Detroit, Michigan has functioned as a symbol in American popular culture since the early 20th century. Known as America’s “Arsenal of Democracy,” “Most Dangerous City,” and more recently, “Largest Municipal Bankruptcy Case,” Detroit has long been a laboratory of sorts for issues in American urbanism. Due to Detroit’s significance as a symbol for the heyday of modern urbanism, much of the news coverage of Detroit in the late 20th century that sought to depict Detroit’s dire condition related the statistics back to the city’s former glory. 

In depictions of Detroit from the 1970s to the present day, there are frequent references to the city’s glorious past and Detroit’s abandoned skyscrapers and homes are portrayed as “ruins.” A 1992 The Nation article written by Camilo Vergara, author of a book featuring images of Detroit’s structural dilapidation in The New American Ghetto (1995) and American Ruins (1999), discusses the stunning collection of America’s preeminent architectural ruins in Detroit. He writes: “Detroit confronts the visitor and resident alike with ubiquitous decay. The downtown contains the most awesome concentration of emerging ruins in the nation: prematurely aging skyscrapers stripped by their owners and abandoned to nature.”

Telling is the link between Detroit’s former glory in descriptions of structures and Detroit’s current nightmarish present in accounts of the city’s fiendish residents. In the shadow of the aging skyscrapers, “low buildings draw the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts and others to institutions set up to help them." The only apparent populations in Detroit are the violent, poor, and savage and the institutions that manage them. 

Above: Detroit has become associated in the public mind with "ruin porn," or images of urban structural decay showcased in a monumental manner, often completely devoid of people. Top photo: The mainstream perspective on Detroit often leaves out its more culturally rich, picturesque side, such as the RiverWalk along the Detroit River. (All images licensed through Creative Commons)

Above: Detroit has become associated in the public mind with "ruin porn," or images of urban structural decay showcased in a monumental manner, often completely devoid of people. Top photo: The mainstream perspective on Detroit often leaves out its more culturally rich, picturesque side, such as the RiverWalk along the Detroit River. (All images licensed through Creative Commons)

Equally significant in the published books of Vergara is the absence of people in the photographs. Writing in 2011 of the problematics of “ruin porn,” or images of urban structural decay showcased in a monumental manner, Noreen Malone explains that it is “not an accident” that the pictures of Detroit that “tend to go viral on the Web” are the ones “utterly devoid of people.” She argues: 

We know intellectually that people live in Detroit (even if far fewer than before), but these pictures make us feel like they don’t. The human brain responds very differently to a picture of a person in ruin than to a building in ruin … Without people in them, these pictures don’t demand as much of the viewer, exacting from her engagement only on a purely aesthetic level. You can revel in the sublimity of destruction, of abandonment, of the march of change — all without uncomfortably connecting them with their human consequences. 

Images of the structural decline of Detroit devoid of people allow Detroit to be constructed as a separate place from the rest of America. Detroit can be understood as a preeminently postmodern city as Jerry Herron (1992) has described it due to its relationship to the highly mediated world of late capitalism. 

Postmodernism can be understood as a response to the failed idealism of the 1960s, following Jeffrey Alexander (2003), and an attempt to “periodize” the end to modernist thinking, to describe what Fredric Jameson calls the “newly emergent social order of late capitalism." Another postmodern theorist, Guy Debord, refers to postmodern society as a “society of the spectacle.” Debord contends that “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” In this society of the spectacle, reality only “partially unfolds” and is constructed into a “pseudo-world apart” where it exists as “an object of mere contemplation.” However, this “reality apart” is not just a “collection of images” but instead a “social relation among people, mediated by images." Thus, the incessant media coverage of Detroit, whether it is shots of its abandoned buildings, homes on fire, or vacant lots, is a manifestation of a kind of deficiency in meaning, a pseudo-reality apart from history, which Detroit represents for America. 

Another way in which former Detroiters and other Americans support a notion of a separate Detroit is through participation in rituals that resurrect an idealized former Detroit that comes to stand in for a present-day Detroit characterized by problems. Events like the Woodward Dream Cruise of Metro Detroit serve to revive the Detroit of its glory days in the 1950s and 1960s and offer a site where suburban Detroiters and national participants can reconnect with the city and the era of the American Dream. The Woodward Dream Cruise began as a small fundraiser to support the creation of a soccer field in an inner-ring suburb of Detroit in 1999. Modeled as a place to “relive and recreate the nostalgic heydays of the '50s and '60s, when youth, music and Motor City steel roamed Woodward Avenue, America’s first highway,” the Woodward Dream Cruise has expanded throughout the years.

