Thursday, September 9, 2010

The window of opportunity in Detroit

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, West, Winter, 2009. (Photograph by Scott Hocking, courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.)
I recently finished Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude. (I try to read at least one work of fiction while on summer vacation each year and have a gnawing feeling that if I regularly read more of it I would be that much wiser.) The first half of the story is about the author's Brooklyn neighborhood, Boerum Hill, in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the second half follows the main character twenty years later. The earlier part is set in the context of the neighborhood's impending gentrification, in the twilight moment after the collapse of New York City's municipal budget (a watershed in the legitimation crisis of welfare capitalism that helped usher in neoliberalism) and the subsequent rise of the yuppified Big Apple of the Reagan Era and after. One of the book's main themes is the pursuit of a "middle space," that condition of being in between, the free zone created by the vacuum left in the wake of the demise of one regime of order and before the onset of another. That notion strikes me as an appropriate description of the current cultural moment in Detroit.

In the past few months, there has been a good deal of publicity about Detroit as a kind of DIY utopia, using the city's cultural producers of various stripes as cases in point. (See, for example, articles here, here, here, and here. And from a little while longer back, here.) All of them share an impression of Detroit as a place where civil society has essentially broken down and into the breach of which intrepid self-reliant individuals have stepped. Thus the creators of Soup, a monthly fundraising dinner program, offer mini-grants to support creative projects in lieu of dysfunctional municipal arts councils, the urban agriculture movement reclaims abandoned property and provides sustenance for people in locations where major grocery-store chains fear to tread, and artists, going on the third generation now, repurpose castoff artifacts and environments from all precincts of the city for use in a plethora of creative projects, retrieving the refuse of life for renewed existence in the refuge of art. (Among the most consistently stunning of the last category are Scott Hocking's monumental vision quests, such as Garden of the Gods, 2009-10, shown above, which posit the artist as a Sisyphean laborer of the noble-existentialist type, working in desolate sites for weeks and even months to erect installations created with the full knowledge that they will likely be destroyed either by humans or nature starting almost immediately upon completion.)

The most recent iteration of Detroit as the new frontier is the documentary hosted by Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame), Palladium Boots Exploration #7: Detroit Lives. (I've posted a link rather than embedding the video because it doesn't seem to have a "play" button written into the code and it starts up automatically, and I'm not sufficiently geek enough to figure out to prevent that from happening.) The video portends to offer a more well-balanced view of the city than has been portrayed in the conventional post-apocalyptic nightmares of much of the mainstream media. It does an OK job of it, looking at some of the younger cultural producers working in the cheap studio space the city currently offers. But there's still a lot of the typical spelunking through the postindustrial ruins in romantic wonder of it all, mainly as a way to showcase the sturdy yet fashionable Baggy Canvas boot ($70) Knoxville wears throughout, the featured footwear style provided by Palladium Boots, sponsor of this and other "explorations."

One of the things noted in the documentary, and something I've heard especially from younger artists around town, is the desire to moderate the bottom-up growth that seems to be happening in order to "keep it real," that is, prevent the corporate shills from taking over and thereby spoiling all the fun. People who study gentrification may find that sentiment, however admirable and heartfelt, somewhat naive. The main interviewee in the Palladium piece, Toby Barlow, is the co-president and chief creative director of the Detroit office of one of the world's largest advertising agencies, a high capitalist enterprise even if it does allow its employees to wear hip streetwear to the office. The Palladium piece itself is viral marketing, using product placement and brand sponsorship to hawk "authentic" urban fashion.

But I don't want to be too much of a buzzkill. So I say, let's enjoy this middle space while we can. I'm sure Jonathan Lethem takes advantage of all the swank dining options, cool boutiques, and other action on Smith Street, which have replaced the abandoned storefronts and trash of the Brooklyn neighborhood whose lost time his fiction eulogizes.

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