27 May Detroit & the Downfall of Monoculture

Jill and I drove to Detroit for Memorial Day weekend, which is the worst weekend of the year for driving America’s highways, but a fitting time to visit Motor City, it seems. Jill grew up in Detroit and still has that flattened Mid-western accent that makes her sound like a 1930 gangster’s moll from an old movie. Though she spent most of her years in Bloomfield Hills, a posh suburb, she went to college at Wayne State and, as an adult, lived downtown, for which she has fond memories.

The Perhaps no city in America seems as troubled nowadays as Detroit. Its demise sits squarely with the demise of the automobile industry. I’m tempted to wag a finger at downtrodden Detroit and shake my head in dismay and scold, “What were you thinking?” Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket! I enjoyed our visit, I should hasten to add, and, in just a minute I want to talk about the cool Detroit stuff we saw. But first allow me to declaim on Detroit as an illuminating example of monocultures and why they don’t work in the long run.

If you’ve ever watched a movie like the 1956 classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” you know the problem posed by a world where everyone does the same thing. The world of the zombie-like body snatchers is a monoculture. It offers no variety and no prospect for surprise. Ultimately, it’s mind-numbing and soul-crushing, if not life-threatening.

City planning in the 1950-60s took a monocultural view of “urbanl renewal” by bulldozing old neighborhoods and erecting highrise “housing projects.” The one-size-fits-all idea of housing projects ignored the history and diversity of existing neighborhoods. The result was alienation of urban dwellers and accelerated decay of inner cities. At the same time, a monocultural approach informed corporate farming, which bulldozed the traditional multi-crop system and replaced it with gigantic spreads of single crop growth. As a result, monocultural (corporate) farming has not only eradicated small family farms but also depleted the soil, increased reliance on caustic fertilizers and pesticides, and, in general, thrown nature out of balance.

Years ago, Detroit took a monocultural approach to its economic future by centering its energy and resources on automobile manufacture. The city thought nothing of expanding to its outermost suburbs–because automobiles made this easy–and so it gutted its once-vibrant downtown. Apparently, Detroit made little effort to expand its manufacture base, just as the automobile makers made little effort to expand their concept of the car. Among the car-makers’ many missteps, or arrogantly willful acts of ignorance, was their late acceptance of fuel-efficiency. Even as Detroit auto makers entered the era of fuel efficiency, they did so grudgingly. And now we hear them whine and whimper about how good they are for America.

At bottom, the belief in the benefits of monoculture is a belief that BIGGER is BETTER. Big banks make better decisions than small banks. Big factories are more reliable than small factories. Big investments are safer than small investments. This bias continues to inform government and policy-making, as we see in recent arguments asserting that we cannot let the American auto-makers fail because they are TOO BIG to fail and would take down too many other businesses. You see any irony in such thinking?

“Diversity” has become a watchword in recent years because we have learned that variety and difference are healthy in just about everything, from ecology to economics. Microfinance, for example, offers loans to the poor in developing countries. These are loans that traditional (BIG) banks would never offer, and yet these tiny loans (usually less than $200) to ambitious entrepreneurs (mostly women) enable seemingly helpless people to help themselves. About microfinance

It seems that Detroit today represents so much of what America got wrong or, rather, so much of what America used to be but can’t be any more. Alas, it’s not a diverse city; it is, in fact, one of the most segregated cities in the country (white outside, black inside), so the prospect of constructing a rainbow coalition of urban rebuilders seems slim. Also, thanks to cars, it’s a huge city whose core has fallen away. Detroit may be the abandoned-house capital of the country. The hope in struggling cities like Baltimore and Cleveland is that they are small enough, and manageable enough, to get control of their decay. Detroit may be too large to hold that hope.

Is Detroit too big to fail? It has four professional sports teams–the Pistons, the Indians, the Tigers, and the Redwings–and two new, state-of-the-art, retro-style stadiums downtown. It has a symphony. It has a cool, renovated old theater downtown. Also, it has Pewabic Pottery, one of the last remaining arts and crafts potteries in the country. Founded in 1903 by artist Mary Chase Perry and a partner, it continues production in its little-changed 1907 building, just a few blocks from the Detroit River. It produces some stunning work. We bought a big vase.

Detroit has blocks and blocks of gorgeous old houses, many of them in heartbreaking disrepair. Jill and I picked out many favorites and fantasized briefly about buying one and fixing it up. I don’t know that any city in America has as many ruined factories as Detroit. Taking photos of them has become a cliche, or so a young photographer told me when I asked if she was documenting the demise of the beautiful architecture. “Oh, I pretty much did all that in high school,” she said.

We made sure to stop by the the Heidelberg Project.in east Detroit. It’s an art installation created by Tyree Guyton, a trained painter. Not long after his return from Vietnam, he painted and variously decorated the exteriors of abandoned houses on the block where he grew up. It’s a visual editorial on the failures of the city, so much so that Detroit’s mayor tried to shut it down years ago but failed. Free speech, after all. Now the fanciful, colorful block attracts nearly 300,000 visitors a year. Perhaps the greatest irony framed by Guyton’s installation is that, unlike the houses he has adorned, the installation itself demands regular upkeep and additions of fresh paint and new-found refuse.