And yet Detroit's almost mythic allure isn't solely about misery. People have been drawn to The City Where Life Is Worth Living (an actual non-ironical historical nickname*) since the golden age of the automobile. To commemorate the 1927 rollout of the Model A, for example, the modernist photographer and painter Charles Sheeler was hired by an advertising firm to spend six weeks at Ford's gargantuan River Rouge plant, the largest factory in the world, with ninety-three buildings, sixteen million square feet of floor space, and 120 milesmiles!of conveyor belt. Sheeler shot the plant the way an eighteenth-century painter might have depicted the interior of a cathedral, the elemental, almost sanctified vastness a seemingly intentional reminder of man's insignificance in the presence of Godor, in this case, Mr. Ford. "Our factories," Sheeler later wrote, "are our substitute for religious expression." While touring America in 1935, Le Corbusier also stopped in Detroit, requesting immediately upon his arrival his own tour of the Rouge. In his book Cathedrals, he wrote of being "plunged in a kind of stupor" after leaving the plant. He was convinced Detroit's factories would be where his mass-produced "homes of the future" might one day be built.
On the opposite end of the reactive spectrum, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, then a young doctor working for the League of Nations, visited Detroit in 1927 to report on the health conditions of workers at Ford's factories. Appalled by what he witnessed, Céline recorded the degradations of the assembly line in his report and, subsequently, in his novel Journey to the End of the Night. The book's protagonist, Ferdinand, describes the factories where he seeks work as resembling "enormous dollhouses, inside which you could see men moving, but hardly moving, as if they were struggling against something impossible. . . . And then all around me and above me as far as the sky, the heavy, composite, muffled roar of torrents of machines, hard wheels obstinately turning, grinding, groaning, always on the point of breaking down but never breaking down." Later, while receiving a medical examination preliminary to being hired, Ferdinand informs the doctor that he, too, is an educated man. "Your studies won't do you a bit of good around here, son," the doctor says, shooting him a dirty look. "We don't need imaginative types in our factory. What we need is chimpanzees. . . . Let me give you a piece of advice. Never mention your intelligence again!"
In 1929, the New York monthly Outlook sent the poet and journalist Matthew Josephson to cover the auto show. A leftist intellectual (and a fierce critic of Henry Ford) who had just published a biography of Zola, Josephson writes of the city with scorn and condescension, but also with undeniable awe, in the same manner one might marvel at the aesthetics and scale of, say, an SS rally as filmed by Leni Riefenstahl. After noting Detroit's unlikely possession of one of the original castings of The Thinker, which still glowers distractedly from the steps of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Josephson proceeds to frolic in the irony of Rodin's masterpiece brooding at the heart of a city in which thought, to Josephson's mind, "has somehow been circumvented": "Something that was automatic, something that ran by an internal combustion engine had taken its place. In fact a new word was needed to express the trance, the fearful concentration with which all men awaited the approaching Automobile Show. . . . No one thought of the human body, or the body politic. All minds were bent wholeheartedly upon the new Fisher or Chrysler bodies."
And yet, unhappily, Josephson also recognizes the brute power of a metropolis that he says has "no past . . . no history." He calls Detroit "the most modern city in the world, the city of tomorrow." This is not meant as a compliment.
In January 2009, precisely eighty years after Josephson's hysterical dispatch, I returned to Detroit on an identical assignment, to cover the approaching Automobile Showand, more broadly, the collapse of the domestic auto industryfor Rolling Stone. My family still lived in the suburbs, so even though I'd moved away in 1993, I had continued to visit regularly. All the while, Detroit had remained Detroit, a grim national punch line. In the eight decades since Josephson's account of the city's vulgar ascendance, my hometown had gone from being a place with "no past . . . no history" to becoming one that barely possessed a present and certainly had no future. At least not the version of the city Josephson witnessed, that city having become entirely history by this late date, the very word Detroit threatening to turn into one of those place-names that no longer immediately signifies place but rather, like Pompeii, Hiroshima, or Dresden, the traumatic end of one.
Excerpted from Detroit City Is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. Copyright © 2012 by Mark Binelli. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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