• Vivian Mellon Snyder

Reflecting on Solnit's "Detroit Arcadia"


Ford's River Rouge plant, photo by Andrew Moore

Detroit Arcadia is an exploratory essay which introduces its readers to images of Detroit as it has existed in the past, as it exists today, and as Rebecca Solnit hopes it may exist in the future. Solnit’s work is interesting in its artful approach to the analysis of Detroit’s decline, and she develops several broad arguments with evidence that is distinctively visual, though at times, rather subjective. It is a welcomed departure from dry, statistical, and often authoritative reports of Detroit’s collapse. Her reliance on imagery and perception of space should not be mistaken as decorative; rather, images of Detroit are heavy with symbolism and are used to construct her broad argument-- a city is not made of concrete, and Detroit won’t be saved by filling in its concrete’s cracks.


What is a city, if not its buildings, roads, and network of industry? Urban planners wobble between justification for a city being defined most by one of the three. Solnit, however, considers the city to be defined by its people, irrespective of how the landscape might be altered around them. In the case of this paper, Solnit explores the landscape around Detroit which is in a definite state of decay. She pays homage to duality of such decay in her regarding Detroit as “Post-American.” The term simultaneously refers to a city doomed by its one-industry economy, and to the sense that the city might be saved by its reclamation and return to nature. Readers may expect this Post-American landscape to be apocalyptic and dreary, for decay to carry its usual connotations of spoil, disrepair, loss, and disgust. But Post-American is a term far more optimistic than it is bleak, and Solnit is unapologetically thankful that city that will never be as it was: what one disconnected racist called “the Paris of the Midwest…” until “those people destroyed it” (Solnit 70). Decay, then, is a positive force which might enfranchise those targeted by racism, exploited by industrialism, and now left to face a crumbling cityscape. At times, Solnit directly presents this notion of necessary decay to readers, but her most authoritative arguments are made through imagery.


Her paper ends just as it begins, with carefully composed images of the Northwestern landscape which was once “young, soggy, and densely forested” (Solnit 65), and now following its urban decline is “not the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, both with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same” (Solnit 73). These parallel images of nature are not decorative to her argument, but rather they are formative. Solnit’s reintroduction of young landscape creates a pervasive sense of rebirth in the progression of her essay. This rebirth of Detroit-- which Solnit shows to be a thoroughly necessary transformation-- is then seen in images of a cityscape in disrepair. Detroit is in ruins, and its buildings, society, and industry have all undergone some form of collapse. Solnit’s proposed images of such decay, however, are described beautifully. Crumbling buildings, abandoned roads, and forgotten homes are in a state of elegant decay. In sharp contrast, the industry which facilitated the construction of those buildings, roads, and homes is described with abhorrence.


Solnit offers an ekfrasis of Diego Rivera’s 1932 mural, a fresco painted across the four walls of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ central courtyard. The mural was commissioned by Edsel Ford as an homage to the influence of the Ford Industry in the city of Detroit, and naturally would have been meant to portray that industry in a positive light. Solnit’s presentation of that image, however, is grim (Solnit 69):


The plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch, as the whole churns to excrete a stream of black Fords.

Her language presents Rivera’s work gruesomely, the words swarm, organs, churns, and excrete particularly striking as mechanisms of filth and consumption. Her language is visceral, and indicates perhaps a violation of public trust through the industry Rivera hoped to praise. There are clear ties to a notion of the city’s self-consumption, showing Ford and the city of Detroit as nearly eating itself alive. Later, Solnit presents this argument more directly, sans imagery, explaining that “Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities… Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning” (Solnit 69).


Later, Solnit similarly uses images of corporal decay to explain the phenomenon of Detroit’s White Flight. New highways had to be built to make room for Ford’s cars, and “Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early… so that broad arterial freeways could bring commuters in from beyond city limits” (Solnit 69). The association of Detroit with arteries presents it as a living unit, one that would be dissected by racism and the upwardly mobile decision to move into the suburbs. Further, Solnit’s decision to use the word sacrifice (as opposed to utilize or allocate) indicates that this was one of the first wounds to be inflicted on Detroit.


Naturally, Solnit might have followed suit with more grisly imagery, elaborating on the consequences of that industry on the city’s landscape. There is morbid appeal to haunting images of a city in ruin. Interestingly, however, Solnit’s descriptions of Detroit’s physical decay carry a great deal of optimism. The deterioration of one neighborhood she visits is, in fact, strikingly beautiful (Solnit 66):


A few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains… Grass grows lushly, as though nothing has ever disturbed the pastoral vendure.

Here, Solnit creates the interesting implication that the absence of the home-- the reclamation of its space by nature-- is more beautiful than its presence. Solnit’s alternative definition of the city makes room for regrowth, admiring the land’s capacity to restore its fundamental state. When Solnit’s city remains a city without concrete obstructions, of course it is preferable for that city to be green. She later elaborates on this proposal of the wonderful emptiness which now spreads across Detroit-- now composing a third of its territory-- land which is evolving “past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie.” Here, she succinctly establishes that Detroit is in transition between disrepair and regrowth; it is in decay. Her language presents a sense of movement from a material city to an abstract one, and the state of decay as being a call to reimagine the Detroit’s future. This notion is figuratively presented as she offers an image of Michigan Central Station, which has been “so thoroughly gutted that on sunny days the light seems to come through the upper stories as though through a cheese grater; there is little left but concrete and stone” (Solnit 67). The light shows through the building only because of the physical decay; shattered windows and collapsed structures allow natural light to reenter the space. This is only one of Solnit’s many indications that the physical decay of Detroit is not as grim as it may seem. She goes on to describe her wandering into “a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood… where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air.”


Cumulatively, such lovely images of Detroit’s reclamation by nature carry a tone of optimism. A one-industry economy had doomed the physical state of the city, but the abstract state of Detroit continues through social continuity and its potential to become something “tender, hopeful, and green” (Solnit 71). Detroit’s population experienced decay in the form of imposed racial divisions and economic disparity through White Flight. Solnit offers a sense of optimism in that respect too. She interviews one woman who explains that “white people seemed to think they were a great loss to the city they abandoned, ‘but we were glad to see them go and waved bye-bye’” (Solnit 71). Detroit’s citizens continue to suffer from economic collapse, but just as regrowth has followed Detroit’s physical decay, some argue civil unity followed White Flight. Many citizens, Solnit explains, left when they realized that even a violently racist police department would fail to enforce segregation within Detroit. In the absence of those racists, social movements could take off.


Here, Solnit’s seemingly disparate arguments converge. The subjects of environment and race are equally present in Detroit Arcadia, and each are connected by the themes of decay, regrowth, and reclamation. The physical state of Detroit-- as it exists in its streets and buildings-- are obviously in disrepair. Detroit as it once existed would inevitably decay as a result of failed industry, and the abstract state of Detroit-- a broader community of individuals-- was torn apart by bitter racism and White Flight. Solnit presents both forms of decay in a positive light, ones which make way for a city more beautiful than it was before. As she concludes her piece, she offers a final image of Detroit’s graceful ruin (Solnit 73):


It was a sudden flash on an already bright autumn day-- a pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street.

Her language is hopeful, a figurative summation of the positive environmental and social implications of Detroit’s decay. That the pheasants are non-native is significant, resembling the beauty of an unfamiliar arrival-- in this case Solnit’s hope that “we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home” (Solnit 73).


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