Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dead City as Metaphor

I was sitting at a favorite coffee shop and noticed a picture on the wall of the old Detroit Book Depository. It's an image I've been familiar with for a while.

These images of the ruins of Detroit are old favorites of mine, and with the crash of 2008, they became ubiquitous in the media. The Michigan Theater, transformed into a parking garage, the burnt-out shells of humble '20s bungalows and Slavic churches, the caved-in smokestacks of factories that once churned out Plymouths and Packards, the smashed windows of Michigan Central station. We see them whenever Michigan is mentioned on the news in connection with the recession, through a thin gray haze of light snow.

They aren't new images. In "Roger and Me" in 1989, we saw near-identical photos of Flint, some 70 miles to the North. Or we drove through the countless dead zones: Gary, East Saint Louis, Youngstown, vast tracts of the Bronx. They have less of an impact on the national imagination. They are working cities that rose and fell, never having gained the symbolic significance of Detroit.

But Detroit is a more potent symbol. The Arsenal of Democracy, that once-central cog in the American industrial machine, has become a relic. The symbols of the city-- Henry Ford and Al Kaline and the Supremes and the United Auto Workers-- are all likewise symbols of the old America, something with far more bearing on the present politics of nostalgia than the day-to-day life of the city. We rationalize our conception of contemporary economic and social realities around the image and metaphor of Detroit.

But it goes beyond the pictures of the metropolis itself. We have new symbols for Detroit beyond the material space of the city: Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex," the Lions' 0-16 season, Mayor Kilpatrick's texting scandal, Insane Clown Posse, Eminem trudging down 8-Mile with his hoodie up. They are grotesques crawling among the ruins.

Most of us only see the actual decay of Detroit through our television screens and in photos. Or if we travel through the area, it's an ugly patch we drive through on I-94.

In truth, the city has been declining for a long time, having reached a peak population of 1.85 million in the 1950 census, dropping to 1.2 million by 1980, 950,000 by 2000, and 710,000 by 2010-- smaller than placeless Jacksonville, Fort Worth, or Charlotte. Detroit's murder rate peaked in the '70s, and while it has declined since, I suspect that it's because there's no one left to commit crimes against.

I have to wonder how the citizens of older dead cities perceived their slow destruction. Sparta and Ur and Angkor weren't destroyed by single, cataclysmic events, but faded over the course of centuries.

In the age of high-speed media, we have more and more documentation of the collapse of America's manufacturing cities. We see the subtle shifts-- a plant closing here, a riot there. Our artists and journalists are effectively recording the fall of Detroit with a time-lapse camera. We are our own archaeologists.

Archaeology says this. This was once there. Now it is not. At least, not in any form that we immediately recognize. Dig a little among the scrublands, and find pieces of what once was: a piece of twisted metal, a shard of stained glass, a shredded piece of polyester.

To some future generation, Detroit will not be plagued with nostalgia for an old America, but will be a new metaphor. It will be a ruin as exotic as the crumbled temples of Carthage. The ruins will be uncovered and respectfully cordoned off. Instead of a public grain market, there will be a shipping warehouse. In place of a temple to Astarte, the old Tiger Stadium. Schoolchildren will take tours, and, growing bored with the antiquities, skip stones on the surface of the Rouge River until it's time to get back on the bus.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Aleatoric City

Sitting on a bench in Steinbrueck Park, looking out over the harbor. Tourists are looking at a map of the city that is hopelessly not-to-scale. Downtown is stretched and warped, a funhouse version of itself.

Modern maps are representations of the physical city. A tourist looks at a map of the city (or at a GPS, or at map software), at the grids collapsing into grids. He plots a route using the gray lines of streets, the red bands of freeways that slice the city into chunks.

And then there is the city experienced on a personal and subjective level, based on our landmarks, our routines, the ballet of traveling from point-to-point that composes our day-to-day lives: walking to the bus stop, driving to work, biking to the grocery store, and all of the other little spatial tics that, when accumulated, form our conception of the shape of the city.

And, lastly, most subtly, there is the aleatoric city. Things you cannot control, things left up to chance. Bumping into a friend you haven't seen in months at the market, encountering a little restaurant hidden down a side street, a tangle of warehouses you get lost in trying to find a shortcut. In the aleatoric experience of the city, every street and every corner hums with the potential for fortune and misfortune, synchronic event and diachronic event.