Tens of thousands of classic cars cruise down Woodward Avenue every August for the Woodward Dream Cruise, an event rooted in collective nostalgia for Detroit's history as an automotive giant. (Image licensed through Creative Commons) 

Tens of thousands of classic cars cruise down Woodward Avenue every August for the Woodward Dream Cruise, an event rooted in collective nostalgia for Detroit's history as an automotive giant. (Image licensed through Creative Commons) 

Currently, the Dream Cruise is the “world’s largest one-day automotive event, drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the globe." Significantly, the Dream Cruise is an event almost exclusively restricted to the section of Woodward Avenue that intersects Detroit’s suburbs, although the throughway begins in the heart of downtown Detroit. The Woodward Dream Cruise creates an idealized, de-racialized, youthful, and rebellious site with which former Detroiters and their suburban children can interact with “Detroit.” 

Equally notable is one of the Woodward Dream Cruise sponsors, Oldies 104.3, the local radio station that plays hits from the 1950s and '60s, with an emphasis on Detroit’s own musical tradition, the “Motown Sound.” Although Motown Records was a recording company pioneered by a black Detroiter named Berry Gordy that featured many of the first Grammy-award winning and top-selling black musical artists of the mid- to late-20th century, its centrality to the “dream” of the Dream Cruise is not disruptive to the distinctly suburban and overwhelmingly white, identity of the event. Indeed, even a racialized Motown is conflated with the glory of the Detroit automobile and a picture of inclusion is painted. 

The Woodward Dream Cruise can be conceived of as a way in which suburban Detroiters can enact their desire to relive a Fordist past. George Steinmetz explains that most suburbanites “do not want to return to the past.” Instead, “the dominant emotional condition is a simpler nostalgia for Fordism, a desire to relive the past, to reexperience the prosperous metropolis as it is remembered or has been described." Thus, although Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s was still highly segregated and whites had already begun to leave the city for the suburbs, participation in the Woodward Dream Cruise allows suburbanites to relive a past as it is remembered. Motown becomes a non-racialized musical genre. And even the former Detroit residents’ children can “relive” the glory days of the Motor City through their parents’ descriptions and the ritual of the Dream Cruise. 

The central collective nostalgia of the Dream Cruise is for a time when America was at the top of the automobile industry and Detroit was the preeminent reason for its success. In a short video contribution for TIME Magazine, video-journalist Stephen McGee depicts the Dream Cruise events for the 2010 season and interviews several attendees as they endured a day of rain to sit in folding chairs along Woodward Avenue and watch the parade of classic cars drive by. One man declares: “Woodward is about American-made cars and the glory of the Motor City, that’s what Woodward is all about.” Another explains that participation in the events of the Dream Cruise is “the common man’s way of going back out there and living their memories again.” Another man interviewed explains that the atmosphere at the 2010 Dream Cruise was significantly more positive than the last year, 2009, when the recession had powerfully affected many suburban Detroiters. “Everybody seems more upbeat this year,” He says.  “Nobody’s talking about their jobs or what they lost, or the auto industry going down, that’s not the topic of conversation." 

However, Steinmetz explains that nostalgia is rooted in “dissatisfaction with the present.” Nostalgia reveals “a desire to continue inhabiting imaginary identifications that are out of joint with present-day social-symbolic realities." Thus, although the man declares that “the topic of conversation” is not the loss of jobs in the automobile industry and the failures of the Fordist economic dream, loss and decline are responsible for the creation and incredible success of the Dream Cruise. “Nostalgia combines two Greek words,” Steinmetz explains, “nosos, meaning ‘to return to the land,’ and algos, meaning ‘suffering of grief.’” Yet Steinmetz is clear that this sense grief is not the same as bereavement for a loved one. Instead, nostalgia is better defined as “the sense of having lost an entire sociohistorical context and the identifications that accompany it, and the related desire to reexperience that social past." 

Thus, The Woodward Dream acts a space to relive an obsolete social past: that of the glory days of Detroit at the pinnacle of the Automobile Era. The Dream Cruise is a way for suburban Detroiters and other Americans to resurrect the era when Detroit was a glorified powerhouse of America’s capitalist success. At the Dream Cruise, people do not need to engage in a study of the reasons why this is no longer the case. Instead, they unite with one another, swapping stories of first cars and first jobs in the automobile factories, establishing their collective identity as still defined by the automobile industry, proud and intact. 

Postmodern Detroit

The Dream Cruise and the "ruin porn" of Detroit function together to produce suburbs caught in a culture without a past and a city stuck in a past without a culture. Detroit is a place of ruins and a place of memory. Detroit is not a place of history, yet that history demands narration by the national news media. Detroit’s patriotism didn’t stop the trend of industrial decline that began in the 1950s. Previous productive prowess couldn’t help Detroit’s citizens when factories were moving out of the city and even state to find cheaper land. The inability for Americans to conceive of or address the structural problems and inequalities of Detroit’s landscape was due to the limited expectations of the modernist model of capitalistic growth and urbanism. Shrinkage of the city and the troubles it brought were rendered incomprehensible within the Fordist economic model and narrative of the modern city.

