At mid-day, I was driving on one of the great avenues that radiates out of the old Beaux Arts fan of streets that emanates from the Grand Circus at the heart of downtown - Woodward or Cass or Gratiot, I forget. It was a six or eight laner, and everything along both sides was either some kind of social service installation or vacant. There was no traffic, by which I mean not merely a smooth flow of cars, but no other cars whatsoever. For at least a mile, my rent-a-car was the only vehicle on the street. Finally I saw another car up ahead, in my lane, coming straight at me. It continued bearing down on me, until the last 100 feet or so when it veered around me with an indignant blare of the horn. It was only about then that I noticed a sign indicating that I was on a one-way street.Downtown Detroit was so empty that I could drive a good mile the wrong way without knowing it.
Detroit's decline and fall was long and gruesome. Back then, just outside the downtown of 1920s skyscrapers, there were whole neighbourhoods of formerly magnificent old mansions in the most amazing states of dilapidation, with sagging porches, chimneys tilting at impossible angles, and whole exterior walls missing to reveal eerie dollhouse-like vignettes of rooms painted different colors, formerly lived in. These were built by the wealthy magnates of the Great Lakes frontier - the timber and copper kings, manufacturers of paint, coal stoves, etc - before the car industry was even a gleam in Henry Ford's flinty eye.
Over the 1990s they were all torched in the annual Halloween ritual called Devil's Night. The next time I came back to Detroit, there were wildflower meadows where those ruined mansions had been. In a mere century, all that grandeur had arisen and been erased.The grandest ruin of Detroit is the much-photographed main train station, with its attached office tower. The old neo-classical hulk had been neglected for so many decades that mature ailanthus trees were growing out of the parapets. I was back in downtown Detroit, around Cadillac Square, in the1990s shooting some "walk-and-talk" for a documentary at rush hour on a weekday evening and it was like the night of the living dead there. The old Hudson's department store was dark and empty and the Statler Hotel had plywood sheets over every window. (It was demolished in 2005.) We were the only humans in the vicinity at 5:30 pm.
It's fitting that Detroit is the first great American city to officially bite the dust, because it produced the means of America's suicidal destruction: the automobile. Of course you could argue that the motorcar was an inevitable product of the industrial era - and I would not bother to enlist a mob of post-doc philosophy professors to debate that - but the choices we made about what to do with the automobile is another matter. What we chose was to let our great cities go to hell and move outside them in a car-dependent utopia tricked out as a simulacrum of "country living." The entire experiment of suburbia can, of course, be construed as historically inevitable, too, but is also destined to be abandoned - and sooner than most Americans realise.Finally, what we'll be left with is a tremendous continental-sized vista of waste and desolation, the end product of this technological thrill ride called modernity. It's hard to find redemption in this story, unless it's a world made by hand, with all its implications for a return to human-ness.
What happened to Detroit will come to all the other great American metroplexes in time, but perhaps not in the same way. So-called urban experts like Ed Glaeser at Harvard (The Triumph of the City), and other exalted idiots just don't get it. These cities attained a scale of operation that just can't be sustained beyond the twilight of cheap fossil fuels. They will all contract massively - some of them, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas will disappear altogether. The lucky ones will reconstitute themselves at a much smaller scale around their old harbors or riverfronts. The ones burdened with too many grandiose mega-structures (New York, Chicago) will choke to death on the liabilities they represent. The reason for this can be found in the basic equations around the cost and supply of energy resources and the consequent impairments of capital formation. In short, neither the affordable energy nor the money will be there to run things as we're used to running them. The voodoo economists of the ivy League, the White House, the Federal Reserve, and The New York Times are utterly clueless about how this works.
Other idiots want to dedicate the ruins of Detroit, and places like it, to "urban farming." This represents yet another layer of misunderstanding of how the world works. Detroit and most other cities occupy important geographical sites (in this case a river between two Great lakes). Some kind of urban human settlement will continue to occupy that site in the future. It will just be smaller, less complex, and almost certainly less hideous than the disgraceful tangle of freeways, casinos, 7-Eleven shops, and rotting bungalows that remains on-the-ground there now. Farming is what happens outside the urban settlement (though gardening is another matter).
There's plenty of room in the rest of Michigan for farming. By the way, the vast donut of prosperous suburbs around the ruins of Detroit are not long for this world either. Their wealth will prove to be just as transitory as the wealth embodied by those bygone inner mansion neighbourhoods of the pre-1900 Detroit, and the detritus will be harder to clean up there because it is spread so far and wide. That particular lesson remains to be learned all over the rest of the USA, but with crude oil at $108-a-barrel this morning, a smack upside America's thick-boned head is probably not far from landing. How the legal aspects of Detroit's bankruptcy get worked out will just be a sideshow outside the main tent of greater industrial era collapse and the practical demographic alterations of everyday life we can look forward to.
*James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation.