An obsession with polished aspirational black music finally carried me to Detroit. I had come to rediscover the heartbreak of first love and unearth a few last Okeh “cover ups”. Poking my nose against a high window in the MGM Grand Hotel I survey this strung out city constructed on the lands of the People of the Three Fires. Michigan Central looms in front of me, the morose emblem of the city’s mutation in death. Through the perforations in its eviscerated carcase I see smoke signals rising up from the Poletown Incinerator. No train has left the station since the 353 to Chicago on January 5, 1988.
A Sunday afternoon in “The D” does not differ too much from a run of the mill Monday morning. A few beaten-up jalopies and bedraggled trucks glide Downriver on the blistered freeways. Traffic flow is now glacial only on the Ambassador Bridge. Above Bagley Street, where Henry Ford had his first garage, the People Carrier skirts around the Notown hub connecting the city’s new casinos with its historic glass dollhouses. An overcast sky casts an ashen greyness over a dismal spectacle of relentless devastation. Closer to the river, the beleaguered skyscraper garrison of the RenCen is encircled by an enclave of empty neglect. Since I arrived four days ago I have not heard a police siren, the squealing of tyres or even the expected gun boom.
Unshaven and with only out-of-town mod preconceptions to comfort me I set off from the chrome boomerang tower of the MGM for the river. Beyond the brightlycoloured cantinas of Mexicantown at the end of West Grand Boulevard I arrive at the sea wall bordered by corroded rail tracks. Above me a wedge of honking Canada geese fly in from Baffin Island to graze on the edgelands. A convoy of trucks waits at the border to enter the Great White North from the bridge. Two fishing skiffs are returning from Lake St Clair with catches of walleyes and small mouth bass. Far out in the river a black woman and a white man are swimming in synchrony. There is a pastoral stillness that is redolent of Liverpool feliz—Otterspool Promenade, the garden suburbs of Wavertree and the parkland estate of Grassendale.
In Corktown, close to Slow’s Bar BQ and the McShane bus, a burnt out grey-hooded schizophrenic is drinking from a paper bag. On Michigan Avenue a dude on a Detroit Bike gives me the finger and shouts “Hey dog what’s a cocksucking whitey doin down here?” My Saint Cosmas and Damian medallion left in the hotel safe cannot protect me now from this unexpected fear of blackness but a favourite Tamla brainworm “Baby I can’t let you go, /I realise I hurt you so/ Our love, surely can we mend it /It’s just a little misunderstanding,” helps to shore me.
With a re-run of The Contours clanging in my ears I keep going in search of authenticity. Art Deco stacks tower above me like colossal tombstones. On a clapboard a few blocks from Campus Martius Park next to a coffee shop, a joker has written “Free Coffee with Purchase of Wurlitzer building”. A brown teddy bear fastened to a street sign nearby marks a homicide. The last big box store remains boarded up and the nearest Apple shop is twenty miles away in a strip mall. I am trying to find a friendly dog that likes Motown in this burnt out forest.
After my journey to the end of the night a curtain of dark thinking descends. Strangers are not welcome here any more and music is linked with violence. I enter the Greektown Casino where an unhealthy candlelight and total absence of clocks confronts me. Solitary jaded smokers man a flashing conveyor belt of gears, brakes and levers. Round the clock Insertpushpullthehandle has replaced Pickuppushinturnreverse shifts. The money-obsessed automations scoop up Detroit’s last profits.
Back at the MGM Grand and still searching for common ground I hire Thomas Bell of Speedlight to take me for a spin in his Ford Cherokee. Thomas is massive, bearded and wears a slate blue suit with matching bow tie and pocket square. He doesn’t say much but when he speaks I pay careful attention. From behind his shades and royal blue Tam o’ Shanter he informs me that laughter, not music or fighting, is his secret. When I ask him where it all went wrong for Detroit he chuckles defensively, “Kilpatrick was a bad dude that stoled from the 313 but it ain’t his fault”. Before we set off for Gratiot Avenue I ask him to drop me off in Midtown at the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, the fifth largest gallery in the United States and home of the city’s crown jewels.
