Visions of the Apocalypse – a visit to Detroit

Every city has its dark quarters and areas of run-down and crumbling infrastructure, but in my experience none so much as Detroit. A visit there last weekend with my old mate John set me to thinking about the role of cities in post-apocalyptic tales.

It doesn’t take you long to get into that mindset in Detroit’s downtown and surrounding areas. To the chagrin of those trying to renovate and reinvigorate the city, the comparisons with urban wastelands, as featured in stories about zombies, plagues, and the collapse of civilization, are hard to avoid.

I should make it clear at the beginning that I’m deliberately going to focus on the aspects of modern Detroit that the residents most hate. If you’re from Detroit, I’m sorry. There are many great things about your city, and I’ll talk about those in another post. This post is about why the ruined city presents so inviting an image in post-apocalyptic writing, and how walking around parts of Detroit is like walking into a real-world dystopia.

We spent the first night across the river in Windsor, Canada, which afforded a spectacular night-time view of the lights of Detroit. Many years after it was built, the futuristic appearance of the Renaissance Center is undiminished. I last visited the RenCen in the early 80’s when it was a relatively new feature and there was much more crime in the Downtown area. On one occasion back then, we were waiting in our car at a stop light when we were approached almost immediately by prostitutes.

Last weekend we walked all over the Downtown and a good portion of the surrounding areas and weren’t bothered once. In fact, the absence of people on the streets was one of the notable features of our visit.

The depopulation of central Detroit has been extensive, and relative to other parts of the urban area very few people live there. The suburbs are well populated, the centre is not. Like Emmental cheese, central Detroit is full of holes. The effect of the departure of the population has been to create pockets in which there are very few people and where some or all of the buildings are ruins. These areas look like a disaster befell them, with their crumbling roofs and walls, smashed windows, graffiti, and weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete.

Street in Downtown Detroit

Large parts of Detroit feel like a ghost town. The people are gone, the buildings are falling apart, and the city is largely silent.

I think this is why post-apocalyptic fiction almost always features a city in ruins.

To elaborate, a post-apocalyptic countryside is basically the same as it was before the apocalypse. It’s just a bit more overgrown. A city, though, is a powerful symbol of the effects of the apocalypse.  There is no power, the buildings crumble, the roads are choked with weeds, and trees grow from the buildings. It’s a visible representation of the destruction of civilization. In the absence of the imposed order of humankind, nature reasserts its hold and steadily takes back the space and the only thing you find on the streets is trouble in the form of zombies or street gangs.

There is also a strange grandeur to the ruins. It might seem a stretch to compare Detroit to Greece and Rome, but the same theme is there.  It’s the theme of Shelley’s Ozymandias, the knowledge that even the mightiest civilizations fall apart and their works can be undone.

To illustrate, here’s a brief story from our weekend.

We don’t know the geography of Detroit well enough to navigate it safely ourselves, so we hired a local guide to take us through the ruins. He took us to some of the most desolate parts of the city, including the ruins of the old Packard Automotive Plant near Hamtramck Town Centre. He drove us right up to the plant and parked in the empty lot of a long-wrecked grocery store. When we left the car to walk around the site he took a baseball bat with him as a bit of insurance.

The ruins are fantastical in the original meaning of the word. The 3 1/2 million square feet of factory buildings, largely abandoned since the 1960’s, stand empty and gutted. It’s a remarkable feeling to walk through this crumbling factory, once bustling with thousands of workers assembling hundreds of cars a week.

On one side are empty lots, on the other is a residential neighborhood a block or so away. On that side there remains a cluster of six houses facing the ruined plant and, a little further down, the fractured remains of the school that children of the Packard workers used to attend.

Ruins of the Packard school

I’ve seen urban devastation before – hell, I used to hang out in Liverpool during the early 80’s – but this is on a different scale altogether. It’s a melancholy sight, and one you don’t expect to see in one of America’s major urban centres. The desolation is reminiscent of a bombed city. Every other house on a block, or sometimes the entire block, is gone. Some homes were burned to the ground after they were abandoned, others simply ravaged by neglect and the elements.

It put me in mind of stories about London during the Blitz, and in particular Michael Moorcock’s essay ‘A Child’s Christmas in the Blitz’ (Quick aside: I wrote a review of London Peculiar, the collection of essays in which it appears, and you can read it here. Ruined cities are a feature of Moorcock’s writing; see his seminal Elric series for more of that).

Even in the Downtown area where much money is being spent in efforts to rejuvenate it, the marks of the disaster that befell the city are present. Empty, abandoned high rises without glass in the windows, vacant lots, crumbling facades. Turning one corner we ran into workers building something that turned out to be a set for the next Transformers movie. They’re going to have to CGI the surroundings whole before they can have the robots destroy them. In a strange juxtaposition, this was the location used to film Kid Rock’s video, Care. You can see the word, along with other slogans, written on the side of the building in the photo.

Detroit has been falling apart for decades, a slow process of decay that is different from how it usually happens in fiction. Unlike the slow decline of civilizations in real life, the fictional decline usually comes quickly. Zombie hordes, plagues, alien attacks, catastrophic weather, take your pick. The destruction sweeps in and ends the world as we know it in hours, days, or at most weeks. Part of the thrill is tied up with the speed of it. There’s nothing that can be done to prevent it. We have to survive it first, then we can try to rebuild.

This has not been the story of how Detroit reached its present condition, but as it stands today you get a glimpse of what that post-apocalyptic cityscape might look like.

And so to one final thought about dystopias and post-apocalyptic cityscapes. I think that, at heart, dystopian fables are optimistic ones. We want things to turn out better. Even Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, as bleak a journey as it is, ends with hope.

railway3This doesn’t mean, though, that everything is somehow put right at the end of the tale. Some of the best dystopic work leaves it to the reader to interpret the ending. To use an example from film, ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ ends not with a tidy resolution of the catastrophe affecting everyone on Earth, but a countdown to the measure that everyone hopes will put things right. The viewer is left with the hope that there will be a future.

Without that hope stories of the apocalypse would be a dull exercise and offhand I can’t think of a single story that ends with complete extinction. There has to be hope for the story to have meaning. We look for the flower blooming in the cracks in the concrete, the bird nesting in the eaves, the people starting over and rebuilding on the rubble of the past.
The Renaissance Center

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