If you’ve been following the recent reports out of Detroit, you know conditions there are dire. This is hardly new. For decades the dominant narrative about the city has been one of failure: economic collapse, physical devastation, racism and violence propelling a once robust metropolis down a dismal path. For a taste of the common consensus, one need look no further than the basic vocabulary embedded in these stories: ruin, woe, bleak, grim, grave, miserable, bad, worse, ailing, peril, dysfunction, crisis.
How remarkable, then, to encounter a profile of the city brimming with words like these: lush, rich, heartening, handsome, shining, flourishing, fertile, fine, sustainable, potential, visionary, beautiful, hope. They are the words of an alternative narrative about efforts to remake Detroit not according to the old constraints of commerce and industry, but in a wholly new image. And they are the terms with which Rebecca Solnit described the city in “Detroit Arcadia,” a prophetic report published in Harper’s in the summer of 2007.
Solnit has an unusual talent for delineating physical and social phenomena hiding in plain sight. Also for spinning the camera so that it lands not on easy, vulnerable targets of blame, but on the shadowy, better-protected figures responsible for wrenching the levers of harmful change. (Every time there’s a new large-scale disaster and the media begin fanning fears over riots and mayhem, I find myself recommending her excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell, which challenges orthodox notions about the ways government and society respond to calamity.)
One of our most distinctive and humane observers of the American landscape, Solnit traverses parts urban and rural with open eyes and open mind. She is not one to parachute into a place to confirm long-held assumptions. She has an unmistakable point of view, but her observations grow from methodical practice, careful research and precise on-the-ground reporting. She is a seeker, a wanderer who returns numerous times to the same scene and emerges more often than not with a notebook full of the unexpected. (“There are a lot of kinds of beauty,” she told The Believer in 2009.) She has been compared to Joan Didion — both are from California and are known for their exacting, intensely atmospheric evocations of place; both range widely and write incisively on matters political, cultural and personal — but Solnit’s writing conveys an empathy for her subjects, a palpable affection Didion’s work can lack.
Her narrative of Detroit, which she explored over several years, deliberates on nature, industry, affluence, hardship, bigotry, activism, politics and art. In the city she finds the same problems other writers have documented. But she also brings to light patterns and details often missed: beauty amid the ruins, powerful forces (art, nature) enduring amid what others, at a cursory glance, have seen only as decay. Detroit “is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation and a fair amount of crime,” Solnit acknowledges, “but it is also a stronghold of possibility.”
The first hint of difference comes from the headline. Arcadia: birthplace of the god Pan, paradise of ancient Greece and Rome, utopian inspiration for the earliest bucolic poetry. The second comes in her first paragraph, in the decision to bypass images of burned-out buildings and tales of malfeasance (these she saves for later) in favor of the pastoral and unfamiliar. Here is the opening passage, which I must quote at length, for beyond being enchanting it establishes several important motifs:
Until recently there was a frieze around the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain in downtown Detroit, a naively charming painting of a forested lakefront landscape with Indians peeping out from behind the trees. The hotel was built on the site of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the old French garrison that three hundred years ago held a hundred or so pioneer families inside its walls while several thousand Ottawas and Hurons and Potawatomis went about their business outside, but the frieze evoked an era before even that rude structure was built in the lush woodlands of the place that was not yet Michigan or the United States. Scraped clear by glaciers during the last ice age, the landscape the French invaded was young, soggy, and densely forested. The river frontage that would become Detroit was probably mostly sugar maple and beech forest, with black ash or mixed hardwood swamps, a few patches of conifers, and the occasional expanse of what naturalists like to call wet prairie — grasslands you might not want to walk on. … Fort Pontchartrain was never meant to be the center of a broad European settlement. It was a trading post, a garrison, and a strategic site in the scramble between the British and the French to dominate the North American interior.
All her article’s major themes are here: cultural and geographic division, uneasy settlement, cycles of violence, natural flux. So are several subtle but hardworking turns of phrase. First, pay close attention to that “naively charming,” evidence of Solnit’s generosity of mind: She is willing to grant the painting its charm even though she knows it portrays an idealized scene, a fantasy. Next, pay attention to that “rude structure,” the 18th-century garrison separating human from human. As Solnit later points out, it presages another barrier, the six-foot wall along Eight Mile Road built in the 1940s. “Now,” she writes, “white people constitute the majority who surround and resent the 83 percent black city. It’s as if the fort had been turned inside out.”
Also arresting: “grasslands you might not want to walk on,” a quiet phrase connoting something wild and a little dangerous, hinting at signals that man would fail to heed. Note, too, the fort that was “never meant to be” permanent, a suggestion that any manufacturing on this spot has been aberrant, man’s ambitions a mere blip in the course of nature’s grander plan.
