I’m not going to summarise it, because this remarkable film can tell its own story. Suffice it to say that what was, a few short decades ago, the world’s biggest and most ambitious manufacturing city is now literally a ruin in many places. 40% of it has simply started to rot back into the Earth. The images are astonishing, and the statistics and interviews that go with them equally so. This, the film suggests, perhaps with some exaggeration but probably not much, is ‘the world’s first post-industrial city’, and is unlikely to be the last.
It’s probably unwise to draw too many general lessons from Detroit’s fate, as the circumstances of its fall were specific ones. Almost entirely dependent on one industry – motor manufacturing – the city simply died when globalisation pulled the rug out from under the US car industry. Add to that a history of deep and grim racial segregation and violence, and the hollowing out of the city by the flight to the suburbs which the private car enabled, and today’s picture emerges.
Nevertheless, this film provoked thoughts in me. One of them was that talk of some ‘collapse’ coming along in the near or distant future is out of whack with reality. Collapse, in places like Detroit, has come and gone, and people are already living with its consequences. It’s telling that the recent film of The Road was filmed in the US rust belt; the film-makers found all they needed there for their dystopian tale, and didn’t even need to build sets. Collapse is a process, not an event, and in parts of the world’s greatest superpower it is already advanced.
But what this film, which starts out so dark and hopeless, also reinforced was the undying ingenuity of people, and the necessity of imaginative responses to the failure of the Machine. Henry Ford built Detroit, and grew unthinkably rich from the proceeds. When the industry he created had no further need of the city and its people it simply left, leaving the residents to square miles of ruins, 30% unemployment and the highest murder rate in America.
Yet something, small still but growing, is rising from the ashes. There is the artist who grew up in the midst of the race riots and now runs a project providing both creative spaces and rehabilitation to some of the city’s hardest-hit people. There is the small company that has been set up by ex-cons to strip down and recycle materials from abandoned buildings. And there are the urban farms springing up where suburbs used to be.
This last is a surreal sight, and jarring: rows of sweetcorn and beans taking over from streets of once-neat houses. It’s a reversal of what we assume the process of development to be, and it takes me back to Robinson Jeffers poem ‘Carmel Point’, about the suburbanisation of the wild in California. ‘It has all time’ he writes of the land, ‘it knows the people are a tide.’ In Detroit, as one guy in the film puts it, the ‘high water mark’ is visible everywhere.
And here is the hope beyond hope that we talk of in the manifesto, and here too is one answer to the ‘what next? what hope?’ questions we have been considering here for the last few days. Hope has sprung up in Detroit because all hope had gone, and it has sprung up not from government (though, interestingly Detroit’s city government seems to be exploring ways of creatively bowing to the inevitable in a way I’ve not come across before on this scale) or from companies, which have fled, but from all there is left: people, trying to build new their communities after the bubble which built the old ones has burst.
Like the fate of Detroit itself, it is specific, this response, and small and scattered. But because of that, it gives me, at least, a lot more hope than our current stories do. To me, the ‘sustainability’ narrative we are presented with at present as our path to a better future, though it is intended to give us hope and something to work towards, seems quite hopeless: impossible and deeply disempowering and in some cases ugly and destructive. At least partly, I think this is because, as Alastair McIntosh suggests under our last post, it is so inhuman in its scale and ambition. It is like handing over the keys to the future to a low-carbon Henry Ford.
Nobody would wish the fate of Detroit on anyone, but versions of it are beginning to happen across the once-industrialised world. Perhaps the water has to recede before the hope can be seen clearly, above the waves.