In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jerod Diamond makes an interesting observation about peninsulas: the landform, much like an island, isolates a people.
Peninsulas act as a force multiplier, granting a space easier defense, so that a polity might survive invasion by a much more powerful culture. (Think: Hot Gates and Isthmus of Corinth.) Conversely, a spit can bring the closed-culture of the Spartans. (“Mommy..? What is art?” *SMACK!* “Get back to your jumping-jacks!”) It’s no coincidence that Europe retains hundreds of cultures as well as claim to the most devastating wars in history; the continent’s chock-full of peninsulas.
I live on one. In fact, Michigan is two; we call them the Upper and the Lower. Surrounded by the Great Lakes, I’ve felt the isolation when hitting the freeway. To get eastbound and down, I must first head to Ohio; to go west, I drive cross-state, then dip into Indiana to catch I-80. Because of our geography, a lot of people have never passed through. We’re not on the way to anywhere, really, unless you’re coming here. As a result, even our own people buy into what they hear about Detroit in movies, avoiding a downtown still pulsing. That and they rarely leave. I have friends who have never been out of the state: content with Michigan’s bounty alone.
Our isolation makes us strongly anti-federalist. Free trade becomes a four-letter word in the blurred vision of a people caught up in yesteryear. Once, Detroit was called the Paris of the West for its vibrant theater scene and bustling trade.
We looked to the Car as one looks at a sun. It warmed us and brought our people riches, so why not worship it? But our piety came with a cost. The Automobile was not a fixed source and it came crashing down: a mere shooting star.
Touring Detroit, one walks through the crater. Fire, brimstone, carnage, debris, ruins: they’re all here. Thousands yet suffer from the heat and fallout.
Much of the population flew to the suburbs on impact; but it’s historical fact that it’s easier to fly when you have money to afford the wings, and so the diaspora was largely white.
In the hole, many survived and they grew hungry. Some lived in a state of nature, preying upon one another. Many resented those living on the crater’s rim.
While on the outside, the fortunate looked in once in a while and wondered why those people chose to live like that. They shook their heads, then resumed worship of their fallen god: sure that The Automobile would again light their sky.
In the meanwhile, new auto companies arrived. Smaller cars and better quality. Smarter and snappier designs. And, most of all, improved fuel economy.
Technology granted the U.S. autos the same opportunity. But, in true anti-federalist fashion, the Big Three viewed the opposable thumb as more fist-shaker than tool-maker. Security began to heavily outweigh freedom. And, as usual, this imbalance brought stagnation rather than innovation.
Unable to refocus, recenter, and remake themselves, many in Detroit vilified the Japanese. A pair of Automobile “extreme fundamentalists” attacked Chinese-American Vincent Chin, first exclaiming “It’s because of you…that we’re out of work”, then beating him to death with a baseball bat. The murderers went free.
All hoped that life would get better. SUVs and cheap oil brought a fresh influx of warmth. The Big Three had seen many changes, but they were still around. And as long as they were around, Detroit would be. Because what was good for GM, was good for America, right?
But the foreign cars got even smarter, snappier, and more efficient.
Subconsciously, we clung to our city’s motto: “We hope that better things arise from the ashes.”
The dreamers rose. Thornetta Davis, Della Reese, The Winans. Jazz and Gospel. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Aretha Franklin. John Lee Hooker. Blues and Rhythm. Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Jackie Wilson, The Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and too many other Motown acts to name. Del Shannon. The 70’s rockers: Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Glenn Frey, Bob Seger. Then Hard Core Punk, Death Metal, Techno. Eminem. And, the reinventor herself, Madonna.
But most had one thing in common: Get the Hell Out of Here. Go where the action is. Get off the peninsula and somewhere cosmopilitan. Move toward the energy, and away from the rubble and the embers. Because they understood that hope is not enough. Action is needed.
This isn’t a eulogy, though. This is a ballad. A story. And it’s not over.
Because of advances in technology, geography limits us less than ever. Exchange of ideas flows as mountain rivers, when we don’t dam it.
Detroit owns great hubs of culture and vibrance and many are merging. The spokes designed by Augustus Woodward lead back to a waterfront, and by returning to our first principles, we can rise again from the steam, to make our slogan real. We just remodeled the Detroit Institute of Arts and saved our zoo. There are signs of a diversifying economy, and we possess one of the greatest concentrations of engineers in the world.Most forward-looking of all, Michigan controls a vast supply of the world’s freshwater.
There is a survivor’s spirit here, which I haven’t felt elsewhere, but we have to reconcile that the suburban, white-flight of the 70s wasn’t flying. If we can harness that to move past our segregation, into a regionalistic wholeness of Indianapolis, Minneapolis, or Portland, we can breathe new life into our city and once again spread our wings.
What we have yet to realize, though, is that any one “solution” is but a false idol. It is only We who are the phoenix; We who are the sun.