As Philip Oswalt explains, the expectation of growth that is at the core of modern “ideas, concepts, theories, laws, and practices” was influenced by the rapid growth of the population, economy, prosperity of industrialized countries in the last two hundred years. Thus, as there is “no theory of shrinkage” in economic models, urban planning in this period has been “almost exclusively focused on the process of growth."     

In the 1960s, architectural journalist Jane Jacobs foresaw a decline in the vitality of America’s cities at the hand of modernist urban planning. In her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs cites the error of modernist urban planners to mistake cities for the wrong kind of problem. Jacobs deduces that strides in the modernist development of scientific inquiry influenced urban planning in the mid-century. Urban planners came to view cities as “problems of simplicity and disorganized complexity” rather than “organized complexity.” Jacobs writes: “Cities … do not exhibit one problem in organized complexity, which if understood explains it all. They can be analyzed into many such problems of segments which, as in the case of the life sciences, are also related with one another. The variables are many, but they … are interrelated into an organic whole." 

The problem of modernist urban planning has been to look at the city as a combination of two variables, space and population, as in a fixed ratio with a rational solution rather than study the processes that characterize city life such as “unslumming, slumming, generation of diversity, [and] self-destruction of diversity." To a modernist urban planner, Detroit is the result of a problematic ratio of space to population: too much space for too little population. Yet this narrow view ignores the processes of change within the city and the way in which these changes are narrated, endowed with meaning in the discourse of civil society. 

Thus, Detroit as a city in decline, a “shrinking city,” is illegible. Instead, a pathologization of the city occurs which blames citizens instead of the structural inequality of the limited scope of vision afforded by modern-influenced ideas and practices. In this way, according to Jerry Herron, Detroit is "the result of the general patterns of American movement and striving, away from the town and away from the problems of violence and poverty and race that the cities stand for, with the ‘collapse’ of Detroit being the result ... of white, middle-class attitudes rather than those of the people who don’t choose where and how they will live."

Detroit’s middle-class white residents and the rest of America worked to seal themselves off from understanding Detroit. Description of structural inequality or white middle-class responsibility for leaving the city were not addressed in the media’s narrative of the city of Detroit. Instead, panicked coverage of the violence of Detroit’s citizens, the vacancy of its land, the dilapidation of its homes, the failure and corruption of its school systems, created a Detroit separate from its previous residents and separate from America. Herron explains: “if the accounts of the popular press are to be believed, there really is no place like Detroit; there is only Detroit, though here too the city is representative — representative of what everybody else has gotten over, or otherwise managed to avoid." 

Thus, Detroit was made into a site for the projection of fears over the disappearing American working class, the prosperous downtown, and economic stability. Detroit was a place that could be looked at apart, a place to collect all things bad so that they wouldn’t sour the rest of the American consciousness. Better to think of Detroit as an anomaly than as characteristic of the decline of the American manufacturing machine, of the cracks in the capitalistic armor which had shielded America from harm and self-critique for much of the 20th century. But the armor had indeed cracked, as rates of unemployment, foreclosure, factory closings, and crime were high across the nation. The story of Detroit is the story of the American city. The problems of Detroit that have been chronicled in the nation’s newspapers are not bound to the 139 square miles of the Midwestern city, they can be found throughout the country, in any place where race, labor, housing, and resources are pertinent issues. 

In this way, Detroit is the preeminent postmodern city for its symbolic otherness that alludes to the ending of the modernist narrative of progress. Following Jeffrey Alexander, Herron's theory can be understood as postmodern Marxist or post-Marxist redefinition of the “exalted” narrative of the postwar period in which a “heroic imminent future” is determined to have past. When Herron calls Detroit a city “after culture,” he refers to the postmodern “play within a play, a historical drama designed to convince its audiences that drama is dead and that history no longer exists. What remains is nostalgia for a symbolized past." Postmodern theory depicts Detroit as a place without history. The plethora of media coverage on the ruins of Detroit and the former glory of the city are indicative of a postmodern reading of the city, where images stand in for history, buildings stand in for people. 

In this way, Detroit represents the end of history. Yet to keep the modernist narrative of progress intact, Detroit must be constructed as separate from the rest of the nation. Detroit comes to represent the toxic or polluting “profane” which must be constructed in relation to the “sacred.” As Jeffrey Alexander explains, “In moral terms, exploring heinous evil is the only way to understand the pure and upright actors, institutions, and societies systematically crystallize and elaborate evil. They do so, ironically, in pursuit of the good.” Detroit must be portrayed as threatening to the values of modernism and its inhabitants representative of evil for the good of the rest of American society.

As Emile Durkheim understands, “shared values are essential to solidarity and social health." For a logic of growth, built-in obsolescence, and suburban sprawl in response to economic decay of the inner city to continue in America as values, the city must be constructed in stark moral contradiction to those values as profane and deviant. Americans were united in their opposition to the unlawful, violent, and racialized space of Detroit, their beliefs reinforced by the constant perpetuation of images of decay, violence, and destruction of Detroit in the national news media.