What is Detroit?


[Fisher Body Plant No. 21, Detroit, Sean Hemmerle, Time]

Yesterday's Trib had an op-ed by a mayoral wannabe from 1971. He began: Chicago is on the brink of becoming another Detroit. When I think of Detroit, I think of a dead, burnt city, burned by the riots so many years ago, dead from the near-end of car-manufacturing, and abandoned by whites of all classes and the black middle-class. Detroit is a spectre. Detroit is where you would not go for vacation. Detroit is where the empty lots are becoming gardens, though people are wary about poisons the factories might have leached into the ground. Mayor Daley I saved Chicago for the middle class, even though he rammed a highway through an Italian neighborhood and created a university, and did very little to spread the wealth or city services to people of color, unless they were part of the patronage system. His son made Chicago a jewel, a capital city on the New York and European model: shining for the tourists, shifting the underclass further and further away from the main drags. This mayor Daley pushed gun control, but he was not able to control gang violence. In the meantime, like other Rustbelt cities, Chicago lost manufacturing; thus the rise of the residential loft, where residents now sit on their living room sofas in buildings that once were home to factories and warehouses. The U.S. is a service-sector economy, much of its manufacturing (and customer service, as anyone who's called a computer helpline or Hotels.com finds out) sent overseas, where poor people are grateful to work for less money, under worse conditions, and seldom is heard the word union.

All this is evident. To me, to many people. Apparently not to Richard E. Friedman, who wrote the op-ed, and ran as a Republican against Mayor Daley II in 1971, and has never ceased licking his wounds.

Is this racial politics? I asked L when I read the piece. Is he trying to warn the aging white readers of the Tribune that they need to support a Republican or else our fair city will turn into a Detroit--an impoverished city, a city that does not work, a black city?

Mebbe, said L, who hadn't gone beyond the first sentence of the piece because, he said, someone had taken the section for herself.

Steppenwolf Theatre has been thinking about Detroit, and apparently to Steppenwolf, Detroit means an inner-ring suburb of any medium-sized city, a suburb created by white flight (though that's not mentioned), where houses are starting to fall apart, along with the American Dream. I saw the very first preview of the premiere of the show Detroit, written by Lisa D'Amour. Steppenwolf commissioned the play. In the program, which I've uncharacteristically already recycled, we're told that the highways mentioned are just outside Detroit, but the back yards we see meticulously recreated, the white suburban angst we see so absolutely well-performed, could really be anywhere.

If so, then why call it Detroit? I want to condemn the playwright and Steppenwolf for making Detroit a metaphor because it is a not a metaphor. It is a place of suffering and hope and chronic unemployment. It is a black city. It is not a white suburb. Am I being unfair to the playwright and the theater, because my Detroit is not their Detroit?

[Laurie Metcalf in Steppenwolf's Detroit, where everything is personal, even fire-setting]




And there are other Detroits:

[The Heidelberg Project, using art to revitalize the city]

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