Perhaps the most telling interview in Julien Temple’s fascinating documentary Requiem for Detroit was the shortest. A tramp on an industrial site is asked whether he is from Detroit. Lived here all his life is the response, with a toothless smile of something close to pride. So what’s going on here? “I don’t know – I’ve just woken up.”
The Detroit Julien Temple shows us is a city that has woken up from the American dream. A place whose prosperity was fuelled by the car, by the mass production that brought it within reach of so many, and by the constant repackaging of cars as new models which kept the many coming back for more. Consumer society, in short, and for decades the golden eggs kept being laid. Motor City kept sucking people in. Nobody believed it was going to end.
Then it woke up. Sudden oil spikes and competition from Europe and Japan had put Detroit on notice. Decline was steady, until the final blow of the financial crisis tipped General Motors over the edge.
This film shows what is left – a vision of the first post-industrial city. It is emptying – the once clogged freeways are now clear. It is rotting. Its industrial fabric is the preserve of scrap salvagers, demolition men and dogfighting. Hudsons department store was demolished. Neighbourhoods are burnt out and in the process of being dismantled by teams of ex-offenders. “Our Katrina” some residents call it.
This post-industrial scene is being colonised at the fringes by activists, urban agriculturalists and artists. Nature is also making inroads, as unkempt gardens reclaim the rotting buildings around them, and a rough scrubland encroaches on the vast concrete spaces once laid over it.
There is a frightening beauty about it all, the beauty of a JG Ballard novel. A frightening sense that Detroit, as one interviewee puts it, is not just the past. It is the future.