I was recently invited to participate in the telling of a story about a yet-to-be-discovered artist. Like so many others before him, he has himself been created in the environment that we commonly know of as ‘Detroit’. Seeing his work for the first time, I was stunned into silence. I sat for a moment, then, overwhelmed, I stood and walked to keep myself in my own skin. Profoundly moved, my mind shot into clarity about Detroit in a way I have struggled to articulate for many years. This is the power of a great artist: they shove us off our axis and allow us to see what we could not previously comprehend in the world around us. I look about each and every day, seeing the mundane, the known and the worn. Then, in a moment, with a space in my mind blown open by the genius of another, everything is new, never to be the same again.
Over my years in Detroit, more to the point, over the years Detroit has been in me, I have experienced this feeling of exposing my soul to Truth in its purest form via the artistic mind again and again and again. I have observed both personally and professionally the environment that is Detroit: as a resident, a scholar, an artist, a preservationist, an organizer, a writer, a woman, a daughter, a grand-daughter and a great-grand-daughter of those whose mark remains to this day in the city. I have observed Detroit from all sides: both serene and violent; intellectual and whimsical; flush and threadbare. I have observed it from within and from afar; with context both local and international and I have come to one conclusion:
Detroit, as it exists today, is not necessarily broken, it does not necessarily need to be fixed. It is playing a role in the global community that is nonexistent anywhere else. It is time to adjust our thinking in a truly radical way so that we may continue to facilitate, not inadvertently obstruct, what it is Detroit delivers to the world, just as it is. Detroit is functioning, excelling, over achieving, in ways that do not have precedent anywhere else on earth and therefore it is profoundly difficult to recognize for those stuck in old paradigms, dreaming of resurrection and emerald cities.
All that glistens is not gold.
I sincerely understand when many of you may fail to perceive the reality I speak of. You want to bring to my attention the raw violence, the racial divide, the plantation power structures, the swaths of derelict housing stock, the graft, the societal devastation of addiction, the dysfunctional politics, the third world status of infrastructure and the fourth world (read return-to-wilderness) status many areas have assumed. I do not deny these aspects. However, they exist all over the world and do not differentiate Detroit from the human condition unfortunately experienced continuously across the globe. We are not unique. We are bonded deep to our brothers and sisters around the world whose suffering and sacrifice often leave us feeling simply blessed. Your mistake is this: in your mind you hold this city locked firm within the conventional definition of such. You think of what was, (Paris of the Midwest) and what you think it should be, (Prague). You lament that UCity Guides has labeled it the 8th ugliest city in the world, that Forbes has now labeled Detroit “The Most Miserable City”.
The only way to begin to understand the role Detroit is playing in the global community is to stop evaluating it by conventional standards. As long as we view Detroit within the known frame of ‘city’, with all the quantifiable institutional methods of measuring and evaluating statistical data, as long as we inevitably attempt to measure our worth in the global community by comparing ourselves to other urban entities worldwide who have yet to reach the point of social and economic evolution Detroit has reached as a geographic area with a density of population, we will never be able to fathom what Detroit really is. We will continue to suffer the utterly devastating psychological impact on our community of constantly failing to measure up to the worlds expectations of us. So long as yesterdays intellects attempt to evaluate Detroit by standards which are simply obsolete and can no longer be applied, Detroit will continue to ‘fail’.
Nothing is farther from the truth.
Instead, we must measure Detroit by how we respond cooperatively from within to the challenges we face from without; measure Detroit by what we create and export through our artistic endeavors; evaluate Detroit by the vision, the sense of hope that permeates all local initiatives; measure Detroit by the force of your own emotion and imagination fired in the presence of her ruins.
Scholars, urbanist, planners, politicians will have some acquired academic response they will throw at this essay in an effort to add elitist separation and definition to the ‘problem’ that they view as Detroit, thereby excluding many of the people who actually ARE Detroit via codified language. It is this approach that has led Detroit down the road of oblivion as a city constantly being forced to conform to an obsolete paradigm by those who would profit. It is the action of those at street level, those who are committed through residence, through blood, through muse or just too damn poor to leave who are creating, carving each day into a new identifiable reality, functioning to serve those who reside here, from within. Detroit is the first city to evolve, in response to a perfect storm of complex social, economic and cultural forces, into a new, emerging organizational structure that is defining itself organically based on meeting the basic necessities of its existing population in a self-contained and self-sustained way. Viewed within this frame where success is measured by the production of endless creative expression; locally sourced solutions to basic needs and the spiritual support born of street level, interdependent, co-operative living, the geographic area known as Detroit is simply amazing. It is breathtaking in the example it is demonstrating to the world everyday. We simply have to see it, own it, and stop listening to all those who are blind to what we are, what we do, the role we play, how we respond and how we give. There is nothing like us anywhere on the planet. Detroit, as a gathering of humans, is beyond the comprehension of most outside.
Detroit is the messenger of a reality few have the courage to embrace, but embrace it we do and therein lies the seed of our transformation.