Finally, note the way Solnit uses art as a gateway to life: Here and elsewhere, she peels back the canvas, stripping away pretty myths to reveal a tangled history.
“Detroit Arcadia” was written before the city’s bankruptcy filing, before the financial collapse of 2008, before the housing crisis and rising unemployment numbers led increasing numbers of Americans to start asking tougher questions about the transformation of their cities. The story of the one-industry town, gutted and spoiled, is familiar. But Solnit’s analysis is sharper and wider-ranging than most other reports I’ve read, her vision the most fascinating. “I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape” portrayed in the Hotel Pontchartrain’s frieze, she writes, “a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely — and sometimes even beautifully — post-American.”
Beautifully post-American: a subversive idea, perhaps, but one steeped in hard realism. Solnit is no wispy romantic. As Heidi Benson wrote of her in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, she doesn’t shy away from darkness. Her darkness is simply different, “the darkness of the womb, not the grave.” In this conception, Detroit isn’t doomed. It’s waiting to be reborn.
A healthy rebirth, Solnit writes, will require something more radical than the patchwork endeavors of shortsighted developers, more durable than the “momentary whims of the real estate trade,” more tangible than what has happened in cities like San Francisco and New York, with their “dematerialized economies”:
The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract. … The forces that produced Detroit … are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces — San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan — but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced to become altogether something else.
To describe the transmutation already under way, Solnit walks the city, registering changes block by block:
There’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch. … Then more green. … One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future.
But she isn’t content to linger at the surface. She wants to decode this rewilding. So she turns again to art — significantly, to an enormous Diego Rivera mural commissioned by Henry Ford’s son in 1932. “It’s an odd masterpiece,” she writes, “a celebration of the River Rouge auto plant, … painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world.” In it, “the plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch.” Here, Rivera is an oracle, his painting a prognostication:
Rivera painted, in a subsidiary all-gray panel, … a line of slumped working men and women exiting the factory into what appears to be an endless parking lot full of Ford cars. It may not have looked that way in 1932, but a lot of the gray workers were going to buy those gray cars and drive right out of the gray city. The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning.
We arrive at the wicked twist: As Detroit in the early 20th century was “reveling in the newfound supremacy of its megafactories,” Solnit writes, it was also “building the machine that would help destroy not just this city but urban industrialism across the continent.” This convolution gave rise to all that was to come: “deindustrialization, decentralization, the post-World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs.”
As Solnit points out, however, prevailing narratives of modern Detroit tend to ignore this knotty history in favor of rougher, more blatantly racist theories that reject facts and ascribe guilt to the wrong architects:
The fall of the paradise that was Detroit is often pinned on the riots of July 1967, what some there still refer to as the Detroit Uprising. But Detroit had a long history of race riots — there were vicious white-on-black riots in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1943. And the idyll itself was unraveling long before 1967.
This story line is denied by people Solnit meets on the street. One white man goes on a tirade “that wasn’t very careful about not being racist”: “Detroit, he insisted, had been wonderful, … and then it all went to hell. Those people destroyed it.” She talks to a “long-haired counterculture guy” who says he’s from Detroit but actually lives in the suburbs, and whose face clenches “like a fist” when he’s asked about the city:
He recited the terrible things they would do to you if you ventured into the city, that they would tear you apart on the streets. He spoke not with the voice of a witness but with the authority of tradition handed down from an unknown and irrefutable source.
Solnit doesn’t have to work too hard to dismantle these toxic fallacies: the third-person plural pronouns speak loudly enough for themselves. In rebuttal, she takes the higher, longer view:
In 1900, Detroit had an African-American population of 4,111. Then came the great migration, when masses of southern blacks traded Jim Crow for the industrialized promised land of the North. … But Detroit was still a segregated city with a violently racist police department and a lot of white people ready to work hard to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. They failed in this attempt at segregation, and then they left.
Yet inside the present-day “stockade of racial divide,” she writes, there are “visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green.” One observes of the city: “Most people see only disaster and the end of the world. On the other hand, artists in particular see the potential, the possibility of bringing the country back into the city, which is what we really need.”
We come full circle to a captivating thought: that an artist’s view of a city — compassionate, challenging, inspiring — can be as crucial as a legislator’s, an executive’s, an engineer’s.
Solnit closes, as she opened, with art — with another view of Diego Rivera’s mural, one encapsulating her hope that “we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home”:
The big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures — black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.
Jennifer B. McDonald, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, was a 2013 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Follow her at @jenbmcd.