Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Haunted and Nervous"

Very rough and nascent "work in progress" paper (dissertation chapter?) presented at the BAA summer conference on Material Culture, Florida International University, Miami, Friday June 10, 2016.

Listening to the Ghosts: Space, Materiality, and Memory in Detroit’s Landscape

In this era that Ernest Mandel has identified as “late capitalism,” ironies, paradoxes, and outright contradictions abound in periods of upheaval and transformation in American cities. Case in point—in the same issue of The Detroit News (October 2, 2014) which ran an editorial by columnist Dale Hansen, rightfully condemning the expurgation of honest but inconvenient historical truths from school curricula, entitled “Sanitizing History in the Name of Patriotism,” editorialist Laura Berman obsequiously extols the virtues of billionaire Dan Gilbert’s campaign of blight removal in the city of Detroit, as an invaluable way to finally “erase...the worst of [Detroit’s] past as a step toward re-imagining the future.” Although this perspective is in no way unique in the growing number of conversations regarding what has occurred, and what is currently occurring in the city of Detroit, it is by all means emblematic of a perspective that treats today in Detroit as if it exists in some kind of a convenient historical vacuum, and it is correspondingly indicative of a struggle that is occurring in the city over historiographical agency and memory. Not insignificantly, Berman is the same editorialist who argued in yet another editorial not-too-long-ago that not only can a complacent newcomer like the upscale watch- and bicycle-maker, Shinola, engineer some kind of image, culture, and product that is “authentic” to Detroit, but that it can do so in a way (and to a degree) that Berman claims only someone or something new to the city can (2013)—however that may work. 


In corresponding processes of late capitalism such as deindustrialization and gentrification, forces of global capital attempting to move into declining urban spaces that have suffered the brunt of what has been called “uneven development,” often insist on conversations regarding “authenticity,” and geographical materialists such as Neil Smith and David Harvey have convincingly recognized these conversations as key in the process of “branding” that is occurring alongside gentrification in city centers, neighborhoods, and districts. Through the engineered fictions of inevitability and fortuity, these processes can often be seen as a kind of fait accompli. In fact, one particularly salient component of late capitalism is exactly that a process like gentrification has lost all appearance of fortuity or chance and been recognized as an intentional and pervasive strategy of what has been called “neoliberal urbanization.” As Neil Smith explains in Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, “the gentrification which in the early 1980s was still an emergent phenomenon, has become a global urban strategy” which has “moved from an isolated event in select housing markets to a pervasive plank of urban planning policy” (263).  

Again, there is nothing particularly unique in the above editorialist’s perspective. What is important to note however is how many of the same voices in and around Detroit that are anxious to “erase” what they consider to be “the worst of [Detroit’s] past,” are often the same voices claiming complacent newcomers such as Shinola and HopCat (a hipster brewery famous for their “crack fries,” which recently opened a location in Detroit, and who claimed in a Detroit News article [December 10, 2014] that the building and the “vibe” were going to be “genuine to Detroit”) are at the same time engineering a culture and product that is authentically Detroit. There is plenty to be lost and gained in conversations over authenticity. As Sharon Zukin explains in Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, "[c]laiming authenticity becomes prevalent when identities are unstable and people are judged by their performance rather than by their history or innate character...it may be enough to claim to see authenticity in order to control its advantages....authenticity, then, is a cultural form of power over space" (xii-xiii). In the process of urban branding, questions of authenticity are by all means inextricably interrelated to issues of history, memory, and—of course—forgetting. The kind of nostalgia around which these conversations are occurring in and around Detroit, is a very selective and myopic one—more times than not focused on a long-gone industrial heyday and white perspectives of what counts as relevant history, vital culture, and important music. What needs to remain central in these conversations is whose memory gets transmitted and whose gets erased. As Andreas Huyssen explains in Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, “every act of memory carries with it a dimension of betrayal, forgetting, and absence” (4). In the process of branding, claims to authenticity involve what has been called “selective forgetting.” Huyssen goes on to explain how this kind of “selective forgetting” is a crucial step in the “invention of tradition” (4), where “historical pasts are…deprived of their geographic and political groundings…[by] processes of cultural [and economic] globalization” (4). Perhaps the most important question here then is, according to the all-too-common perspective for which the aforementioned editorial is emblematic, what is it exactly that counts as “the worst of [Detroit’s] past”? Put another way, what out of Detroit’s troubled history is most responsible for the seemingly insurmountable social, political, economic, and spatial problems in the city today—especially the glaring incongruities and disparities that are calcifying between the city’s increasingly mall-like center and the city’s seemingly forsaken peripheral neighborhoods? Despite job opportunities and some respite from the racial terrorism occurring in the South, blacks experienced a deeply entrenched systemic racism at both the de jure and de facto levels in Detroit. The most fundamental and enduring consequence of this racism that permeated the city of Detroit in the post-war years—and which corralled, trapped, and confined an entire population of blacks in the city limits as the city hemorrhaged jobs and its tax base—is arguably one of the closest things to total geographic and economic isolation ever engineered in an American city. Is this not the worst of Detroit’s past? Whose memory, most honestly and accurately conveys this history? 

