Friday, August 7, 2009

Industrial City to Slump City

Atop the Sears (Willis) Tower I feel like Superman without the tights, cape...or dang it, the superpowers. Nonetheless, I’d love to fly over the buildings straight over the lake and into Detroit. With the wave of a hand, I’d restore it to its former Industrial Era glory, the abandoned factories humming with life again.

Chicago lives on; green roofs dot the skyline in a testament to its future. Meanwhile, Detroit is a green city unlike any other: green from neglect, from trees and weeds that grow in direct opposition to human ambition. It’s the future city, the city after human disappearance or civilization collapse.

At the Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit’s imminence still lives. Diego Rivera’s mural of the River Rouge Ford Auto Plant captures the essence of what was: a multi-racial band of workers engineering the greatest technological revolution in history. The auto industry built the middle class and then died, leaving nothing to replace it. Today, the River Rouge Auto Plant in Dearborn (just outside Detroit) sports the largest green roof in the country...but its existence is completely pragmatic. One of the River Rouge Tour Guides tells me that the EPA requires industrial sites to clean their rain water before it flows off site. Building a green roof was simply less expensive than building a chemical plant.

Inside the plant, two introductory films frame the upcoming experience: the grand history of Ford followed by the grand future of Ford. The second film “The Art of Car Manufacturing” follows the River Rouge assembly line as it creates the Ford F-150. A Wagner-esque composition accompanies a Triumph of the Will film, a giant advertisement for Ford. Throughout the factory tour, Ford follows you, framing each experience with a TV screen explaining what you see. On the factory floor, a giant platform places you above the autoworkers as they assemble the cars. The future eerily resembles the past.

It’s all unsettling: the awesome scale of what was created, its magnificent contributions to society, its monstrous consequences. Here in Industrial Cities North, the past is inseparable from the future, but the future may depend on that separation. It may be time to break up with our cars (But, not me and the little red engine that could. We are in it for life.)

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Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.
- Oscar Wilde


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