Ville résiliente

Frank Nobert and Jean-François Prost (

translated from French by Danielle Gauthier

© Esse arts + opinions, 2005

A baffling, unsettling experience for any newcomer, arriving in the city of Detroit comes as a shock. Indeed, no amount of reading up on the city or knowledge of a few statistics can prepare you for being met with a huge, abandoned train station on arrival. This strange feeling only grows on discovering an impressive and near-appealing series of boarded-up buildings, but becomes disquieting on encountering the first burned-out shells of houses and yellow-painted Ds on those slated for destruction.

Ravaged by daily fires—houses, cars, trash cans—the city of Detroit has lost more than 200,000 homes in fifty years, covering an area almost equivalent to that of Montreal. Although Detroit’s plight is all too easily compared to post-apocalyptic devastation, the fact that it escapes all logic gives it a tragic character.

Despite several attempts at revitalization centred on the Renaissance Center—a monolithic mirrored-glass building complex parachuted into downtown Detroit—the city’s social and urban fabric continues to unravel. Since the post-industrial era, globalization, the civil-rights riots of 1967, the exodus of half the population—mostly whites—Detroit’s population now hovers below a million—85% African-American—and continues to decline, while the surrounding suburbs continue to thrive. Indeed, the population keeps growing in the outlying suburbs, among the wealthiest in the country. All too palpable, the chasm between the inner city and the outskirts is that much wider in that it results from the lack of any collective vision.

Although property developers and businesses have reinvested downtown Detroit with the promise of exciting economic spinoffs for all over the last few years, the garish casinos, stadiums and many newly built multi-level parking structures—whose floodlights only serve to highlight their dubious aesthetic quality—seem to cater more to Super Bowl tourists in search of Disney-fied attractions than to the often-impoverished local population puzzled by the neglect and disregard with which it is treated. For cookie-cutter notions of development do nothing to meet the needs and dire situation of Detroiters.

The result? Absurdities and excess abound, development fuelling destruction and destruction in turn encouraging development, creating a vicious circle of alternating utopia and dystopia. Beyond the fact that the tastes, needs and expectations of the suburbs supercede those of the inner city, what is really at stake here concerns all of North America: the so-called American Dream, the perfect automobile-driven world. Since Detroit—aka Motor City—is and must remain the symbol of automotive efficiency, the city serves as a laboratory for the entire continent.

Lacking a decent public-transportation network, Detroit has become the highway capital; the maze of thoroughfares, underused in the city centre and congested in the suburbs, baffle even the locals, who get lost due to poor signage. Indeed, the road network seems designed to provide a feeling of freedom associated with movement rather than a way to reach one’s destination.

Highways, bungalows, shopping centres... a city forever undergoing construction and growth, demolition and reconstruction. A city in a constant state of flux and renewal. In this ideal of the North American city, heritage, environment and specific and contextual (topographical, ethnic) realities are perceived as potential obstacles to profit and generic development.

This reality inspires artist and architect Kyong Park’s fictional but eerily true-to-life The Urban Conspiracy of Detroit. This work of fiction reveals the secret agreements between the automobile industry and property developers to transform the city, by first encouraging urban sprawl, then gradually destroying the urban fabric, fostering violence and alcoholism among an impoverished population in a world where moral and civic responsibility is slowly but surely eroding. Once devastated, the inner city could be repurchased for a song and a new wave of lucrative real-estate development initiated for the benefit of a select few.

Worrisome to newcomers to Detroit is that the vestiges of residential areas, the disappearance of businesses and the construction of casinos and stadiums seem to substantiate Park’s fable. Fact and fiction converge, making the city evermore elusive. The author of The Urban Conspiracy uses effective and discomfiting realism to denounce—fiction freeing him from certain legal constraints—the usurpers of Detroit’s wealth. Rather than contributing to already-existing paranoia, the work lays bare and decries the all-too-real problems of rampant capitalism, the mono-economy and racism; the conspiracy theory highlights the tragedy of a drastic situation. The Urban Conspiracy of Detroit is part of a resistance movement against prevailing defeatism, meant to provoke a critical and questioning reaction. Once brought to light, what is unspoken revealed, reality rears its ugly head; past mistakes and present-day precariousness must give way to a new approach.

Hence the conviction of certain individuals, artists and thinkers, that is it possible to change perceptions and redefine the city through targeted, contextualized acts of resistance. Often artistic in nature, these actions or projects, although perhaps less substantiated elsewhere, are indissociable, in their resolve and disclosure, from the understanding of the Detroit context.

Since 1986, artist Tyree Guyton has been progressively taking over vacant houses in his neighbourhood with the Heidelberg Project. Here, the home is the medium of expression used as a means of affirmation and social critique using an idiosyncratic visual language that is both playful and trenchant. Generally speaking, the Heidelberg Project consists of the reclaiming of homes and the shedding of anonymity. While empty, gutted houses elsewhere are strewn with the detritus of everyday life, the Heidelberg Project integrates these intimate, domestic cast-offs into its installations.

