Deadbeat Detroit

Print edition : July 13, 2007

The once-prosperous US city is now a challenge, a question that capitalism throws in your face.


A part of the Heidelberg Project. An abandoned house, flanked by the doorway to a house that no longer exists. The `No Parking' sign adds an ironic twist.-

FROM across the river, the Detroit skyline looks like that of any other American city. The General Motors headquarters, Renaissance Centre (Ren Cen), towers over other high-rises downtown. But zoom in on it, you will find a dystopic landscape. Buildings that were once impressive are now empty shells, the homeless rummage through trash cans overflowing in the streets and steam rises from underground sewers.

In a country where you get rich quick, Detroit is the other side of the coin. It got poor quick.

Using stuffed toys left behind by residents on Heidelberg Street, artist Tyree Guyton plays on the biblical theme of Noah's Ark.-

It has everything that a prosperous industrial town can boast of. It is located in the Great Lakes region with abundant mineral resources and agricultural prosperity, served by a navigable river across which is Canada, and provided with a supply of cheap labour. In fact, Detroit was that: a prosperous industrial town, the very heart of America's industrial heartland.

Back in the 1890s, Henry Ford, son of a farmer, built his first automobile here. Many Americans believe he was the inventor of the automobile - which is incorrect, like a lot of other things many Americans believe. What Ford did was to pioneer the assembly line. This had a revolutionary impact on industrial production. Since each task was simple enough, you no longer needed highly skilled workers for the most part. Labour became cheap and work became fast. It took 90 minutes now to make the coachwork, which is the backbone of a car, instead of the 14 hours it took earlier. Cars became more and more inexpensive. Ford's legendary Model T, which cost $850 in 1908, cost $290 by 1920. The car became available to middle-class America. This changed the face of the United States. To date, one of the things that strike a visitor to the US is the sheer number of cars on its streets. In several cities, public transport is virtually non-existent.

Dotty wotty house. Polka dots, a running theme of the Heidelberg Project, represent the diversity of the world.-

Detroit is one of them. But then, there is much that is non-existent in Detroit. People, for one. Driving through Detroit is a bizarre experience. Block after block, you find homes and commercial establishments shut down and boarded up. From 1.85 million in 1950, Detroit's population is now down to about nine lakh. In other words, between 1950 and now, the city's population has halved.

In India, we are not used to seeing cities depopulated, and certainly not on this scale. Detroit's is a strange phenomenon, what is called "suburbanisation" or the "doughnut effect". This basically means that anyone who has the means to do so pulls out of the city and moves to the suburbs. The city centre, downtown, seems therefore empty, like a doughnut. In Detroit, this has a huge racial aspect as well: about 80 per cent of the city's population is now black, while the suburbs, with their fancy villas and gated communities, are almost exclusively white.

Why this sudden, catastrophic downfall? Quite simply because car majors GM and Ford pulled out their production facilities from in and around Detroit and relocated to the politically more conservative south, and outside the US to exploit cheap labour. Michael Moore's first documentary, Roger and Me, is precisely about this. Through the film, Moore tries to talk to GM's chairman Roger Smith to ask why the company is abandoning Flint (Detroit's sister city) and relocating plant operations overseas. Moore is unable to meet Smith.

Detroit industry, Diego Rivera's mural, on the South Wall. He brings an intense lyricism to his depiction of the factory.-

Post-modern theory has made much of post-industrial societies. The real post-industrial society, however, is in cities like Detroit - once thriving manufacturing centres that are today near-empty shells. In Detroit it hits you in the gut, but other cities such as Chicago (Illinois), Buffalo (New York) and Cleveland (Ohio) share the same fate. Indeed, this is part of a global problem, from Manchester to Mumbai.

Detroit is a challenge, a question that capitalism throws in your face.

Workers having lunch, mural on the North Wall. Rivera has always portrayed workers with dignity.-

Abandoned, boarded-up homes have provided local artist Tyree Guyton the inspiration to create a large public art installation project on Heidelberg Street. The project began in 1986, and has since been as controversial as it has been applauded. The idea behind it is simple enough: Guyton converts abandoned homes, lots and stuff that people leave behind into art.

Polka dots are a running theme of the project. Martin Luther King once famously said: "We are all the same colour on the inside." Guyton sees the polka dots as being a symbol of the diversity of the city, of the US and of the world. This idea has inspired the Dotty Wotty House.

