I love Detroit. I loved it as a child hearing my father’s automotive tales of his home city. I loved it through every era depicted in Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex, even the 1967 riots. I’ve loved flying in and out of its airport so often over the past twenty years on my trips to Kalamazoo; monitoring the spread of urban abandonment from the air and marveling how easy the Interstates flow; rush hour is lite in Motor City. I loved Detroit this summer when, for the first time, I actually got to trod its hard surfaced streets, take in a Tigers game, and marvel at its fabulous 1930’s skyline, lumpy ziggurats unencumbered by late twentieth century boxy skyscrapers that despoil urban centers who have been unlucky enough to suffer economic growth.
I strolled along Woodward Avenue, one of the 1940’s great shopping streets. Not every storefront was empty, not every shadow harbored a homeless person, but the proportion was high enough to nudge a pedestrian along. Still, I stopped at the Made In Detroit window. The store had great spirit, muscular and industrial, full of hard metal objects and T-shirts, as well as a chauvinistic streak, with an entire line of ‘Badass’ goods and a tribute to Detroit as ‘The Arsenal of Democracy’ during Word War II. If it had been open I would have stepped inside, but these days Woodward Avenue rolls up well before summer sundown, so I contented myself with the sidewalk view.
Detroit declared bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, my father’s 89th birthday if he had lived that long. Since then our news has been full of the details of Detroit’s $18 billion debt, corruption, empty pension coffers, and abandoned streets. The same week Shinola, a boutique manufacturing company specializing in watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals manufactured in Detroit, opened a New York flagship store in TriBeCa. Of course the headline of the New York Times’ Style Section tribute was ‘Made in Detroit’ and Shinola’s website features beefy looking Americans with their arms clenched across their chests reinforcing the notion that Detroit is tough and tough is good.
I am struck by a paradox. If tough is so good and Detroit is so tough, why is it such mess? The answer, of course, is that tough is no longer good, or even relevant. The world is not about being tough, it is about being smart, and while the rest of the world grew a heck of a lot smarter since World War II, Detroit, with its too-slow changing automobile industry, its eight-mile race divide and its corruption, was anything but smart. But not to worry, for now we can save Detroit by buying artisanal hard goods made there. Just as we buy handicrafts from Ten Thousand Villages to support third world enterprise and feel good about being global citizens, we can buy boutique bicycles to support Detroit’s manufacturing resurgence and feel good about supporting America’s first third world city.
But I don’t want to buy a bicycle from a boutique; I want to buy a bicycle at a bicycle shop, a place that offers a full range of choice. And I don’t want to support Detroit because it is tough, or used to be tough and now prints ‘badass’ T-shirts to prove its toughness. Detroit should celebrate its past, but Detroit’s most important contributions to the world came well before it 1940’s factories gave shape to the world’s greatest carnage; Detroit’s genius came at the turn of the last century when it incubated the automobile industry and developed phenomenal changes in manufacturing processes. It is that innovation, not bulging biceps and big wrenches, that will make the city relevant for today and tomorrow. I don’t want Detroit to boast of being tough, I want it to demonstrate that its smart. I want it to get its financial house in order, I want it to reach across Eight Mile Road and bridge the gap between the affluent suburbs and deserving urban core, I want it to optimize its immense infrastructure with worthwhile, sustainable development.
Detroit is not an anomaly; it is America’s leading example of how a vital civilization can decay from its core. It deserves bold action and wise investment. Not because of what it did in our past, but because of what it can offer our future. Made in Detroit is all well and good. But I want a T-shirt that says Inspired / Invented / Improved in Detroit.
Shinola Boutique in TriBeCa – is this any way to buy a bike?