D.Tour: Going Nowhere, Going Somewhere / by Kiersten Nash

The following research was conducted by Kiersten Nash, funded by the Urmadic University and presented on 10 July 2012 as a means for individuals participating in the Second Urmadic University Hothouse at the American University of Paris to discuss Design Action, Leadership, and the Future.

Today, the Motor City’s transportation to the Land of Possibility comes in an entirely different make and model.

Two narratives of Detroit separated by time and place, woven together in our collective memory–past and future–both byproducts of a much larger vehicle, capitalism. A diversity of strategies have been employed to ensure the capitalist agenda. In addition to the separation of production from consumption and cause from effect (or past from present and future), the program has gone to great lengths to secure the separation of mind and body. In order to understand–to perceive and conceive–of the mechanics of capitalism as manifest in Detroit, it is necessary for us to unite these binaries as we begin the D.Tour. Our tour will traverse qualitative aspects of the city’s socio-spatial dialectics, compliments of our chariot–a 2010 electric blue, four-door Ford Fiesta. Along the way, quantitative data will be employed to illustrate significant aggregations, contradict speculation or underscore the narrative. This tour, though situated in Detroit, is illustrative of our greater social fabric. As a recurring phenomenon of the life, death and possible rebirth of urban modernity, Detroit’s lessons are global.

[Play Unedited “D.tour” video by Kiersten Nash [iii] ] Jürgen Habermas defines a severe crisis as one which affects not only the economy, but also the steering of society, generating a dissolution of social institutions and the restructuring of society. [iv] Detroit is in crisis. A crisis of contradiction, otherwise known as supply and demand. A crisis sustained by scarcity. The scarcity of resources that sustain the current socio-spatial dialectics of Detroit are vast. In the next fifteen minutes, I will offer just a few for consideration—population, labor and infrastructure.

Population  Strategically located along the Great Lakes Waterway, Detroit emerged as a transportation hub during the late 19th and early 20th century. Home to Ford, Durant, the Dodge Brothers, Packard and Chrysler, Detroit garnered the title of world’s automotive capital. The auto industry fueled a growth spurt which propelled Detroit to the fourth largest city in the country by 1920, a place it held until 1950 when the population peaked at approximately 2 million residents. During the last decade, 237,500 individuals fled from Detroit. Those remaining are scattered throughout the 143,000 square miles (or 370 square kilometers) that constitute the city.

When asked about the impact of flight, Samantha Howell, 32, one of the remaining 700,000 residents, commented: “Yes, the city feels empty. Physically empty of people, empty of ambition, of drive. Empty.” [v] Indeed the population as well as the infrastructure is fragmented. There are moments when walking down Woodward Avenue that the wind whistling across the barren landscape transports you to a space more closely associated with the Mojave Desert that the commonly conceived notion of urbanity.

Unfortunately the impetus for Detroit’s population decline extends beyond the travails of the auto industry and collapse of our industrial based economy. Racial tension and segregation have plagued Detroit for decades, escalating to full scale riots in 1943 and 1967. Racial tensions contributed significantly to the exodus and continue to shape the city’s geographical and psychological landscape. But is Detroit empty?

Labor In many ways, yes. Detroit is the only city in the United States of America where the population as risen and fallen by one million residents. This is the economics of supply and demand where individuals become the handmaidens of industry. In the eyes of the administration individuals equal dollars in the form of labor and most importantly, tax revenue.

How does a city recoup said revenue? Private investment. Enter Marion Illich and her Motor City casino. Similar to many other cities, Detroit has employed various strategies to secure investment, the latest of which is gaming. Between 2007-2008, Motor City was joined by two other casino resort hotels–MGM Grand Detroit and Greektown Casino. According to a recently published McKinsey report, approximately $177 million of Detroit’s $1.2 billion general fund budget in the last fiscal year came from taxes on the MGM, Motor City, and Greektown casinos…which received 80 percent of their revenue from people living within a 150 mile radius. [vi]

This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, Detroit’s neighbor, Cleveland Ohio, opened the first of four gaming sites in May of this year. This urban turn to gaming translates to competition, the estimated cost of which for Detroit will total $30 million in annual tax revenue by 2015 or approximately 12% of the city’s gaping budget. Second, 32 percent of Detroit’s families live at or well below the federal poverty line, earning an annual income of approximately $14k. What value does the casino or its tax revenue provide for these individuals?