For most Americans, images from Detroit are shocking for one reason and one reason only: they are very real, and exist within the continental United States. Scenes that would not garner a second view, let alone commentary if attached to a story of any second or third world nation-state blown apart by the West’s quest du jour, elicit almost violent disgust, fear, judgement and criticism for one reason: Detroit tells us the truth about ourselves, the state of our Democracy and the soft underbelly of our own economic system, a truth most Americans do not want to hear or see. The American Myth is just that, and Detroit pulverizes that myth both accurately and relentlessly. Detroit is America’s tough love therapist here to drum truth and reality into the American psyche until it can’t take it anymore and breaks the veil of denial. Instead of accepting the message, those blind to Detroit’s purpose steadfastly cling to the hope that they can bring the city back into the myth, back into the fold of lies about our own failures we tell ourselves as Americans. Most simply shoot the messenger and go on in their protective bubble of, dare I say, delusion. Like a messiah walking amongst us in rags, Detroit quietly delivers her gift of Truth to all courageous enough listen.
What Detroit has done, and not necessarily by choice, is find the courage to face the realities of our time, process them to the best of our ability and commence the necessary transformation required of us to now move forward. I challenge anyone to introduce me to a place anywhere on the planet that is undergoing such a revolutionary, largely organic, prototypical process at this point in time on such a massive scale, predominantly from within.
The Power of Ruin and the Artistic Mind
At the very core of this transformation and critical to it, is the artistic mind, a mind with the ability to defy the known and cast boldly forward into the unknown, creating solutions to challenges deftly, free of the constraints of structured provincialism. What is it that makes Detroit the perfect environment for artistic thinkers? Why do they thrive here? How does Detroit create some of the most profoundly genuine and talented cultural and social geniuses of our time across so many expressive mediums?
In urban centers, people come and go, but the buildings largely remain. The walls that surround us remain, functioning as story tellers in brick and mortar, witnesses to the human theater; the structures within which we carry on the daily activities of our perishable selves. Cities work feverishly to preserve, expand and glorify the architecture that literally forms the city itself, our self image in stone and steel, an image greater than ourselves. Architecture celebrates human triumph (Chicago Spire); architecture falls victim to human darkness (WTC). It is through architecture that we reflect our dreams and desires of a world greater than that which we know. Therefore it is coveted, protected, celebrated. So long as our great cities stand, so will we.
Detroit was been allowed a different fate, a fate unique unto us, one which now serves to define her most powerful asset, an asset that differentiates her from all other urban centers, an asset that cannot be found anywhere else, an asset that fuels her greatest artistic gifts being produced daily in her streets, alleys, warehouses, lofts and temple front bungalows…
At this point in time, the heart and soul of Detroit lies squarely in the power of architectural ruin to inspire, ignite and carry the human imagination wherever it wants to go. This is what we give the world: fertile ground for the artistic mind. This is the physical platform we offer to anyone who wants to join us. There is no place on earth more conducive to the artistic mind than Detroit.
An occupied structure, architecture in the positive, answers the questions posed by the observer: within lies a house, an office, a storefront. An architectural ruin, architecture in the negative, forces the observer to think creatively in asking the question: what was this? what happened? what transpired here? In that moment, the imagination is ignited and cast loose…fertile ground for the artistic mind, the creative mind, the mind that can imagine forward rather than frantically try to correlate what is before them with what is already known.
This current environment is unique in the world: there are ruins and there are occupied cities. There are no occupied ruins functioning as dwelling for dense populations on this scale in a democracy and this is what differentiates Detroit. From this landscape comes the most truth laden artistic expression emerging anywhere in the world. I saw it once again today and it shook me to the core. I credit an environment that has been utterly freed of the obligation to meet anyones expectations. This is the fruit of the response by the human spirit to the economic and social devastation wrought by advanced Capitalism. In Detroit, we bear witness daily to what is to come. We are creating what is to come, moment to moment and there is no template, no model to emulate, no precedent. It is in this environment that the artistic mind has no tether, no confine social or otherwise, no perceptual boundary and is therefore truly free to expand at will. Surrounded by the built environment in ruin that is the only remaining physical evidence of systemic failure, our awareness of our own release from the confines of that system is omnipresent and omnipotent. Everywhere we look we are reminded that we are no longer a part of that failed system, we are reminded that we alone are charged with creating this moment and this moment is new. What do we want it to be? In this moment, Detroit is a place of imagination, a place where transformative grief has produced its fruits, a place where we are free to dream, to create, to seed the future grounded by what has come before, perhaps more importantly by what has been overcome and is now behind us.
Detroit is not broken. It has simply blown beyond conventional definition. It does not need to be ‘fixed’ by attempts to make it something it has already been. Detroit does not need to be re-tooled into some economically acceptable form that can continue to contribute to a long dead paradigm. Detroit needs to be recognized for what it is: a place where courageous, creative people can actively participate in the unknown going forward, carving the trail ahead. If those outside her process, those unwilling to become a student of Detroit rather than predators to Detroit have an inkling of intelligence, they will silence themselves and let those actively participating in creating living systems that work, those bringing forth Truth through artistic endeavor, those courageous enough to ask the questions and implement untried solutions, carve the road ahead for this complex frontier to the future that is Detroit.
© 2013 Nancy Kotting All Right Reserved Reproduction by Permission Only