The Irony of the Predicament of Detroit

In a recent blog titled “Detroit and the Temptation of Ruin,” Tufts University civics scholar Peter Levine speaks of art, poverty and hopes for renewal. The story, as Levine notes, is tragic in the Aristotelian sense – local art and architecture documents a rise to power, a celebrated era, and a collapse to “700,000 people who live amid the empty shells of its industrial past, while the nation looks away.”

There is a rather contemporary irony in the decline of Detroit, for its uncertain future was foreshadowed in the minds of its local champions a half century prior to its demise. Human artifacts persist as statements made in powerful moments – they are aspects of an extracorporeal memory that is interpreted anew by each generation if not by each new observer. When the wind blows from the right direction, whispers from history breathe depth into the newfound meaning.

In 1965 a decision had been made to conduct a 5-year study of the Detroit area with the objective of anticipating needs for sustainable growth and a high quality of life. The research was intended to link perspectives on the economic, social, cultural and physical problems facing man in communities like the Urban Detroit Area.  The effort was championed by the Chairman of the Board of The Detroit Edison Company.

To lead the research efforts, Constantinos Doxiadis – a then world renowned philosophical architect and urban planner who had served as Minister of Housing and Reconstruction during the challenging post-war recovery in Greece – was engaged to apply the emerging science of complex human settlements (“ekistics”).  Doxiadis worked alongside researchers at Wayne State University, and for generations the implemented designs were celebrated.

The back story is that during this period even within Doxiadis’ close circle of researchers a gnawing truth was cutting its teeth.  Design which is catalyzed, led and owned by the elite layer of a society – regardless of how well intentioned – will be unbalanced unless specific provisions are made to include all distinct community perspectives in authentic participation with the designers.

Doxiadis Detroit Plan

I am not making the point that greater citizen input might have foreseen the way with which Detroit collapsed, but rather that greater representation of the future from those of us who live life upon the sidewalks that we travel may have called for greater resiliency in the plan. It is, of course, unfair to kick or criticize a man or a community when it is down. All of the then understood precautions were taken to assure that the best of available thinking was drawn into the design of the urban area.

In the short term, good things happened in Detroit, and from within Doxiadis’ team at that time emerged one of the founding members of the Club of Rome who subsequently developed and validated an approach that now does allow individuals of all levels of skill to participate equitably and fully in complex civic planning. This individual —- Dr. Alexander (Aleco) Christakis, left the Club of Rome when it found itself unwilling to deal with the challenge of broad-scale citizen engagement in its newly adopted design practice. Aleco subsequently founded the Institute for 21st Century Agoras.

The Greeks today may still glorify some of the ruins of the past – however, like citizens of Detroit, they also are obliged to take up the struggle to discover new futures. As a statement of hope for the human condition, we might recognize that the experiences gathered during the golden age of Detroit do continue to influence the future even as the city struggles to rediscover itself.

Detroit’s artifacts might well be seen as glorified ruins in a poet’s maudlin and peripatetic eyes, yet in at least this one case the wisdom that flowed through and beyond those specific artifacts is alive and evolving.