Monoculture/Why Does This Matter?

Grand Trunk

Michigan Grand Central Station, aka Grand Trunk, the ultimate Detroit abandoned building.

 

I’m in Detroit right now.  This is exciting, for me anyway, because I live in New York, the anti-Detroit, a city as well known (at least in its present form) for glittering luxury as Detroit is synonymous with poverty and alienation.  

In its present form, New York is essentially an open-air mall whose most intimidating aspect is its ability to drive anyone broke, anyone at all, no matter what their station in this life.  And why?  Just because there is so much amazing shit to buy in New York and so many cops to make sure it doesn’t get stolen.

Detroit is different.  New York and Detroit have both been shaped by the same phenomenon of the last few decades–the deindustrialization of America–but in diametrically opposed ways.  New York, where you can’t spell “Insufficient Funds” without “Fun” (or vice versa), was once characterized by  a diverse manufacturing sector, as Joshua B. Freeman shows in “Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II.”  But in very different ways, Saskia Sassen in “The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo” and Kim Moody in “From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974-Present” both show how political elites–including Mayors Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg, and in particular Governor Nelson Rockefeller–undertook to deliberately shed New York of its manufacturing sector.  In its place, New York’s economy and infrastructure were restructured to specialize more or less absolutely in the tertiary services industry.  Finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) have been the engine of the New York economy since at least 1975, when the city went bankrupt and was famously told to “drop dead” by non-elected President Ford.

Since then, New York is generally a city where nothing is made: instead, abstract sums of money are processed through a series of convoluted formulae to somehow either produce more money, or make that money disappear.  As every New Yorker knows, this project has funded countless grams of cocaine and nights out at bars for loud guys wearing blue shirts with white collars, at least until very recently (cf. 2008 enormous financial crisis).

Detroit, by contrast, deindustrialized without leaving anything in the place of manufacturing.  Thomas Sugrue in “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” shows  how Big Three auto-executives dispersed the factories and other production centers, once concentrated in urban Detroit, first throughout the region and then throughout the world in order to escape from having to negotiate with the powerful United Auto Workers and pay Detroit taxes.  

 

The UniRoyal Tire on I-94, currently owned and maintained by Michelin

The UniRoyal Tire on I-94, currently owned and maintained by Michelin

 

 

And as a result, Detroit has long been a city of staggering poverty.  This should not be surprising: By 1986, Paul Verhoeven’s set-in-Detroit “RoboCop” (for all of its merits) could avail itself of “Detroit” as shorthand for “poor and violent city,” the idea that Detroit had already exceeded all known American standards of depravity and poverty had become so widespread.

The Packard Motor Plant, Highland Park

The Packard Motor Plant

I’m here in Detroit to do work on writing my PhD thesis, and this blog will recount some information about how that is going.  I’m going to be doing historical research in some of the really interesting archives here, including the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University.  But for the most part, this blog will record my thoughts and feelings as a tourist in a city that is emblematic of all that is most cruel and incompetent about modern American capitalism.  And what’s more, there are problems here that no amount of purely economic scrutiny can explain either: the Detroit metro area is one of the most segregated regions in the nation, if not the most.  The end of the city and the beginning of the suburbs–8 Mile Rd., made famous by Eminem–is a racial border that has persisted for decades.

I will feel embarrassed writing this blog, a lot, and I will probably sound stupid for this same reason.  You may not know this, after all, but I’m white–so does it matter what I think about Detroit at all?  It seems like it should, but I don’t know exactly what the reason for that would be.  I do know why my thoughts and feelings wouldn’t matter: because everything I see, hear, and say in and about Detroit would be so tainted by my own, deeply ingrained prejudice that, in the end, they would only contribute to the same racial division that they are trying to debunk.

The very real possibility that this will happen could be enough that I should just forget about this project entirely, but, in my defense, I also think that this could be just as useful for what it says about me as for what it says about Detroit.  I’m from Ann Arbor, MI, a leafy college town on the outskirts of Detroit Metro, and, therefore, my own mentality is as much a product of the segregation of this region as is anything else: the 80’s, for example, I remember almost exclusively as a series of lurid news reports, beamed from urban Detroit into my family’s cable box, that condensed the city’s problems into three-minute blurbs on the murders deemed most of note by news broadcasters on any given day.  In the relationship that I had with Detroit as a small child, I could conceive of no history or humanity, only the vague haunting sense of a roiling, amorphous, but unstoppable evil somewhere in the distant periphery of my life.

Building

The 80’s were a long time ago, though, and I think a lot of people all over the U.S. today are a lot more open-minded and mature in the way that they think about the “inner city” than they were then.  As pop-culture depictions of postindustrial urban life go,  “RoboCop” (1986) could be said to have given way to HBO’s TV series “The Wire” (2004–2008) which is still pretty lurid, but still (in my opinion) makes an admirable attempt to make sense of what was going on in the highly Detroit-esque city of Baltimore.  

One reason why people might be more interested in the conditions in postindustrial cities like Detroit and Baltimore right now might be because of this financial crisis business, which was alluded to above.  Yesterday at the famous Magic Stick club, on Woodward Avenue, I overheard a guy saying how “people used to be all like ‘poor Detroit’ ” but now “everybody’s getting their asses handed to them, and we’re already used to it!”  

Building2

The sense that Americans have nothing to look forward to, after the successive waves of “bailout” have all subsided, is more decline, a lower standard of living, and less easy times doing pretty much everything–I know it’s petty, but it shocks me that we have to pay check baggage on the airlines now–is, well, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening.  So suddenly Detroit, once a symbol of a long-gone American past, stands ready to become a symbol of the future.  Just look at New York: As Moody argues in “From Welfare State to Real Estate,” New York has put all its eggs in one basket by creating a “monoculture” with FIRE to no less an extent than Detroit did with auto manufacturing, and . . . does this mean that Wall Street is the next Highland Park, the city that once produced Studebakers, Packards, and many more cars in addition to the first Model-T’s?  And which now houses miles of boarded-up factories that serve no purpose whatsoever?  Plus lots of banal chain stores?

Who knows.  It’s fun to play the screamy, apocalyptic doomsayer, that much I know for sure.  But in the meantime, I hope you’ll give this blog a read once in a while, and also share your comments.  

I need those comments, BTW.  Like I said above, it’s possible I’m going to say a lot of stupid stuff, and I need attentive readers who can hold my feet to the fire when necessary.

gm-renaissance-center

~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 4, 2009.

2 Responses to “Monoculture/Why Does This Matter?”

  1. your voicemails from detroit are terrifying

  2. The Packard Motor Plant looks not unlike my loft in Bushwick. Ugh. Also, Detroit was always synonymous with soul-destroying horror, thanks to the Zucker Brothers:

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