I mount the stone steps and make my way through the deserted Italian Renaissance marbled hallways to Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals. The almost life size workers on the North Wall are portrayed as vital cogs in the Highland Park wheels. In a panel in the upper corner, to the right of the Toltec guardians and above the glowing furnace, a Christmas parody catches my eye. A glorious infant clad in nappies is being vaccinated by a doctor doubling as Joseph and comforted by an attractive blonde nurse. Behind the Holy Family three Magi scientists beaver away in a chemicals laboratory. The machines are depicted with all their high-powered efficiency but are matched by the moral power of Ford’s dedicated and inventive craftsmen.
Henry Ford’s gimmick of five dollars a day pay had allowed thousands of desperate men to start all over again and make something of themselves. As a young boy in Greenfield he had been branded by a neighbour as, “he laziest little bugger on the face of the earth”, and his momentous achievements had been inspired by a desire to eliminate the drudgery of farm labour. At their first meeting at Fairlane the wealthiest industrialist in the world and the Marxist painter found more in common than they could possibly have imagined. Both men were renegades, united by their passion for mechanical precision and technological beauty. Many years later in his memoirs Rivera enthused about the meeting:
In my ears I heard the wonderful symphony, which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for men’s service. It was a new music, waiting for the composer with genius enough to give it communicable form.
Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo had arrived at Michigan Central from New York in April 1932 during the Great Depression and just four weeks after 4000 starving men had marched carrying banners from Fort Street to the heavily guarded Rouge plant. Its seven silver chimneys loomed in front of the wretched workers like a colossal church organ surrounded by smouldering mounds of coke. When Harry Bennett, the fascist bully and ex-boxer who was in charge of Ford’s Internal Security arrived in his car he was pelted with stones and knocked unconscious. Vomit gas, wooden clubs and jets of icy water failed to disperse the angry crowd and in panic the Dearborn police and Ford security guards began firing their machine guns from the bridge. Four of Ford’s protesting workers were shot dead on the battlefield and others seriously wounded. Rivera bitterly regretted the failure of the labour movement to defend itself against the dark forces of capitalism but tactfully omitted the struggle from his masterpiece.
I am still thinking of Henry Ford and his influence on the trajectory of this melodramatic city as Thomas drives us north up the Automotive Heritage Trail past the Wayne State University Medical School campus and the old General Motors building in Cadillac Place. Loyalty, hard work, patriotism and family orientation were virtues Ford associated with rural agrarian life. To him city dwellers were brave pioneers who had been forced to adventure into a terrifying uncharted waste. The soul could never be nourished in the predatory city. Detroit was now crowded with people and covered over with pavements making it impossible for the soil to exercise its natural function. In his column in The Dearborn Independent he declared that the city as the pinnacle of civilisation was finished: “Plainly, so it seems to some of us, that the ultimate solution will be the abolition of the City, its abandonment as a blunder… We shall solve the City Problem by leaving the City”.
By the time of Ford’s death in 1947, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse with a population of almost 2 million people and had risen to become the fourth largest city in the United States. It was the shining city on the hill, an innovation crossroads where highways converged on a river that connected to the Great Lakes and the sea. Detroit’s car companies dominated the global market and produced four out of every five cars manufactured in America. The Ford Motor Company employed 100,000 workers, many of them black, who embossed, flanged, welded, stamp- pressed, blanked and bent bearings six days a week. Phantom flashes of light came from the Rouge’s scorching foundries, steam hammers tortured slabs of near molten steel, and its acrid fumes sulphured the sun. The river was the colour of pig iron and its polluted water became the poor mans paint stripper. Detroit was in the vanguard of America’s machine age and an ‘arsenal of democracy’. Its hard–working, well-paid workers braved the factories pungent smells and the deafening ring of metal on metal and took a pride in their work. But there was a price to pay for the gains in productivity achieved by division of labour and vertical integration. Ford’s workers had been permanently thickened and dispossessed of their creative individuality.