The Heidelberg Project springs on you as you drive through abandoned lot after lot. Then, as if out of nowhere, you are on a street full of life. It is a riot of colour. The project itself is a continuously evolving one, and never acquires a final, "finished" shape. It makes you smile at places - as for instance the tree that has prams going up on it. Other installations draw on biblical themes such as Noah's Ark, a motor boat with stuffed toy animals. Strange figures, some like totems and others like menacing medieval Christian crusaders, welcome you or stand guard, whichever way you want to look at them. Some figures are downright scary. Some, like the OJ House, draw attention to larger themes, like race and the politics of representation in the American media.

The Heidelberg Project has had a difficult, troubled relationship with the powers that be in Detroit. On the one hand, Guyton has been recognised and awarded by some city institutions. His work has also drawn international attention, since there are many such "shrinking cities" across the world. On the other hand, the city government has attacked the project. In 1991, it sent bulldozers to raze parts of the project to the ground. This happened right after Guyton got the Spirit of Detroit award. Another attack came in 1999, when some more parts of the project were bulldozed.

The depiction of a capitalist in the mural on the West Wall.-

Detroit is also home to Diego Rivera's famous mural, Detroit Industry. Rivera painted 27 panels in 11 months, from April 1932 to March 1933. For murals done 75 years ago, they are amazingly vivid. Rivera used a technique called buon fresco, or true fresco, in which the artist paints on damp plaster with water-based pigments. This means the artist has to work fast, with a small window of time to colour the panel, while the plaster is still damp. Once dry, the surface is immune to moisture. This is the same technique that Michelangelo used to create his masterwork, the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Rivera would get his assistants to prepare the section that he was planning to paint. After the plaster was applied, he would have between eight and 16 hours in which to paint the section, depending on the humidity and the temperature. Much to the frustration of his assistants, Rivera would procrastinate till the last possible minute, narrowing the window of time available to him. He felt he worked best under pressure.

He prepared full-scale sketches, which were transferred on to the wall through a somewhat complicated process. But the sketches were in black and white, and Rivera appears to have made no sketches in colour. He made the leap from the monochromatic studies to the colour compositions on the spot, while doing the final painting.

West Wall.-

Rivera's control over colour and composition is masterful. He creates bright areas and dark areas, and thus draws attention to detail. He sets some panels in monochromatic tones. His observation is photographic, the result of intense study at the Ford Motor Company's Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. When workers and engineers finally saw what Rivera had painted, they were amazed to note the accuracy with which he had depicted complicated machines. But he does more. He brings to his depiction of the factory an intense lyricism.

Standing in the Garden Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts, with the murals on all four sides, is an extraordinary experience. One can feel the rhythmic beat and pulse of a large industrial enterprise. At the same time, one feels the presence of something primal, going to the very roots of civilisation. In fact, one is made aware of geological time. Rivera achieves this by weaving into his industry murals the very source of natural riches, the minerals and ores in the belly of the earth, as well as the replenishing elements in the soil that make agriculture possible.

Rivera was a Marxist. This is apparent in his depiction of workers, who are always portrayed with dignity. Their labour and creative power is celebrated. The capitalists and their managers, on the other hand, are shown with somewhat more ambiguity. On the West Wall, for instance, he paints a figure of a manager or engineer reading a blueprint. This figure is a composite portrait of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Rivera's depiction of this figure is not exactly flattering. However, the commission for the huge mural was made possible by Henry Ford's son Edsel Ford and William Valentiner, head of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Edsel was then the president of the Ford Motor Company, but unlike his father, had interests beyond the bottom line. Rivera painted both men in the mural, and their portrayals are much kinder than the one he did of Henry.

Rivera introduced the art of large murals in the US. That influence persists and you can see murals done by local artists in virtually every city in the US, especially if the city has some concentration of Hispanic people. His Detroit Industry murals caused some controversy when they were first unveiled to the public, because some people felt that industry was not a subject worth doing such a large mural on. Later, during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, the museum posted a sign outside praising the murals on artistic grounds, but distancing itself from Rivera's Marxist views and membership of the Communist Party of Mexico.

A homeless person sleeps on a park bench in Detroit while houses and shops remain empty and boarded up in the background.-

The murals survive, though, as magnificent testimony to Detroit's prosperous past. A visit to Detroit is exhilarating and depressing at the same time. The city has some first-rate museums. Apart from the Detroit Institute of Arts with the Rivera murals, there is the excellent Wright Museum of African American History and the Motown Museum. Automobile freaks can enjoy the Henry Ford Museum and the Automotive Hall of Fame in neighbouring Dearborn, while Auburn Hills boasts the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. Forty miles (a mile is 1.6 km) to the west lies Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan. Given its large concentration of black population, Detroit has an active jazz scene and some great places to eat.

But Detroit is a spooky city, an enclave of poverty in a land of plenty. It is a festering wound on the diseased body of capitalism.

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