The "ruins" of Detroit. (photo: ifmuth via Flickr)

Yeah. You know, the “ruin porn” and the “urban decay porn” you sent me, gloating over the death of Detroit like a ghoul over a corpse.

I’ve seen it already, thanks for sharing though. Over the last ten years as I’ve driven through Detroit watching its skyline and its streets and homes change after the auto industry fucked it again and again — yeah, I’ve seen the real thing, not just the warmed up leftovers you sent me.

This is what happens when a city of nearly two million occupants is treated like toilet paper by the corporations it made great. What did you expect would happen when after years of tax abatements and rolling over for these corporations’ short-sighted, quarter-to-quarter and purely selfish demands?

Did you know that General Motors thwarted the use of street cars when it “owned” Detroit?  It wanted to encourage its workers and city residents to buy its vehicles or use the buses it built, and in turn the white collar and eventually blue collar workers used the cars they bought to move to the suburbs where they could have their two- and three-car garages. The only people left behind were folks who really couldn’t afford to move to the suburbs or those hardcore souls who were dedicated to living in Detroit.

But that was over the course of the last several decades, the course of my lifetime that this urban flight occurred; it was a slow and steady bleed.

During the last ten years the slow bleed became a hemorrhage as the automotive industry offshored tens of thousands of jobs, spawning even larger numbers of job losses among suppliers, and even more jobs lost as workers fled the state and no longer purchased services from their neighborhood dry cleaners or hair salons, no longer frequented their restaurants or their grocery stores.

The collapse of the financial industry gave them the coup de gras, what with the damage subprime mortgages did to the financial subsidiaries owned by GM and Chrysler.

But I can see why you indulge in the porn; it’s fashionable. So fashionable it’s predictable. The residents of Detroit and Michigan can almost predict which photos the pornographers will take when they arrive, because we see them again and again.

Like here.

And here.

And again.

But the truth is this: Detroit has been through boom-and-bust before, survived and lived to tell about it as has the state around it. Unlike many parts of the country which are relatively new and have never gone through the cicada-like cycles, Detroit is an an elegant old survivor who wears scars deep down to her bones out of sight of the youngsters who mock her.  . . .

Detroit is one of the oldest cities in America, founded in 1701 at the point where two of the greatest fresh water bodies in the world are joined, 75 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. She was a capital of fur trading, not only because she was located at the edge of the resource-rich frontier, but because her location made it very easy to ship furs over water to the capitals of Europe.

And then the politics changed with the times and war and the city changed hands from French to British control. In 1805 a fire burned nearly all of Detroit — the first real collapse leaving little but ashes. And yet because of her location Detroit rose again as a center of commerce and transportation. It was easy to ship raw materials from across the Great Lakes and back out again when there were few finished roads and few rail routes.

It was because of transportation of materials that Henry Ford was able to launch his business so readily; the iron for parts and the wood for frames and floorboards were shipped into Detroit easily, beginning the next major boom. There had been a smaller boom for lumber between Detroit’s post-fire recovery and the advent of the auto industry, but even that boom suffered near-death experiences with massive forest fires in lower Michigan in 1871 and in 1881.

The Great Depression came and slowed Detroit, but World War II created a demand for Detroit’s manufacturing power, earning her the nickname, the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Detroit hummed along, able to meet post-war demand with that ready arsenal-driven industrial base.

The genesis of the current downturn had its roots in the 1970s after the oil crisis. Japanese cars which were smaller and more fuel efficient were in greater demand; their quality improved steadily thanks to American training in quality management, cutting into American auto makers’ markets. The auto makers initially moved to improve quality, but shareholders’ demands for unending quarter-after-quarter profitability drove the industry to chase cost reductions.

And the offshoring began, setting in motion the collapse of Detroit as a manufacturing center, helped along by lipservice from Washington D.C. and the active hate of the unionized middle class which made this city and state so strong for so long.

Wonderful, you’re thinking, thanks for the history lesson.

Yes, it seems like dry and ancient history to you, but Detroiters are living it and they are surviving it, and they have a thing or two to teach the rest of this country about recovery and greatness. Go on, revel in the “ruin porn” you so enjoy — but when your city’s turn comes, well, let’s hope you can handle it with as much grace. And come it does, like the failed levees came for New Orleans and the economic downturn came for Las Vegas and all of California.

Detroit will still be here, bruised and down at the heel but three hundred and ten years wiser. She’ll have something to teach you when you come calling about the porn someone made of your city.