We pass a large gang of bikers on Harley-Davidsons heading downtown. A constellation of temples with enchanting names like The Chapel of St Theresa of the Little Flower and Sweetest Heart of Mary stand forlornly among the tares. Inside crutches and callipers stacked in the Lady Chapels acknowledge former miracles. Other churches like the Martyrs of Uganda lie abandoned, stripped of their copper and stained glass. A deserted convalescent home has been flagged with an amended red spray slogan,
God has ^ left Detroit
Malevolent dragon’s vapour rises from the manholes by the side of the road. Piety Hill, as Woodward was once called, now seems to be in the grip of a diabolical curse. In his article, “The Modern City: A Pestiferous Growth”, Henry Ford wrote, “The modern city is a classic illustration of what ensues when we fail to mix the arts. The three great arts are Agriculture, Manufacture and Transportation.”
The self-acclaimed founder of the modern age had begun to see himself as a liberator and educator of men. In his enlightened vision for America there would be no skyscraper columns or foetid tenement courts contaminating the landscape: “The mingling of the arts would restore economic balance and racial sanity.”
Beyond the four parallel historic streets of Edison-Boston and the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Woodward I get my first view of the sadness of the Motortown ruins. Here on Manchester, the sons of slaves from the Jim Crow South, the rednecks from Appalachia and the unemployed from every corner of Europe had once worked for The Ford Motor Company and created a vibrant city. A chain link fence, a shuttered row of no-go, taped-up warehouses and the down market Model T Plaza shopping strip is now all that is left of the genteel tree-lined streets of Highland Park. The decomposing eight story high ceilinged structure where the Model T’s rolled out directly onto Detroit’s streets now houses the Ford archives.
“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett is playing on WOM-SEE radio. Fifteen minutes down the road we arrive at the Model T heritage site on Piquette with its museum of vintage cars and Henry Ford’s secret office. A few months earlier an urban explorer in search of hidden treasure had found a mummified corpse in one of the rotting hulks. Nothing remains of Regal and Cadillac but the vacant Fisher Body and Autocar Service buildings are still here. Dereliction vigilante teams are clearing the adjoining charred Studebaker/E-M-F plant for food production.
Thomas who has not said a word since I got back in the car comes out with “Berry Gordy produced music like Henry Ford shaped metal.” I reply “Without Tamla where would the Beatles have been?” Gordy modelled his Hits Factory on Fordism and later wrote:
At the plant, cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line, brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records. I wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist- a star.
Hitsville USA created the sound track for the assembly line encapsulated in an unrecorded vowel. Its blaring horns, clinking chains and pounding jackhammers made it the perfect car radio music. The River Rouge plant had subjugated the skill of each worker to produce an end product far greater than the sum of its component parts. Gordy’s trick was to create a brand that retained artistic individuality. Tamla’s medium syncopation had balanced the push and pull of tension and release. The Funk Brothers and the Andantes had the whirring beat of the Rouge in their veins and their new groove soon had the whole nation dancing in the street.
By the early nineteen seventies “white flight” had reached epidemic levels and the packs of “jits” (young mothafuckas that don’t know shit according to Thomas’s definition) left behind in the fragmented hoods were killing for fun. Escalating oil prices had started to make gas-guzzling cars with V-8 engines less attractive, even for Americans and Gordy had moved to Los Angeles the last home of the pink Cadillac. Whenever a new challenge reared its head the Ford Motor Company seemed to be incapable of changing tack falling back on out-dated ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it’ practices. The “City of Champions” had become decadent, seedy, overgrown and dangerous. Its streetlights had gone out, red traffic signals were now just for information, and its overworked underfunded police were slow to respond even to homicides. As its outmoded manufacturing base suffered a lingering death so did its elm trees. Even when it came to tree planting Detroit was a one horse town. The world had entered a new era of information technology and the “D”, devoid of artificial intelligence had become a negligible irrelevance.
Into this vacuum rode Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May three black adolescents with a futuristic robotic musical manifesto. Cast adrift in the leafy suburban metropolis they rejected disco and employed analog synthesisers and sequencers, a Roland TR-909 drum machine, robotic vocal tics and a prominent black hole bass to create sonic grooves. Their music conceived in garages and played at suburban parties was a way of subverting the assembly line, the alienating effect of mechanisation and the inexorable march of corporate plutocracy.