Cardinal directions make sense to me. I've always looked at maps. When I look at the map, when I conceive of the form of the city, the personal and aleatoric experiences of space are subordinate to the lines of boulevards, parks, rivers, and railroad tracks. Minneapolis: a grid curving along the Mississippi River. Seattle: a fractured isthmus decorated with lakes and canals. Get on Google Maps, and there are the shapes of Paris, Tokyo, Fez, Rangoon, Miami.

But then I visit the city and the map fills in, block by block. All of the sudden, the abstract shape is imbued with light. A corner that was once a red square, a gray dot, becomes a flight of crows on a fall evening, an ice cream scoop falling off a cone, three Japanese girls taking a photo on a flawless summer afternoon.

This was how I viewed cities until I came to Bangkok, a city whose cartographies elude reason. The tangle of major roads-- Yaowarat, Ratchadamnoen, Rama IV-- separates out vast swaths of alleys, many too narrow for cars. Without pattern and without shape, my perception of the city cannot be contained in the map and so I throw the map away. Bangkok is made of connections between the Hualamphong Railway Station and favorite noodle shops, black canals and gilded palaces.

The solitary central stupa of Wat Arun, the temple of dawn, looks over the old city, glittering with tiles originally made from the shards of Chinese ceramics dropped by junks as ballast in the Chao Phraya River. Celadon cups are discarded and reborn as tiles. Cracked and faded tiles are taken off, with new ones embedded in their place. The map of the city is analogous to the stupa, constantly taken apart and reconstructed. City and stupa are a massive mah-jongg game, tiles replaced, tactics perpetually revised, individual pieces re-shaped, carrying on into infinity.

Monday, August 1, 2011

In Montana

The passage out of Seattle is sudden.  One minute, you're amid the gas stations and cubist housing estates of Issaquah.  The next, you're up in the misty clefts of Cascades that David Lynch chose as the setting of Twin Peaks.  And then you're out in the country beyond Cle Elum, a flat empty brownness.  Our little Hyundai is a mercury bubble on a strip of highway across a windswept plain.

The radio stations faded out in the mountains, and all the stations in Seattle became superseded by country and ranchera music.  We find a remnant of a previous era, an AM station playing old Brill Building songs with strings and horns.  Someone singing about a rose that grows in Spanish Harlem, dutifully broadcast across the desert for 50 years.

I'd forgotten about highways as escape routes.  About the joy of getting out of town for a while, kicking around gravel parking lots and diners with hand-painted signs.  When your life is defined by cityspace for so long, you forget about the vastness that separates here from there in America.

Glacier National Park is a place so gorgeous that it looks barely real.  Narrow waterfalls cascade down snow-capped mountains, shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight above lakes as translucent and blue as sapphires.  It is almost disconcertingly similar to James Hilton's Shangri-La, to the vision of paradise described in the Qu'ran. The peaks are named Almost-a-Dog, Going-to-the-Sun, whole mythologies captured in simple map references.

We walked along the shore of Saint Mary Lake, along contorted sedimentary cliffs with pale bushes clinging to the sides.

On a sunny day, it's something like Lake Como, a slender body of water lined with bright pink flowers. Squint and you can see characters from Tender Is the Night traipsing along the shore. A pink ribbon flies off a hat in the July wind and is caught by a columbine.

On a gray day, the mountains reveal themselves to be jagged and barren.  The sheer cliffs are barricaded by gray scree slopes, a landscape fit for witches and ghosts.  The heavy log buildings of the park brood, entrenched into the bases of the Lewis Range.

The two images of the lake are holograms of each other. Separated by a perceptual veil of light and color, they occupy the same space, the same contours, facing each other, never touching.

This was our funereal tour.  I wanted to see the glaciers that gave the national park its name before they finally melt.  That last piece of glacier will fall apart 10 or 15 years from now.  It will absorb enough energy from the Sun that it will enter phase change, transform into free-flowing water, and that last little transfixed piece of a previous geological epoch will swiftly dissipate in the waters of the river.

And yet, despite the inevitable demise of a place I was falling in love with, I tried my hardest to put my fatalism behind me.  Here we were, away from our lives and obligations for a few days, drinking screw-top red wine and sunning ourselves on cliffs. We immersed ourselves in a fading summer out on a windy high mountain aerie on the edge of America.