This long piece about Detroit and its environs is worth the read, but I’ll single out three passages I enjoyed. The first is about ruins, and particularly that former theater that’s been turned into a parking garage:
You’ve probably seen it in a movie or television commercial. It is arguably this ruined city’s most breathtaking ruin, beloved by photographers, journalists, and academics for the easy irony of Ford automobiles parking in a ruined theater on the site of the garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile.
What’s more interesting, I think, is how this building represents a sort of unintentional preservation. The thing about ruins is at least they’re still there. At least this is not just another surface lot. And with so much of the rest of the historical city lost to development and demolition, there is the deeper irony that fifteen miles away Henry Ford moved so many historical buildings brick-by-brick from elsewhere around the country and “preserved” them as decontextualized structures in a counterfeit community.
That highlighted bit was, obviously, my favorite moment, but I like the broader point, too.
Okay so then the second bit is this, later in the essay, pivoting to Detroit’s suburbs:
Today Detroit’s suburbs are where all the action is. One of the reasons people around here get so mad when journalists and photographers parachute in and represent Detroit as a shithole is because there are millions of people here living in safe, well-kept neighborhoods in dozens of thriving suburban communities.
Many early Detroit suburbs (including the Grosse Pointe communities, Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham) have walkable downtowns filled with the kinds of businesses that people value in actual cities around the world. “Downtown” Southfield has more workers and office space than downtown Detroit. With big-city amenities come big city problems: the suburban traffic situation is a nightmare, the parking situation sucks, and there are people everywhere.
And of course, most suburban open spaces long ago gave way to subdivisions, strip malls, and parking lots for shopping malls and big-box stores.
I particularly like this point:
With all their recent development and growth, it can be easy to forget that these suburbs of Detroit have their own histories. But there was a time before sprawl when these small, historic communities and their citizens provided the lumber for Detroit’s homes, the food for its tables.
Traveling between these communities on superhighways, seeing their endless acres of subdivisions and the businesses built in the latter half of the 20th century along buzzing thoroughfares, I found myself shocked to find that places like Farmington and Northville had nice little historic downtowns. I never saw them through the sprawl.
So that’s useful.
Here’s how the piece wraps up, also useful:
It seems we are capable of interacting with history only through limited means.
The first way is through the tangible: through actual artifacts. When we hold an antique or view an antiquity with our own eyes in a museum, we understand that we are interacting with the same object in the same way as one of our predecessors.
But the second (and perhaps more important) way we interact with history is through the intangible; through our imaginations and the inspiration of others’ memories, their spoken or written words and artistic and photographic records. “History is about places of the mind,” says historian David Starkey.
Appreciating history through architecture still requires imagination. When we visit the Roman forum, we like to tell ourselves that we are “walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar,” but that’s bullshit. And we know it.
Those bricks and columns have been toppled and rebuilt and been broken again before being screwed together by dozens of archaeologists thousands of years after Caesar was stabbed. And we know there are the footsteps of ten million German tourists between ours and those of any bald epileptic in a toga.