Most Americans think you’re crazy if you tell them you are going to visit Detroit, just for the hell of it, which is what I just did. Detroit – a city that had its heyday in the 1960s at the latest – is the last place they’d actually choose to go to. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in Britain in the 1970s, but I’ve always been weirdly drawn to cities in decline like Detroit. It’s true that Detroit is almost a model of what can go wrong in cities, as described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But despite that, or maybe because of it, it’s still a fascinating place.
The main significance of Detroit, obviously, is the automobile industry. From reading the business pages, you’d think there was almost nothing left of the car industry in Detroit itself except the headquarters of the Big Three (or Big Two and a Half as some people call it since Chrysler was taken over by Daimler). Increased competition, especially from the Japanese, has shrunk the American carmakers’ share of the US market, and much of the production that remains has been moved out of the Rust Belt to newer factories in the South.
But as you drive towards Detroit along I-94, passing through Dearborn and Ford’s legendary River Rouge complex, you still feel like you are driving into a vast, booming industrial complex, white smoke billowing from the smokestacks on the side of the highway. No doubt it is a shadow of what it once was. But it still seems pretty much like the inferno it was in the 1920s as Jeffrey Eugenides describes it in his novel Middlesex – “that massive, forbidding, awe-inspiring complex we saw from the highway, that controlled Vesuvius of chutes, tubes, ladders, catwalks, fire and smoke known, like a plague or a monarch, only by a color: ‘the Rouge.'”
You get an even more evocative picture of what the Rouge was like in its heyday from a visit to the Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I’ve never seen the Sistine Chapel, but I imagine seeing it feels pretty similar to what it’s like taking in Rivera’s mural, which covers all four walls of the room. I’d heard a lot about it and seen pictures but nothing prepares you for actually seeing it in person. It’s partly the sheer scale and detail of the mural but also the scope of what it conveys – thousands of years of human history, seen by Rivera, a Marxist, as culminating in the industrial miracle/nightmare of the Rouge (he spent a month there with Frida Kahlo in 1932 before starting work on the mural). I must have stood there for about an hour taking it all in.
Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, had himself worked on the line at Ford and saw himself as creating a production line of hits in the same way as Ford had done with cars. At the Motown Museum on W. Grand Blvd you get to see the original Studio A where a lot of classic Motown, including Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, my all-time favorite album, was recorded; the echo chamber that gave Motown tracks their live feeling; and the original artwork for Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions.
If Motown was the soundtrack to Detroit in its heyday, then the sparse, electronic, almost de-humanized sound of Detroit techno is the music of post-industrial Detroit. It’s no coincidence that the other place where Detroit techno was big was Berlin in 1990s. As I drove around Detroit and came across deserted sections of the city with huge, derelict buildings, it totally reminded me of Berlin’s Mitte district when I lived there in Berlin in 1992-3. Those derelict buildings – now replaced with shopping malls – were where the legendary Berlin techno clubs like Tresor (the former vault of the Wertheim department store) and E-Werk (disused power station) were located. I can imagine how it must have seemed familiar to Detroit techno DJs like Juan Atkins, Carl Craig and Derrick May when they played there.