Infrastructure One might suspect this money has a considerable impact on maintaining municipal infrastructure throughout the city. Throughout the city? No. Unfortunately funding distribution is dependent upon location. In the words of Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer, Chris Brown, “You have to identify those neighborhoods where you want to concentrate your population…the remainder of individuals are left to fend for themselves.” [vii]

[Play Chris Christoff “Detroit Residents Stay In At Night As Lights Go Out”[viii] video] Forty percent of the city’s 88,000 streetlights are broken. Plans are in place to borrow $160 million to upgrade and reduce the total number of lights to 46,000. According to Brown, “We’re not going to light distressed areas like we light other areas.”[ix]

In addition to streetlights, traffic lights on the majority of thoroughfares, main and auxiliary, are left blinking. 24/7! Ryan, a 38 year-old resident and patron of Astro’s Coffee explained that traffic lights in Detroit for the most part are irrelevant; they function merely as a cautionary tale.[x] Joe, another patron of Astro’s Coffee and 25 year veteran of Detroit’s fire department, shared another cost cutting strategy of the current administration–reduce municipal labor. Detroit’s largest employer, the government, is downsizing, specifically in terms of civil servants.[xi]

Last week, Mayor Dave Bing announced Detroit would be eliminating 164 firefighters by the end of July. In a report issued by the Huffington Post, Bing eventually expects to restore 108 positions with funding from a federal grant. Most of the remaining 56 will be eliminated through attrition. Additionally, 10 fire houses throughout the city will be closed. [xiii]

I asked Joe, “How does this happen?” With a condescending glance, he replied, “Politics…” And then proceeded to explain, it boils down to numbers and National Response Time–the maximum duration allowed for firefighters to arrive on the scene of a fire. Arrive, not begin actually fighting said fire. So, one company can arrive and satisfy the national requirement but have to wait another 3-5 minutes for support in order to actually begin putting out the fire. "Since I became Mayor, I’ve made public safety my top priority and I’ve said I would protect the jobs of police and firefighters, but fiscal realities have made this untenable," Bing said in his statement. "Laying off any of our courageous and dedicated public safety personnel is the last thing I want to do at this point, but I have to face this hard reality."[xiv] Executive Fire Commissioner, Donald Austin, has proposed alternative solutions such as letting vacant homes more than 50 percent ablaze upon the fire departments arrival, burn to the ground…as long as no lives are in jeopardy.[xv] "When these houses burn up and there's no value left, I can get my firefighters, with proper training, to raze that house–get rid of it," Austin said.[xvi]

Which brings me back to our initial question–is Detroit empty? Are these homes, is this industrial space, though perhaps skeletons, really vacant? My cursory observation is no. Behind it’s dilapidated façade, Detriot is thriving. Fortunately, not as the metropolis of yore, but as a city in severe crisis–in the dissolution of social institutions and the restructuring of society! Where? The ‘abandoned’ spaces or more accurately the adaptable spaces. In these spaces, formal and informal political, social, and economic ecologies are designed and performed in flux. In these spaces, production and consumption; cause and effect are more closely aligned. Mind and body are forced into communion as a result of the time and space produced by scarcity. Our question then becomes, what and how can we, as members of the Urmadic University, understand–perceive and conceive–in these spaces regarding our future?


[i] US Auto Industry. “Floating On Air-1950 Ford Commercial.” YouTube, 14 June 2010.
[ii] Auteur Schultz. "Motor City Casino Detroit Stainless Steel Fabrication." YouTube, 21 July 2009.
[iii] Kiersten Nash. “D.tour.” PublicWorks. Vimeo, 14 July 2012. 14 July 2012.
[iv] Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), pp.3-4 & 222-35.
[v] Katharine Q. Seelye. "Detroit Census Figures Confirm A Grim Desertion Like No Other." The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2011.
[vi] John Gallagher and Matt Helms. "Ohio's New Casinos Could Cost Cash-strapped Detroit $30 Million a Year, Analysis Predicts." Detroit Free Press, 13 May 2012.
[vii] Bergen, Mark. "Cleveland Makes Opening Bid on the City Casino Gamble." Forbes Magazine, 14 May 2012.
[viii] Chris Christoff. “Detroit Residents Stay In at Night as Lights Go Out.” Perf. Julie Seaman and Sharon Neal. Bloomberg, 24 May 2012.
[ix] Christoff, Chris. "Half of Detroit's Streetlights May Go Out as City Shrinks." Bloomberg, 24 July 2012.
[x] Kiersten Nash. Personal interview with Ryan. 24 June 2012.
[xi] Kiersten Nash. Personal interview with Joe the Firefighter. 24 June 2012.
[xii] Detroit Urbex. “Outbreak of Fires on the East Side Detroit–June 24th.” YouTube, 25 June 2012.
[xiii] HuffPost Detroit. "Detroit Fire Department Faces Layoffs, Mayor Calls For 18 Percent Force Reduction." The Huffington Post, 26 June 2012.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Tammy Stables Battaglia. "Fire Official Offers New Ideas for Cuts–including Letting Vacant Homes Burn." Detroit Free Press, 22 Apr. 2012.
[xvi] Ibid