Detroit: The Reality of Death and the Reality of Life

Detroit: The Reality of Death and the Reality of Life February 25, 2016

Street lightsAt night, through the mottled glass of a door that leads out onto the roof of the building, a red light flashes on, then off, on, then off. It is like a scene from an early fifties’ noir movie. A seedy part of town. A motel. A neon sign flashing with an advertisement for “Girls, Girls, Girls” or “Booze, Booze, Booze.”

In fact, the flashing red light isn’t from a sign. It is a streetlight. It is flashing red because this is Detroit, and in Detroit there isn’t enough traffic in many parts of town to warrant the full traffic light cycle of green to yellow to red.

Why sit there in your car, at an empty intersection, staring at the abandoned buildings all around you, waiting for the light to change from red to green? No reason to do it. So the city started switching some of the lights to flashing red or yellow, effectively turning them into stop signs, or caution markers.

Some of the lights are being taken out altogether. Driving around inner-city Detroit, you might come across a sign at an intersection that reads: “Traffic Signal Under Study for Removal.” Or you might see a team of workers taking down traffic lights or streetlights, removing bits of infrastructure, tearing down houses.

The population of Detroit was over 1,800,000 people in 1950. The city’s infrastructure was built up to accommodate that load. Currently, the city has less than 700,000 people, and dropping, though the bottom seems to be near. The rate of population loss has recently slowed to something more like a trickle.

Having lost more than a million people over the decades, Detroit is a place that doesn’t know how big it is supposed to be, or what it is supposed to look like anymore. It is a place trying to find its right size. It is a place exhaling.

On a moonless night you can drive around parts of the city, and it is dark. Just dark. No streetlights, no houselights. Nothing. Just the stars and the beams from your headlights illuminating the cracked roads in front of the car.

A few months back, on the east side, near some abandoned buildings and the husks of a few houses that had been burned down almost completely, I heard a rustle in the nearby bushes. A ring-necked pheasant emerged from the undergrowth. It strutted across the grass, clucking and preening. Cocky.

Suddenly, a hawk swooped down from a tree nearby. The hawk, talons extended, made a grab for the pheasant. The pheasant ducked and parried at just the right time and then scurried back into the thicket from which it had emerged.

This, in the middle of metropolitan Detroit.

Everybody wants Detroit to come back. People here do. Americans in the rest of the country are, for the most part, rooting for a grand resurgence. Chances are, this will happen. The stage is set for it.

Being in Detroit now, though, right now, is about seeing and feeling a place that operates according to an alternate logic. Not the logic of progress and development. The logic of decay and reversal and unraveling.

To be in Detroit, right now, is to be reminded at every street corner and on every block that sometimes the world collapses. Sometimes, things fall apart. All things pass away, really and truly, including us…especially us.

Last week, an acrid cloud of smoke drifted over the city. A factory was burning down somewhere on the north side. I followed the trail of smoke, driving toward it. When I got there, an entire city block was on fire, smoking and smoldering, shooting out a dense, chemical-laden cloud.

What I will never forget is the posture and the bodily expressions of the firemen who were there putting out the blaze. They were taking the job seriously, doing hard and dangerous work. But their posture was relaxed, I would say. Or, better said, resigned.

This was not a crisis for them, not even really an emergency. It was everyday life.

There were 2,256 fires in Detroit in 2015, by official count. Many of those were in abandoned buildings and homes that have been sitting around empty for years. Thousands of these structures can be found all over the city, burned-out skeletons that litter the landscape like sentinels. But sentinels of what?

Is Detroit a warning?

In some ways, it must be. It is a reminder of how terribly wrong things can go when they go wrong. There are plenty of people and political and economic forces to blame for the collapse of Detroit.

But isn’t there something profoundly refreshing, also, to be found in the broken-down city of Detroit? Here’s a funny analogy. My grandmother, who is in her nineties, stopped dying her hair last year. She let it go gray, or white, as it is in her case.

She looks better for that. My grandmother is an old woman. Now, she looks like an old woman. And it is okay.

Is it possible to lament the collapse of Detroit and all the suffering the collapse has caused while, simultaneously, appreciating Detroit as it is? In the heart of America, here is a city-sized memorial to death and decay, to the forces we do not entirely control and never will.

Driving around the city you will also see rows of corn and green vegetables being grown in the acres of empty plots left over from the ruins of the city that was. That’s to say, amidst the reality of death, the reality of life. Are the green shoots that much greener for this fact? They look so to me, which is a troubling thought, as much as it is consoling, and it reminds us, ever again, that nothing is given to us straight, but always in tragicomic coils that will not resolve themselves simply and demand to be accepted as they are.


Morgan Meis is a contributor to Page Turner at The New Yorker. He has a PhD in Philosophy and has written for The Smart Set, n+1The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at

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