There are a number of things at stake in this conversation, one of the most significant for this project being collective perceptions of the root causes of the crime, violence, and—most importantly—poverty in Detroit’s peripheral neighborhoods. The crime, violence, and poverty in Detroit’s peripheral neighborhoods are more often than not considered to be some kind of inherence of the black population in general—especially amongst much of Metropolitan Detroit’s white, suburban population, which, not insignificantly, represented one of George C. Wallace’s strongholds during his “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” years back in the early 1970s—a consistent outlook of a population that does not believe one needs to look further back than 1967 and the mayoralty of Coleman A. Young to understand Detroit’s problems. In her fine examination of the role of ruin imagery in people’s perceptions of and reactions to urban and industrial decline, Beautiful Terrible Ruins, Dora Apel correspondingly explains that the “larger effect [of all of this] is to isolate Detroit as the nation’s repository for urban nightmares…while also presenting Detroit as an isolated example of a racialized city that is responsible for its own disastrous decline” (78-79). In a city whose population—even after years of gradual flight to the surrounding inner-ring suburbs—is still nearly eighty-three percent black, there are few social, political, economic, or spatial conversations one can have that are not also unequivocally and inextricably racial in nature. Especially considering that the vast majority of Detroit’s black population lives in its peripheral neighborhoods while the increasingly mall-like center of the city—with its skyrocketing rents—is predominantly white.

Before proceeding, it should be stressed that Detroit is not unique in these uneven spatial processes and transformations, although it may indeed be considered a particularly telling example. As Neil Smith explains, 

It is not just that capitalism fails to develop evenly, that due to accidental and random factors the geographical development of capitalism represents some stochastic deviation from a generally even process…The logic of uneven development derives specifically from the opposed tendencies, inherent in capital, toward differentiation but simultaneous equalization…Capital is continually invested in the built environment in order to produce surplus value and expand the basis of capital itself. But equally, capital is continually withdrawn from the built environment so that it can move elsewhere and take advantage of higher profit rates…The pattern which results in the landscape is well known: development at one pole and underdevelopment at the other. (4-6) 

This process of uneven development takes place at all of the different spatial scales. Most significant for this project, Smith’s theory helps to explain the social and economic unevenness that occurs between centers and peripheries. In Detroit, these processes and transformations are being felt by the black population at two different levels. As the center city continues to benefit from investment and new waves of complacent newcomers, lifelong black citizens, tenants, and—perhaps most tellingly—business owners are being forced out and have suffered the brunt of the spatio-economic process which David Harvey has insightfully described as “accumulation by dispossession,” or an “economy of dispossession of vulnerable populations” (53-54). On another more fundamental level though, the vast majority of the still-declining peripheral neighborhoods, defined by—most recently—sweeping water shutoffs, economic isolation, systemic neglect, disinvestment, and some of the country’s worst urban poverty, are the geographical sites where generations of blacks have been corralled, trapped, and confined from past waves of political, social, and economic racism—corralled, trapped, and confined as whites fled and the city hemorrhaged jobs and its tax base. It is to these peripheral spaces and sites of trauma and resistance—such as the Eight Mile and Wyoming Wall and the site where the Algiers Motel once stood—that this project turns in its search for memories of how the city’s center/periphery divide was first shaped. 