Machine Soul turned anger and rage into a rare beauty and brought a glowing future out of a chilling past. A dreamy otherness kept a generation of forgotten young Eastsiders sane. The self-centred, the conformists and the broken hearted were banned from Techno Boulevard’s fast moving underground dance floors. The new music’s repetitive cadences and sophisticated minimalist melodies were the ideal soundtrack for cosmic car journeys on the virtual autobahn. Electronic technology had unleashed a liberating defiant dream world and blown away the last vestiges of Tamla Motown. Detroit Techno was out of sight on the edge of forever. It was what Ford and Rivera had dreamed of, euphony created by machine and man for the benefit of the human race.
On East Grand Boulevard directly in front of us lies the trussed concrete steel corpse of the Packard automotive plant, a lawless square mile of overgrown wasteland ringed by snarls of marooned sleepers, where scrappers, vampires, packs of feral dogs and crazed graffiti artists roam amongst the bonfires. One or two small auto repair shops hang on here in the crumbling heart of the rust belt. Thomas points to a shack with an aerial perched on a drooping corrugated roof, the home of Alan Hill, a blessed 68-year-old automobile worker who tinkers with scrap in the rubble. Watching Detroit rot has left deep retinal scars for those with no alternative but to stay behind.
Among the grey freeways and vacant lots Thomas helps me search for the old Ukrainian, African-American and Arab communities, the tragic former world of three seasons and the ghost of Dodge Main. The gates of Chevrolet Gear and Axle are chained up but I can see through the shattered glass windows the floor where the cast iron wheels spun and the giant presses drew breath in the choking heat. Close by is the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Facility, the largest solid waste incinerator in the United States, disposing of the city’s shite and venting a death stench of polysyllabic chlorinated carbons on Poletown. A row of plug-in Chevy volt hybrid cars is waiting to be transported downriver outside the fenced off General Motors Assembly. Back in profit, the Big Three, like Berry Gordy before them, have finally decoupled from the bankrupt D. Only the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly plant owned by Fiat remains totally within the city boundaries.
Down “Gra-shit” (Gratiot) Boulevard near McNichols secreted away between the party stores, fast food joints and beauty parlours, Thomas pulls up and points out a middle aged black man with a torn face, sitting on a crate in a parking lot under a solitary tree. Next to him is a sign saying “WHAT IT DEW lawnmower repair and sales.” Behind him two hangers on wait like vultures for easy pickings. “That guy works six days a week every summer, charges a flat 45 dollar fee and usually has the job done in an hour. On a good day he gets through twelve machines but bro, does he put up with some shit”. As we move on a car pulls up and two men get out asking for temporary work.
Eight Mile Road is six lanes wide and runs east to west for thirty kilometres. It is lined with cemeteries, bungalows, strip clubs and a few run down businesses. Off the main drag many of the wooden single storey houses are derelict and boarded up. Others have bed sheets as curtains and there are several fly tips. There are cavities where deserted properties have been torched on Devil’s Night. In one of the bereft zones someone has painted on the side of a bombed out crack house, ‘Baltimore Murder Capital of the World’. Nearby some youths are playing golf on a plot where knee-high grass sprouts through the asphalt. Most of the residential streets are empty in the afternoon but a gas station back on Eight Mile has several prowlers hanging around near the barred grille. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile. Cocooned in the Cherokee I start to think Detroit has got its due deserves for its inequality and segregation of diversity.
A man with Savanna Syndrome is mowing the lawn of a deserted house. The viridescent postage stamps help to keep up appearances and impose shape and meaning on a broken city. In Indian Village there is talk of the dangers of close cropping and the best way to avoid white clover and crab grass infestation. A cutting-edge monoculture preoccupied with cylinder and rotary mowers has grown up in some of the abandoned districts and many private places now smell of freshly mown grass.
Not far from the cultivated sectors wild flowers grow in abundance, as though nothing has ever disturbed the pristine pastoral verdure. There are a few sugar maples and a solitary Tree of Heaven that has taken root in a crevice of crud. A pheasant rooster flies over a fence from an allotment planted with vegetables. Swathes of switch grass alive with the chirruping of grasshoppers and foraging black Californian squirrels grace a brownfield frontier. Thomas tells me coyotes have been seen wandering through these 40 square miles of non-human wildness and beavers and salmon have returned to the Detroit River.
