Mitch McEwen

Detroit: The Death of Manhattanism

The contradictions posed by Detroit indicate the emergence of a new kind of global city.

There are many reasons to be fascinated with Detroit. Abandoned buildings and the unwinding of urban order have a kind of car-wreck appeal that traffics (pun intended) in the aesthetic pleasures of the sublime. Detroiters hate this kind of attention. One would rather reminisce about the height of automobile production and its attendant cosmopolitan side-effects (Motown music, an urban middle class, a population of 1.8 million[1]).

Between late March and the beginning of July of this year, a somewhat contradicting story of contemporary Detroit has emerged. When U.S. census figures were released, they announced the shrinking of Detroit's population by 25% over the last 10 years. In aggregate numbers the 237,500 residents who left Detroit in the past ten years tragically outsizes the 140,000 who left New Orleans after Katrina[2]. But closer parsing of the data reveals pockets of expansion: from Mexicantown and the growing Hispanic demographic, to the 59% increase in young college grads living in the city's downtown area. This latter statistic was the analytical cornerstone in the recent New York Times story about Detroit in the Fashion + Style section that featured a photo with the caption: "An influx of young creative types is turning Detroit into a Midwestern TriBeCa."

It is difficult to discuss Detroit without discussing media. The city is obsessed with the representations of itself, its image, its cultural currency. And in the most contemporary terms of media, Detroit—one might say—is trending. From Magic Johnson's venture capital fund[3] to the FIGMENT art fair on Belle Isle, a range of national endeavors are developing interests in Detroit. Not to mention national media attention. The New York Times has published 8 or so major articles on Detroit in the past year, even aside from articles about sports teams and auto companies. PBS and NPR both recently followed up on a Times article about Detroit's downtown with pieces titled "Is Detroit the New Brooklyn?"[4]

Detroit is, then, worse off than New Orleans after Katrina and, simultaneously, the next Brooklyn. Or even Berlin.

Full disclosure: I curated an exhibit titled "Detroit: A Brooklyn Case Study" that opened in Los Angeles in January and recently travelled to Detroit at Marygrove College. On my most recent trip to Detroit I visited a hostel, where the concierge loudly repeated statements that he made to an NPR reporter. "I don't want Detroit to be Brooklyn," he said. "I want Detroit to be Detroit." He was aware of the exhibit and, it seems, was not too happy about it.

The exhibition attempts to open a dialogue between two cities, while disrupting the hierarchy of city popularity rankings and networks of institutional influence without claiming the impossible objective stance of "placelessness." This has turned out to be more of a challenge than I expected. "Brooklyn" now carries with it a cultural cache that I have become inured to after living here for 5 years. Brooklyn, in my world, means visitors asking if my neighborhood is safe to visit at night, RSVPs that don't show up to events, friends in Manhattan complaining about how "accessible" various neighborhoods are. Brooklyn, outside of New York, means something else. Basically, it means the enclave of Williamsburg.

Rather than call one city the next [other] city, I hope it is possible to develop useful terms and analytical tools to describe and measure contemporary urbanism. If Detroit is being called the next Brooklyn or Berlin, it is possibly because we have not yet sufficiently understood what Brooklyn and Berlin are made of. We have not yet created the terms of assessment, parsed the mechanisms at work, so we must point from one thing to another, like a child calling every dog by the name of the family puppy. "Look, it's another Fido, and another!"

As far as the similarities from one urban circumstance to another, there is a case to be made for the emergence of a global typology and the slow transformation of American cities toward a global model. White flight, the demographic phenomenon that defined American cities in the 2nd half of the twentieth century, is finally unwinding itself. Witness the rise of the "hipster," which is really just a polite and racially sublimated way of talking about white culture as urban culture. Alongside this, we are witnessing the rise of the black and immigrant suburbs. American cities are moving in the direction of operating more like European and South American cities. The latter part of the twentieth century in this country was an anomaly compared to global urban and suburban development, and that historical moment is over.

So where does that leave Detroit? Or, for that matter, Brooklyn? Or, yes, Berlin—that poor but sexy city, whose conjunctive terms still seem to present a conundrum for professional urbanists who define a city's greatness by its wealth?[5] When compared to a centralized city with bureaucratic planning and a trickle-down economy of service industry wealth, these three places may be indistinguishable. But one hopes that the disciplines of urban research—from spatial economics to urban design—will learn to compare cities by other terms. Manhattanism—inert and no longer instructive of anything but itself—is, perhaps, dead. Long live Detroit.

[1]The population of Detroit now is closer to 750,000. WSJ "Detroit's Population Crashes: Census Finds 25% Plunge as Blacks Flee to Suburbs; Shocked Mayor Seeks Recount"
[2] Detroit Census Confirms a Desertion Like No Other
[3]Magic Johnson announces partnership and investment to rebuild Detroit
[5]See Josef Joffe who asserts: What makes cities great? It is always the same combination of wealth and power, dynamism and freedom which draws talent and ambition from all over the world. This makes for a critical mass of people who create, invent and break the mold. New York Times, Room for Debate July 14 2011, "Where Would Hemingway Go?: In every era, one city is designated as a magnet of creativity and energy. Which city is the dynamic center in Europe now?" Of course, I can't blame him because the headline question already confuses the terms of energy with centrality, that old over-simplification that, unfortunately, defines the whole field of spatial economics.

Mitch McEwen is principal of A. Conglomerate, and a recipient of the The New York State Council on the Arts 2010 Independent Projects awards for Architecture, Planning and Design. The Akademie Schloss Solitude has granted her a residency fellowship in architecture for 2012-2013. Since founding SUPERFRONT in January 2008, she has curated more than fifteen exhibits and published 4 exhibition catalogues.

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