It is hard to argue against the idea that these images are awe-inspiring or striking, but they are also horrific reminders of what can happen when capitalism implodes. These images prophesise an eerie future and reflect a negligent past. And the emptiness they embody highlights a deeper problem in American cultural rhetoric, as Sheridan explains: ‘Unfortunately, empty space is rarely available in the real world; more often, “empty” is merely a convenient construct of the utopist. In his eagerness to move from past to future, the utopist proscribes the present moment, dismissing it as either nonexistent or worthless.’ What we presume to be wilderness, as emptiness ready to be civilised, might not actually be empty, but replete with meaning, history and even people. Sheridan’s analysis seeks to uncover the very foundation of American political identity and cultural projection by pointing to the very real but often neglected implications of American exceptionalist discourse: ‘For American settlers and creoles, as for most utopists, the problem was that native peoples often failed to conceive of themselves as blank slates and were therefore unwilling to participate in the utopian project.’

Indeed, the phenomenon of the photo-blog highlights the conceptual reality of deeming Detroit a canvas: a blank slate, a site for poetic ruminations, a space on which to project fantasy and anxiety. As I have noted, this tendency is indicative of a larger theme in American history that has driven American domestic policy, foreign policy and cultural identity: American exceptionalism. With this concept of the blank slate, of renewal, Detroit has also been subject to utopic projections—and these projections, I argue, are embedded within the image making so prevalent in Detroit today.

The Chilean-born photographer Camilo Jose Vergara perhaps best exemplifies the co-habitation of the artistic impulse and the utopic renewal impulse. Vergara has been capturing images of American decay for almost twenty years, collected in his books The new American ghetto (1995) and American ruins (1999). He has become fascinated with Detroit as a space of American ruin: ‘I left Detroit thinking what we have now is perhaps the closest we are going to get to an American Acropolis’ (The new American ghetto, 225). He has famously photographed the abandoned Michigan Central Railroad Station, constructed by Warren and Wetmore in 1913 (Camilo J. Vergara, 1999, ‘Michigan Central Station, Detroit’). Vergara characterises the unintentional greening of Detroit as the creation of a ‘green ghetto’: ‘urban spaces which have been abandoned for so long that the “wilderness” has begun to reclaim them […] In many sections of these ghettos, pheasants and rabbits have regained the space once occupied by humans.’ Along with envisioning a ‘ruins park’ to attract people to the city and to honour the ruins of a fruitful history, Vergara is a proponent of urban farming. He imagines a renewed Detroit:

Declining cities could learn from the Middle Ages. Michigan Central Station and a few dozen surrounding acres of former parking lots and railroad tracks should be turned into an abbey or monastery. Government or foundation money would help a group of monks to stabilize the ruin and establish living quarters in it. I envision local farmers willingly cooperating, assisting the monks in setting up their farm, chicken coops, and barnyards. I see strawberries growing between the rails along the train tracks; I see lambs and cattle grazing on the overgrown parking lots, and goats on the roof and staring out the windows.

At first glance, these intentions and ideas seem beneficial and productive. Vergara seeks to make something of nothing, as it were. But this is the very problem at hand: what is presumed to be nothing is actually something. The ruins of Michigan Central not only represent neglect but also indicate widespread struggle, hardship and decline. Vergara suggests that Detroit revert to a kind of retro-futurism with his suggestion of learning from the Middle Ages—thereby participating in the very tendency to situate Detroit not within but without history and the present tense as such. This kind of rhetoric suggests a problematic attention to the utopic, associated with frontierism. Vergara’s dream—while hopeful—nevertheless colludes in the harmful utopic imagining to which Sheridan points and which has dictated Detroit’s position in the American socio-political landscape and cultural imagination.

Photographers of Detroit have brought to our attention the visual devastation that has overcome the city. Through their mediated images of the city, people who have never been to Detroit have come to know it as a nightmare landscape. As Sola-Morales explains in ‘Terrain vagues’, an article analysing the aesthetic pull of urban decay and the epistemic function of this pull, ‘our gaze has been constructed and our imagination shaped by photography’ (119). As the acclaimed works of Vergara highlight and as the local allure of photo-blogs such as Sweet Juniper! suggest, there exists a visceral fascination with the phenomenon of the unintentional greening of Detroit. Pheasants now roam the streets, grass and shrubs spurt up through the concrete and asphalt of once functioning communities, trees grow through the foundation of abandoned homes, bursting through the roof towards the sun. The New York Times and the Guardian have dedicated many inches of print to the subject and have inspired a few innovative types to move back. But what the present moment—bankruptcy, the appraisal of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection—more prominently suggests is a complicated relationship with the image and with historical time: how the image, as such, affects both historical memory and, in a sense, memories about the future, which have indeed been projected onto Detroit. There is a deep and sad nostalgia attached to the interpretation and dissemination of these images and processes of image making that complicates memory and imagination, recollection and projection.

Such considerations recall the French theorist Guy Debord’s theorisation of modern society’s relationship to the commodity, to history and to urban planning. Debord’s analysis of the bourgeoisie’s influence on the conception of time and its subsequent deconstruction fits into an analysis of Detroit and its situation on the cusp of historical reality and cultural imagination: ‘By discovering its basis in political economy, history became aware of the existence of what had been its unconscious. […] Though ever-present in society’s depths, history tended to be invisible at its surface’ (105). Indeed, Detroit—the city of mass production, of the automobile—functions as such a spectacle, and these images themselves, I argue, participate in the invisible nature of history, of time itself, on its very surface. Moreover, the image making associated with Detroit has also rocketed the city into a kind of symbolic realm, acting as a signifier for distress and devastation rather than the signified, the city itself—indeed, this problem pushes linguistic boundaries and complicates meaning production and formation. As the Detroit scholar Kevin Boyle has said, ‘Detroit has long been a city of extremes. In the first half of the twentieth century, it became modernity’s great tool room, its vast industrial complex the envy of the world. Since the late 1960s it has become the nation’s symbol of urban decay’.

I would like to end where I began, with Levine’s poem. He sums up in so many words the crux of the problem at hand: we burn this city every day. The city doesn’t burn on its own: the destruction of infrastructure and the resurgence of nature are a result of poor management and the problematic ideological underpinnings inherent in American political discourse. Indeed, Detroit exists as it does because of the inevitable implosion of capitalist structure. And the problem of Detroit as frontier is perpetuated in our fetishisation—a psychoanalytic and, in Marx’s terms, economic concept—of decay as blankness. This fetishisation exists less in our lived experience of the city and more in our imagination of it, fuelled by the very framing incited, in this instance, by the camera’s lens: the problematics of exceptionalism realised.



Alison Fornell is currently a full-time English teacher at St. George's School in Newport, RI after a year as a Visual Culture Scholar at University College Dublin - National College of Art and Design where she explored the relationship between television and contemporary art practice. As a member of King’s College, Cambridge, she received her MPhil in Screen Media and Cultures in 2013. Before Cambridge, she studied a double major in American Studies and English at Amherst College.