Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I'm So Bad, I Party in Detroit

For many, a city like Paris or London or Rome seems unreal -- how could the real thing possibly compare to the endless images and leitmotifs in books and movies? For me, that city is Detroit. Does it really exist? Does anyone live there at all? Hasn't the whole thing been abandoned by now?

There doesn't appear to be an online version of Jerry Herron's "I'm So Bad, I Party in Detroit," although there is one of "Everyday Survival." The two together gave me my impression of Detroit: devil's night arsonists burning the city to the ground, itinerant metal scrappers slowly stripping it apart building by building, and RoboCop fantasizing where it will all end up. I quoted both in an article I penned on shrinking cities. Detroit is the American shrinking city par excellence, the only one to exceed the magic 1 million mark and then dip back below it.

As the sun came up on Sunday morning, I gazed out at glistening, isolated casinos (MGM Grand, The Motor City) from the back patio of the TV Bar, an out of the way watering hole off from downtown hosting an after-after-party for the first night of Movement: Detroit's Electronic Music Festival (hereafter DEMF). I chatted up a couple Detroiters who gave me the apocalyptic facts: a city built for 3 million now housing less than 1. 70,000 vacant houses. "Fucking tumbleweeds man," a guy said, shaking his head.

The emptiness is everywhere, permeating downtown and any neighborhood you might pass through. Coming from the crowded northeast, this kind of vacancy is simply unsettling. Neighborhoods didn't seem "dangerous" in the conventional sense so much as eerily empty. Two blocks off from Hart Plaza, the central downtown festival location, you can easily find high-rises of boarded up windows. "For Sale" and "For Lease" seem to be the most popular phrases in the Detroit signage lexicon.

But amidst all that abandonment, there is some extra elbow room, the kind of space that allows an after-party to run until 6 am and an after-after-party to kick up right after at 7 am, outside, on a Monday morning. Who's going to complain? What neighbors? It's the hollowed out core of the inner city that, unexpectedly enough, has incubated culture. Thus techno, thus Inner City / Good Life, thus the collapse of the auto industry and thus Model 500's Night Drive.

The Renaissance Center hovers over the Renaissance City, as Detroit began calling itself in the 1970s. GM's headquarters shine over the horizon looking like cylinders ready to churn in a V8 engine. The ground floor levels house a shopping mall arrayed around GM's latest models.

But the auto industry is still failing, attendance for the Detroit auto show is still falling, and DEMF keeps soaring.

Another take on the Renaissance City motif by Coleman Young, the city's first black mayor: The renaissance of Detroit is the city being reclaimed by its black residents. The proof is in the fist, ostensibly Joe Louis', but more directly the fist of resistance, of black power, of pushing whites over to the other side of 8 Mile.

I'm still seeing the city's wounds freshly. More thoughts to collect & a promised article to Spannered. My own photos once I can get a new USB cable, a casualty of the weekend's debauchery. But DEMF did not disappoint, and the nexus of local/international/Detroit orbital music was top-notch. If anything will be Detroit's renaissance, techno makes for a leading contender.

At least they've got some playoff hopes to keep spirits alive. I call Red Wings taking the Cup in 6 / Pistons going under to the Celts. Detroit's white/black divide continues. It's a cold, cold world.

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