Drew Philp
Essay, Detroit: An Archive of Experiences, Expodium Publishing, Holland
Like Stones Dropped in a Pond


Sixty Years ago, Detroit was the Paris of the Midwest. We had the best schools, the best jobs, the best houses, the best living. And now our crystal palace has collapsed in disorder. I suppose that is why so many people find us interesting—So many people come to study us and inspect us; massage our city; dissect and solve its problems; profit from the destruction or simply wish to be a part and witness the epic comedy of our demise and eventual rebirth.

Naturally, Detroit’s of the first places when we think of “shrinking cities.” It’s hard to resist the spectacle of such an abrupt change in fortunes. It is human nature to want to take a peek under the proverbial dress and compare fortunes.  In our case everyone wants to take a look at America’s underclothes and see what she’s really like. Capitalism as left us sodden, ravished and sickly. Abandoned houses, formerly homes, dot the landscape like broken teeth. Whites, mostly, have left for the suburbs, leaving a city half empty.

But the other half is still here. Detroit isn’t simply a blank canvass to haphazardly splash whims like a thoughtless and untrained Jackson Pollock and leave us, still here, with the mess. It isn’t a place to try out theories and “art” projects that can be ran away from once a departure date arrives. There are real people here, people with ideas and fancy just like yours, people who know a lot more about what we need than outsiders. We are little bits of living flesh and dreams, just like you, walking this corner of the earth and not a one of us are waiting to be rescued. For the visitor or observer with plans this poses a serious responsibility.

Detroit is a city of leaving. Detroit may be the city of leaving. The problem of shrinking cities is deceptively simple: People are leaving. Problems arise when we are allowed to make decisions we won’t be around to see the results of, and when we can easily run away from our consequences.  People leave for many different reasons, all of them understandable by anyone with half a glass of sympathy. But to solve this problem, and believe ourselves moral human beings, we must begin to see our individual relationship to society. We’re dots in a pointillism painting. Remove one and nothing much changes. Remove a million and you have a different picture. Do you want to be another eraser smudge when the winter came and things got to hard?  Our actions are like stones thrown in a pond. The ripples reverberate outward and can last longer than we’re around to see.  Even as an observer we change a situation, and even as observers we make ripples.

In Detroit, We’re figuring out what happens next. What happens when inevitably, capitalism leaves. It happened here first, and we’ll climb out of it first, simply because we’ve had more time to work it out. And we will be an example to other cities in the same predicament. Most of us didn’t choose this; we’re doing this out of necessity for many reasons. This is not a vacation. These decisions will affect us and our families for a long time. In Detroit we all have big stones, and larger ripples.

This is not to say we don’t want help, or don’t want visitors. Cultural exchange is a necessary and enlightening part of any lifetime of growth.  But we don’t want extra work either.   We need people that understand these consequences and understand our history of leaving. In White Man’s Burden, William Easterly describes two types of people who venture to “Desolate” places like Detroit.  There are planners. Planners come with their own ideas about what needs to be done, and “what’s good for the city,” regardless of whether or not it needs to be done or it’s good for the city. They come overflowing with plans and projects, plans and projects we end up cleaning up after. Then there are searchers. Searchers look for solutions the locals have developed, and use their resourses to add to and help with projects. Searchers, most importantly, listen. To quote Easterly, “Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand.”

We understand that everyone can’t stay. We understand not everyone can be around to see the eventual results of their “projects.” So make ‘em good ones. And be flexible, and listen to us. Listen to what we need. Be a searcher. Don’t think you know what’s good for us and what’s good for our city. Come help us out, but make sure you’re helping.

Drew Philp. Detroit, MI.