House: 2905 Garland Road and the Tenuous Lines of White Middle-Class Identity  


“Despite the frequency of racial conflict in the city’s streets, postwar Detroit’s violent past remains hidden from history.”

“The sustained violence in Detroit’s neighborhoods was the consummate act in a process of identity formation. White Detroiters invented communities of race in the city that they defined spatially.”
                                                       The Origins of the Urban Crisis
                                                      —Thomas J. Sugrue

Throughout the post-war years, the city of Detroit experienced a severe housing crisis that greatly exacerbated already existing tensions between the city’s black and white populations, but which was especially acute for the former as blacks up to this point had been kept within a handful of increasingly crowded and deteriorating enclaves. The convergence of social, political, and economic forces that were determining these racial boundaries in Detroit’s geography were systemic and experienced at both the de jure and de facto levels. Black families attempting to transcend the boundaries of these few crowded and rundown enclaves—such as Paradise Valley and Black Bottom on the east side—met with a rigid and increasingly violent white terrorism at the de facto level. 

"We hate niggers"
                                                                      —Painted on the front of a
                                                                      house  purchased by a black 
                                                                      family on San Juan Street (1963)

This often came in the form of bottle-, stone-, and brick-throwing mobs of whites that would rally with alarming speed and ferocity, the instant that word spread of a black family buying a home in a specific neighborhood or crossing a tacit geographical boundary. These mobs would often reach into the hundreds and in several cases, thousands, consisting of children, teenagers, men, women, and even seniors, and they would collect in and around the homes of single black families who attempted to move into previously all-white neighborhoods. This is an element of Detroit’s history that is to this day all but ignored, despite the fundamental and enduring ways that it has determined the racial geography of the city today (Sugrue 233). Indeed, in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas J. Sugrue identifies this kind of organized white terrorism at the de facto level, as an area of study in American urban history that urgently needs far more attention than it has received (211). “Between 1943 and 1965,” Sugrue explains, 

Detroit whites founded at least 192 neighborhood organizations throughout the city, variously called “civic associations,” “protective associations,” “improvement associations,” and “homeowners associations.” Few scholars have fully appreciated the enormous contribution of this kind of grassroots organization to the racial and political climate of twentieth-century American cities. (211)

Although the roles and capacities of these various organizations often varied from encouraging basic social cohesiveness, instilling and sustaining ethnic and social values, and protecting property and defending property rights (Sugrue 211), the primary and perhaps most defining role these organizations eventually would come to fulfill, was the desperate and violent defense of increasingly tenuous racial boundaries and limits within the city. “In the arena of housing,” Sugrue explicates further, 
violence in Detroit was organized and widespread…It involved thousands of whites, directly affected hundreds of blacks, mainly those who were among the first families to break the residential barriers of race, and indirectly constrained the housing choices of tens of thousands of blacks fearful of harassment and physical injury if they broke through Detroit’s residential color line. (233)

This violent white resistance to even a single black family moving into a white neighborhood, or attempting to cross one of the city’s many tacit geographical boundaries—such as Dequindre Road between Seven and Six Mile-Roads (Sugrue 233)—was facilitated by an intricate and tightly woven network of the aforementioned organizations. It really does need to be stressed that the speed with which the aforementioned organizations rallied massive amounts of whites the day (or even before) a black family was to move in to a house, borders on militaristic precision and efficiency. (It is here where I want to share a few pieces of ephemera that I hope to do further archival research on, which will help to illustrate the kind of language that was being used to create a sense of panic and crisis in white neighborhoods and to rally them. Militaristic terms like “invasion,” “emergency,” and “lines” were often used.)



One of the most well-known moments and sites of this kind of organized mob violence against a black family moving into a white neighborhood, occurred in 1925—so well-known, perhaps, because this was not just a moment and site of trauma in the experiences of Detroit’s black population, but also because it was a moment and site of what was ultimately an act of successful armed resistance by a black family as well. 