We keep going up Woodward out into the cornfields and hanging gardens of Michigan. As we cruise through the all white suburb of Warren I hum Aretha Franklin’s lyrics:
We goin’ ridin on the freeway of love
Wind’s against our back
We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac
Twenty miles out and still on a four-lane highway we wind through wooded parkland past vast stretches of manicured grass. Independence Township and Romeo resemble hillbilly rifle camps where wolverines and northern bears are known to prowl. Birmingham has a fresh, raw expensive look with stylishly decorated mansions and fancy drive-in restaurants. There is an odour of new money and plenty of Pashmina Princesses in Bloomfield Hills. This verdant terrain dotted with ornamental lakes provides the denizens with security and exclusivity.
Automobile manufacture had been good for Ford’s white employees. They had been well paid and well represented by the United Automobile Workers Union. Many had been able to cast aside their blue-collar immigrant heritage and enter the ranks of Michigan’s middle class. A fair few had followed their boss’s lead and settled in rural log cabin and red barn communities with schoolhouses, general stores and chapels buried amidst the pastures. Unfortunately Detroit’s new high society ended up dragging the hard drive of the city behind it down Telegraph Road and into the garden suburbs. Sterile business parks and struggling enclosed shopping malls sprawl all over. In the rush hour the feeder roads coming off the Chrysler and Edsell freeways are choked with commuter traffic. Although haunted by an irrational sentimentality for the old neighbourhoods most return to their “Paris of the West” only on special occasions—and always with extreme caution—to watch the Red Wings at “The Joe” to buy potted chrysanthemums at Eastern Market or to disinter their distant ancestors from the desolate bone yards. For most of Metropolitan Detroit downtown might just as well be an Indian Reservation.
A few neophyte “techies” condemned by their anxious and sentimental parents to grow up in these alien dormitories have discarded their bourgeois utopias that left no trace and followed the Belleville Three back to “Gra-shit”. Chided by Eminem’s rap “Ain’t seen a mile road south of ten” and encouraged by “isms”, peach orbs, Alice in Wonderland chessboards and the illuminated orange-topped Qube building they try to reclaim the streets through which I tramped this morning. Twitter has arrived at the [email protected] building, there is a market for psychedelic Fordite swirls and Baxter the Rethink Robot has come to town.
On the way back to the MGM Grand we make a sightseeing stop at American Jewellery and Loan. Outside on the forecourt a man in a cowboy hat is talking up the virtues of his beaten up Lincoln in an attempt to raise enough money for a Honda ride-on mower. Thomas tells me that Les Gold now has more pawned grass cutters than plasma televisions or vintage guitars. The lawn is a divine American sacrament but here in no man’s land I have started to associate it with bad karma and the pugnacious Harry Bennett.
Ford’s missing art has arrived in Detroit and his advice that failure is the opportunity to begin again, only more intelligently, is the new vibe. A wrecking ball has brought the last smokestack down and Detroiters can now see the killing moon and an endless horizon. Healthy lines of broccoli, rows of okra and patches of Napa cabbage flourish in black soil allotments and redress my jet lag. The hub is going back to the farm. A creeping green quilt tended by an army of guerrilla gardeners is spreading over the corroding carapace of bulldozed grey steel. Brambles are spilling over a Firestone tyre and a few birches nourished by decomposed textbooks are growing through the open skylight of the Detroit Public Schools Roosevelt Warehouse. There are lasagne beds composed of alternating layers of brown and green on a junk mail base ripe with pumpkins. A new and different natural world has infiltrated the ruins. Peasant markets feed the growing number of locavores. Beautiful hydroponic ‘grass’ farms and orchard paradises brimming with forbidden fruit fill the void. The grass roots of a higher consciousness are sprouting in the gaps exposed by ferric disintegration. Watched over by angels in the arrivals hall of Michigan Central you can now buy a rail ticket to the open sea. The river informs me that Detroit is changing into the redemptive Composite City.