Mediapolis Live: Dora Apel on “Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline” (Part 2)

Photo by Ray Dumas
[Ed. note: Mediapolis Live is an audio series of interviews, live events, and other discussions of cities and culture. An edited and condensed transcript of this interview follows; due to its length, we’re publishing it in two parts.]

In their sheer volume, the images of contemporary Detroit – decaying skyscrapers and overgrown residential tracts, abandoned factories and desolate streetscapes alike – have a way of distancing us from the place itself, rendering a city of 700,000 people as a modern-day Pompeii. But Dora Apel sees something more profound, and more troubling: she finds in those same images evidence of our “anxiety of decline,” reading Detroit’s representations as our visual reckoning with deindustrialization and late capitalism. Apel is the W. Hawkins Ferry Endowed Chair in Modern and Contemporary Art History at Wayne State University and the author of Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline. This is the continuation of our two-part interview; you can read the first part here.

Brendan Kredell: One of the key figures in your accounting of the history – one of the key figures in the city’s history – is Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company. And I think in your description of Ford’s legacy, you offer this really provocative thought that the destruction of Detroit is inherent in the project of capitalism. That if you go to the Henry Ford Museum they’ll laud him for paying high wages to his workers, but you identify how the race to the bottom was inherent in the globalization of labor and the seeking of lower wages in global markets. I raise the specter of Ford because, of course, this book was written against the backdrop of the city’s bankruptcy in 2013 and 2014. We’re a few years out from that now, and one of the big developments in the last few months here in Detroit is that the Ford Motor Company, of all people, have bought what you call the most iconic of Detroit’s ruins — Michigan Central Station — with promises to redevelop it and the surrounding Corktown neighborhood and build the campus in downtown Detroit, the irony not being lost on any of us. So I’d be curious, as someone who’s obviously given quite a bit of thought to the legacy of capitalist ruins in Detroit, what it means for it to be Ford of all companies that’s moving into Michigan Central Station.

Dora Apel: I think the issue for me with Ford buying Michigan Central Station and investing in the idea of driverless cars is it’s a continuation of the legacy of all the auto companies, which on the one hand have prevented the construction of a mass transit system, and on the other hand have — especially with driverless cars, would be contributing to — it just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. So you would be filling the road with these driverless cars instead of using that money to invest in something that would actually benefit people, like a regional transportation system. And there are so many problems with these driverless cars, and it’s not going to revive this city. It’s another aspect of gentrification, you know, of appealing to young white professionals who are moving into the city, who might use a service like that, and benefit from it, which leaves the other 95 percent of the city with the same problems of poverty, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, education, transportation, and home foreclosures.

BK: A common theme in post-industrial urban planning of the last 20 years or so is a recurrence of the creative class ideology and the trumpeting of ideas, especially associated with Richard Florida. You discuss this in the book, not very sympathetically, and quote from your own colleague John Patrick Geary, who coins this idea of solutionism, which I really like. This idea that sort of baked into the mythos of the creative class, that the technocracy can save the city. That with enough — and this might be an extension of this idea — but if you get enough hard working people working hard and rowing in the same direction, you can solve systemic problems of poverty and racial inequality and all this.

DA: Right, you just need better technology and, you know, better rulers, and faster software. Or more craft beers. I think also I quote Martha Rosler who satirizes the idea. It just again appeals to young white, primarily single, professionals who want those craft beers and the good restaurants, and the $600 Shinola watches. I mean Shinola’s a good example of a company that branded itself as a Detroit company, but actually its clock parts are made in Switzerland and they sell their products for prices that 95 percent of Detroit can’t afford.

BK: What I liked about your discussion there is how you want to draw a distinction that Florida doesn’t between artists and creatives.

DA: Right, artists actually are creative. And there’s a lot of artists in Detroit who have tried to create a sense of community through, I want to call them “public” art works — they’re not always publicly funded — or to raise consciousness, or make important statements about the city. And I think of those as kind of exemplary actions which are important models or examples of how we should raise awareness, or you know, help us see something in a new and different way. But you can’t rely on artists anymore than you can on creatives to really fundamentally revivify a city or create profound systemic changes.

BK: This gets at the follow-up question that I was going to ask, that even the most generous reading of the creative class thesis is going to argue that artists contribute to the symbolic economy of the city, even if not necessarily the material economy of the city. How important is that contribution? I don’t mean to discount the work that you’re referring to here, but it also — from what I’m hearing in other parts of our discussion, we’re talking about base infrastructural issues. If you lose hundreds of thousands of jobs, the solution is finding hundreds of thousands of jobs.

DA: But I do think that it’s important. They contribute — in terms of the symbolic cultural work they do — it contributes to a kind of memory landscape that is important in how we understand the moment we’re living in, how we understand the past, and therefore how we understand the future. So the cultural construction of memory and history and understanding, that’s really important.

BK: What is it about Detroit — and not its peer cities that have observed the same process of sustained de-industrialization — that makes this the place where artists are drawn? You don’t hear this story about Toledo or Milwaukee or the other cities of the Rust Belt.

DA: Or Buffalo. I think that’s a good question. I think Detroit is important for a variety of reasons that have kind of converged. On a fundamental level we could call it the cradle of modernism, since this is where the vertical industrial process was invented, the production line. So it was seen as a driver of modernism and therefore also where modernism has died. This is the dark side of modernism, which believed in progress through technology and rationality. And this is precisely what’s caused such pervasive anxiety, that progress based on technology and rationality does not seem to be holding anymore, and what people see is instead a progressive decline, a spiral downward, and the failure of capitalism to be able to support its populations.

BK: That brings me to the question I wanted to close on. You close the book with one of the great Coleman Young quotes, which I’ll paraphrase here, but something along the lines of “Detroit today is your town tomorrow.” Again this book is a couple years old now, and a thing that you couldn’t have known when you were writing it, but is all too present today, is the rise of the far right in the U.S. I’m curious about how you might reinterpret Young’s dictum today looking at what the lessons of Detroit and its relationship to the rest of the country might hold as lessons for your town tomorrow.

DA: I think it’s even more true now if anything than it was before. One of the crucial factors here that we haven’t talked about yet is race, and another reason why Detroit has become this paradigmatic city of decline is because it’s primarily a black city, which in itself was produced by a variety of factors based on white supremacism. And so we see that there is a continuing indifference to the black population and a support for a tiny affluent white population, and that in a microcosm is what’s happening in the country. So you have an exacerbation of the contradictions of capitalism, a continuing exacerbation of income inequality and social inequality, and all of that has existed in Detroit for years. And we see it now on a national scale, really on a global scale. So it’s always more extreme sooner in Detroit, but we’re starting to see it everywhere. And this has probably — I think this is one of the reasons why Trump has come to power, because there is a rise of white supremacism in the country.

BK: If we were trying to steer towards an optimistic note on which to close this probably wasn’t the one, but I think that’s as powerful a note to close on as we’re going to get. I think there’s something really useful about this idea of thinking about Detroit as the kind of funhouse mirror in which the most American reflection of America is portrayed, whether that be the arsenal of democracy in the wartime chest-thumping era, or the post-industrial anxiety of decline. So I thank you very much, this has been a wonderful talk. Congratulations on the book.

DA: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Editorial assistant Nicole Diroff contributed to the production of this interview.

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