A prominent doctor in the black community, Ossian Sweet, and his family moved into the house they had just purchased at 2905 Garland Road—an all-white neighborhood just south of the Edsel Ford Freeway—on September 8, 1925. Despite the reported presence of Detroit police officers to discourage any kind of anticipated aggression or hostility, by late afternoon on September 9 a large mob of nearly 500 whites had gathered in front of and around the Sweets’ new house at the corner of Garland and Charlevoix. Said to have been lead by the Waterworks Park Improvement Association, by early evening the mob had begun attacking the house with rocks, bricks, and bottles. Sensing the threat to his family the day before, Dr. Sweet had a number of friends and family members (including his brothers) in the house on the evening of the ninth, with rifles, revolvers, and plenty of ammunition, and when the mob’s attack on the house reached the point where everyone inside the house began to fear for their safety, Dr. Sweet and his companions fired into the mob outside—wounding one man and killing another. The occupants of the house—nobody from the mob—were all arrested. In a now famous case, Dr. Sweet and his friends and family were defended by Clarence Darrow, and were ultimately acquitted of all charges.

The Ossian Sweet house still stands at 2905 Garland Road today. It is a one-and-a-half story single family bungalow that was quite typical in working-class neighborhoods of Detroit in the early to mid-twentieth century. It is made of red brick, has a full basement, a typical gabled roof, and an open porch that is covered. These kinds of single-family bungalows did far more than simply house workers’ families. They were absolutely central to the middle-class stability and identity that the vast majority of people—regardless of race or ethnicity—sought and aspired to when they came to Detroit seeking manufacturing jobs in the auto industry or in one of its many ancillary industries. As Thomas Sugrue helps to illuminate, the organized and violent racial terrorism that rallied to keep Detroit’s black population out of these neighborhoods, at a more fundamental level, also sought to keep Detroit’s black population out of this tenuous and embattled realm of middle-class identity as well. The house at 2905 Garland road tells a story of the organized racial terrorism that pervaded the city at the de facto level, which has proven to be dramatically and enduringly determinative to the city’s racial geography, to this day. 


It has been convincingly claimed that one particularly important characteristic of the “cultural logic of late capitalism” (Jameson), is a kind of historical depthlessness in the present. One encounters this exact kind of depthlessness—or flattening, or emptying, or hollowing out of history—in the claims and insistences of “authenticity” being made by the various businesses coming to the city to profit from the “branding” of Detroit—or “The D” as many of these complacent newcomers insist on calling it, as if the re-naming process occurring in the city’s various neighborhoods needs to be applied to the city as a whole, as if the title “Detroit” simply carries with it far too much of a historical burden. The various sites of trauma and resistance throughout the city’s periphery, such as the Ossian Sweet house at 2905 Garland Road, push back against the historical depthlessness and selective forgetting upon which the “authenticity” of these forces of global capital in Detroit’s center is contingent. As Michel de Certeau helps to explain in The Practice of Everyday Life, in a palimpsestic landscape such as Detroit’s, sites and structures such as the house at 2905 Garland Road create a “depth within the present.” They play the dual roles of both historical actors and witnesses—or, perhaps more aptly put, material witnesses. “By eluding the laws of the present,” de Certeau explains in this regard,

these inanimate objects acquire a certain autonomy. They are actors, legendary heroes. They organize around them the city saga…They are witnesses to a history that, unlike that of museums or books, no longer has a language. Actually, they function as history, which consists in opening a certain depth within the present….These wild objects…are for us the equivalent of what the gods of antiquity were, the “spirits” of the place….the population of ghosts that teem within the city and that make up the strange and immense silent vitality of an urban symbolics. (135-137)

“Haunted and Nervous”
                                                                        —Sizzla Kalonji

As the rest of the world continues to read and hear about Detroit’s miraculous “rebirth,” and about grandiose architectural exhibits in Venice envisioning Detroit’s extravagant future, and about Detroit’s overabundance of boutique hotel space, and about Detroit’s burgeoning restaurant scene, and how Detroit was recently voted the best city in the country to open a yoga studio, this spring and early summer have been comparatively one of the most violent on record in Detroit’s peripheral neighborhoods. And of course, the threat of water-shut-offs is still a very real one for many of the city’s long-standing residents. It is a bad, dangerous, and shameful time to be conspicuously feasting, celebrating, profiting, and self-promoting in the city that makes this country's disparities between the haves and have-nots so geographically explicit, and so glaring that they are downright nauseating. “New Detroit” in its mall-like center, complacently dismisses the kind of anomic isolation and desperation in its peripheries, and trusts in the illusory boundaries between it and the rest of the city, at its own peril…