When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
While I was driving a visiting friend around Detroit a few weeks ago, somewhere near Mt. Elliot and East Grand Blvd., I started thinking about how complicated these sightseeing trips with friends are, and how relatively innocent I had once considered them, especially when I lived in other places. If you have out-of-town friends and a sofa, you get visitors. And if you have first-time visitors, you have to show them the city. It’s such a common, ordinary thing to do, but whether driving them myself or, less directly, giving them a list of things to do, in Detroit it is fraught with questionable assumptions, ideological agendas, and contentious histories. In no place that I’ve lived have the narratives of sightseeing been so openly argumentative, polemical. Because the narratives are contingent, fluid, they haven’t resolved into commonly accepted stories, haven’t quite yet attained that settlement into easy, unquestioned myth. The narratives here in Detroit have been disrupted, thrown off track, and made highly visible. Generally this exposure and vigorous debate is a good thing—most places have complicated backstories that are casually overlooked or conveniently hidden. In Detroit, my guests search for some explicit meaning, and the drive around the city becomes a kind of master text in the minds of my visiting friends. It will often be all they know, first-hand, of Detroit.
What I’m thinking about here, doesn’t fall into the typical categories of tourism theory with all of tourism’s historical, cultural and ethical baggage. I am not a tourist or even a sightseer in this situation. And my guests are not operating as exploitative tourists, you know, powerful (colonialist) consumers in search of the authentic Other. Plenty has been written about the predations (and benefits) of tourism, and that’s not the appropriate framing here. I’m merely struck by how a fairly simple act of driving around in my car with a friend from, say, Berlin, creates sightseeing dilemmas of passive complicity and active interpretation that strain my abilities as a casual guide. These dilemmas appear in short order, every time a visiting friend says, “Show me Detroit.” Here are some of my developing thoughts about this ordinary, but complex, process of showing people around.
The issue of selection is immediate. Everything is used ideologically in Detroit, and everything, therefore, is potentially contentious. Arguments are embedded in the sights; and based on what I select and the arrangement of an itinerary, I construct a narrative, whether I want to or not. Selection also paradoxically creates meaning by what I leave out, what I don’t select. And finally, since these friends arrive with some knowledge, selection comes with expectations; after all, The New York Times has been running articles about Detroit every week for most of the summer. Visitors have questions about the rebirth of the city, the bankruptcy, population decline, housing, scrappers, the new economy, streetlights, packs of wild dogs (yes, a Times story), gentrification, racial history, crime, water bills, and the influx of artists. Sightseeing is merely the activity of visiting interesting places. It sounds so innocuous, but “interesting” is the problem word here.
I’ve wondered if thinking about the dilemmas of sightseeing (what it means to choose some things and not others) is overly conscientious on my part, some useless neurotic worry. Why not just have strong, clear views on the issues in Detroit and then actively voice them? But what may sound like the fault of ideological indifference or the agony of wishy-washy see-all-the-sides-of-the-issue isn’t what’s going on here. It isn’t that if I had stronger views about things, I wouldn’t be having this problem. Ideology seeks purity, but there is nothing pure about Detroit. And I am hopelessly complicit in its impurity. This complicity is a serious complication in the act of sightseeing. Detroit residents struggle with some internal dissonance regarding the changing environment; we struggle with built-in love/hate conflicts regarding the city and our role in it. For example, within the communities of Detroit in which I locate myself, there is a kind of awkward (rarely acknowledged) fondness for the city’s status as a site of post-industrial devastation, a status that makes everyone’s contributions—rebuilding, repurposing, critiquing, even surviving—heroic. It’s the pervasive sense of heroic struggle also exploited in the slogans, “Detroit Hustles Harder” and “Detroit vs. Everybody.” And, as all of us know, this fondness for an apocalyptic wasteland, the position of privilege, is hardly sensitive to the deep suffering in the city. Mixed feelings and complicity abound. On the other hand, where there is economic improvement, my comments invariably get nostalgic and cynical. I point out to visitors, for instance, that the building that once housed my dumpy, 70s Cass Corridor studio is now luxury condos. My old window view of a methadone clinic has been replaced by the Auburn boutiques.
This suggests another complicating twist; at this moment in Detroit’s history, success references failure; the revitalization of Belle Isle, for example, is impressive because the park was recently such a site of decay and loss. Things that are accepted as normal in most cities, like a pleasant park, are seen as special achievements in Detroit. Such achievements imply, of course, that something has been seriously wrong or the successes would not stand out; they would just be the normal good things that cities have. Whole Foods gets this kind of absurd attention. The constant way in which success is a citation of failure gives rise to the pervasive melancholy of Detroit. Vitality in Detroit is measured internally, proportionally, instead of against any scale of external comparison. Things are good because they were so bad. Some of this citation of failure is indirect: one of the great, positive characteristics of contemporary Detroit is its large number of artist-run and alternative exhibition venues, but this condition results from the abundance of cheap, available space. Even the Detroit Institute of Arts, that bastion of prestige, is situated negatively, and the DIA is ultimately (and perversely) enhanced in the comparison; I’ve had friends say, “I can’t believe this is in Detroit!” That’s without them even knowing how the DIA was so badly used in the struggles over the city bankruptcy. When I show people the city, then, we can’t escape failure even by viewing success: Belle Isle, Whole Foods, the M-1 light rail, the Dequindre Cut. Talking about comebacks is always a kind of backhanded compliment. This situation of inescapable breakdown is strange by the norms of standard sightseeing, where showing people around in most other places is a ritual act of civic boosterism.
Fortunately, the various sightseers that I shuttle around the city are not passive individuals. They actively look, question, and offer their tentative analyses. They generally aren’t out for simplistic understandings of the city. Neither are they negatively predisposed. In such ways they somewhat mitigate my dilemmas in making meaning out of Detroit. Looking back, I realize that I often used the Heidelberg Project as a site for my guests to focus on the issues of a city in the process of destruction and reconstruction, a place where many of the complications and nuances of Detroit’s situation could be productively explored, but the burning to the ground of seven houses in the past two years has left me discouraged with it as a positive microcosm, a place where dilemmas could be embraced.
I show them one place in Detroit, though, that as an institution is untainted by failure, and whose success, then, doesn’t cite past failure: Eastern Market. Any Saturday morning of the year, this vast market is a thriving site of the best kind of commerce, crowds of jostling, diverse people, earthy smells of vegetables, fruits and flowers, fresh smells and a faint, sour, undertone of spoilage. It is a visual and audio cacophony: food trucks, meats, breads, music in the street, local and organic products, people shouting above each other. I have never seen so many varieties of mushrooms. This is Detroit at its most alive, and few cities in America have anything like it, not on this scale. Here there is a plentitude, a profusion of life’s necessities, ample provisions. I love this place. To my mind it is a paradigmatic example of a healthy Detroit. I am happy that I never have to say this to visitors. They get it.