Disconcerted by the project, the city of Detroit twice bulldozed (in 1991 and 1999) several Heidelberg houses, including one belonging to the artist. To challenge the sometimes arbitrary, sometimes strategic demolitions, Guyton painted coloured spots throughout the city on homes that, though uninhabitable, were not slated for destruction. These spots question the logic behind the placing of the numbered Ds for destruction. The artist’s subjective action puts that of the city into perspective, rationalized by so-called safety and health standards. Guyton thus lays bare one of the major factors of uncertainty in the face of municipal decisions and the obstacles to citizens’ involvement.

Icon of decline, the Detroit house has, over the years, become the seat of resistance, the ultimate means of personal expression and social protest. Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, has created several installation-events in and around burned-out homes centred on community involvement. The interventions, involving residents, represent the transition between the state of abandonment and the demolition stage. Although this commemorative gesture seems imbued with nostalgia, it essentially aims to create a space for dialogue finally giving residents an outlet for their fears and concerns. Ritualizing the destruction of torched houses and clearing and cleaning their lots gives meaning to, and allows the community to reestablish control over, these daily events and creates a sense of solidarity among those who remain and resist.

Pitera’s orchestration changes the perception of demolitions, contributing to a unique product of the imagination peculiar to Detroit. Indeed, the city constantly vacillates between the real and surreal, inundated by myths, legends and absurd realities. Some houses now sport signs that read “This building is being watched; stop Halloween arson” to thwart the rash of fires started on Devil’s Night (or Mad Night), the eve of Halloween during which North American cities are assailed by acts of vandalism, which in Detroit take on extreme proportions. Or again, following the example of the city where the living abandon their homes, the dead forsake their tombs for the safer grounds of the suburban cemeteries, near their families. Up to three exhumations a day... To top it all off, the inner city itself becomes a car graveyard, vehicles coming home from across the country to die, whether incinerated or abandoned.

Detroit gives rise to ambiguities, further fuelled by its present configuration. What are our reference points when standing in a field in the heart of the city, between current-less powerlines, overgrown with knee-high weeds and overrun with recently returned wild pheasants? This peculiar situation has inspired a group of community activists, architects and citizens to create their own redevelopment plan of the city. The Adamah project sets out an alternative urban collective scheme that advocates the return of urban farmland, the dredging of a buried creek, as well as autonomous food and energy production for Detroit. The hybridization of the city eliminates distinctions between the inner and outer cities and makes more complex the exchanges between the rural areas, suburbs and city centre. This new vision of the city undeniably defies exponents of traditionally dense urban development, the spirit of the artificial conquering the natural and the ambitions of real-estate speculators.

Far from a pipe dream, Adamah is “infiltrating” Detroit and becoming a nexus of actions put forward by certain individuals or microgroups. A large-scale, all-encompassing, multifaceted revitalization project, it acts as a unifier of individual acts of resistance. Because it exists through and for residents, the grassroots project seems to be a synthesis of solutions initiated thus far. With Adamah, the devastated city of Detroit becomes a fount of possibilities.

Due to its peculiarity, its state of utter disarray, Detroit attracts local and worldwide attention, and offers a fertile ground for debate and a space in which to rethink the city. Like Berlin, Manchester, Ivanovo and other “shrinking cities” showcased in Berlin’s eponymous exhibition since September 2004, Detroit is now the result of a culture and a way of life based on the systematic growth principle. Shrinking Cities exposes the unwelcome set of problems and little-known realities of life in shrinking or imperiled cities, long ignored, abandoned to their fate and of little interest to the media and professionals captivated by thriving megalopolises. For living in Detroit today implies an alternative conceptualization of our relation to space, the body and the other. Standing idly by while one’s street falls into ruin until stranded amidst burned-out ruins and vacant lots takes steadfast determination.

Although transparency is sought after in most western cities, opacity and secrecy predominate in Detroit. Rather than playing up their idiosyncrasies, the shopkeepers and citizens of Detroit opt for discretion, welcoming such opacity in their everyday lives. Operating stores display a red-neon “Open” sign to distinguish themselves from their out-of-business counterparts. It is sometimes impossible to know whether or not an establishment is open without first knocking or otherwise announcing oneself. But once admitted into a rundown or hostile-looking shop or house, visitors feel like privileged guests in very often intimate surroundings. For behind shuttered windows, these downtrodden coverings, live families and work artists. Specificity in compartmentalization bolsters non-interference and non-infringement. With the history of isolation that gave birth to the “Detroit Sound,” the city continues to be a self-fuelling engine, a hotbed of counter-culture that provokes surprising chance, and sometimes exceptional, encounters. (The Urban Conspiracy of Detroit)

Note :

Pour la version française voir le numéro 53 de la revue ESSE, Utopie et dystopie