Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Decline of Midwestern Civilization

Detroit is a city that has spawned far more than its fair share of great creative individuals. I used to refer to this as the "Detroit/Berlin Complex" - describing any world power of a city with a rich history, that fell into the darkest of dark times, to emerge as a breeding ground for creativity. This fertile soil is a rare and powerful combination of elements. Very little great art ever comes from sunny, happy places, as does little come from lonely industrial towns like Gary Indiana and the like. Detroit is a unique place in the world. Industrial revolution London, mid-century New York, and afore-mentioned Berlin are of the few other places in this class. The combination of former grandeur and extreme desperation fuels people to make. When you have nothing, but remember what it's like to have, you are compelled to create a new reality with your bare hands, sheer will, imagination and whatever scraps of brass and terracotta you can salvage. I don't need to remind any of our readers of the Cass Corridor artists, or musicians from Iggy to Ersatz who found inspiration in the rotting pre-war skyscrapers and burning hearts of the city's citizens. There is not a soul in Detroit that does not share a love/hate relationship with this city. It is a disfunctional relationship to the extreme. Anyone who cares at all is in constant struggle between moments of unparalleled inspiration and feeling as if they are being sucked down into a black pit. The struggle is what makes Detroit strong, and what drives artists in all media to create some of the most brilliant work in the world... and what can and has destroyed some of the strongest and brightest among us.

When I moved back to Detroit in 2004, after living in New York for five years, there was a momentum I never saw the first 28 years of my life. The city seemed to be on more than a rebound, but a real rebuilding. There was an energy - a sense that all the empty promises we were fed our entire lives were suddenly coming to fruition. Detroit is, if nothing else, a city built on cynicism. That cynicism was beginning to evaporate. Oslo was one business which signified that Detroit was arriving to a new place. I bragged to my friends on the coasts and in Europe about what an amazing place Oslo was: the best combination of decor, food, sound and musical talent I had ever seen under one roof in any city. It was an icon for what Detroit could be. At the same time however, chain businesses such as Hard Rock Cafe and Au Bon Pain were opening up just one block down. I know these exist in every major city, but their jubilant reception made me queasy. If Detroit was to become a world class city again, it must do it on its own terms. A generic blueprint for gentrification would never work in a place like this. Importing the worst of suburbia to the struggle which is Detroit was a recipe for disaster.

A mere two and a half years later, Detroit is a very different place than it was in 2004. The area around Oslo and Hard Rock Cafe have been transformed from abandoned buildings to luxury lofts. This is not bad. What is bad is that much of what made Detroit unique and desirable to artists has been wiped away. One of the great appeals of the city was the fact that you could get away with almost anything. There was a great degree of leeway afforded to creative people with the motivation to do anything that drew people into the city. This is not at all the case now. On top of that, Oslo closed its doors one month ago. It is, granted, one business, but it is symbolic that something unique and of the highest quality cannot survive in this city. The reasons for Oslo closing are questionable, but there is a core problem with the culture of Detroit that played a role. To read people dismiss Olso's closing as no big loss on a local techno messageboard made me feel sick to my stomach. There is no second best venue in Detroit. We're back to nothing. Whether it was mismanaged or not is inconsequential. Oslo closing is a loss for Detroit greater than most people will admit, and symbolically devastating.

Bethany and I were talking with a very good friend at an art opening this weekend about Oslo and the current state of Detroit. When I said that it strongly reminded me of Pontiac Michigan's forced revival and steep decline in the 1990s, we could see the blood drain from his face, because he knew. I hope dearly this is not the case for Detroit, but everything seems to the be imploding, and cynicism is back in vogue stronger than ever. As for me, I can not be here when Detroit hits bottom again. I give it nine months, max.

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