City as Classroom

A story of a narrative, a reality, and a change in perspective

“Never fall in love with the top layer. It’s what you find underneath that’s important.”— Amy Petersen, founder of Rebel Nell, Detroit

A mural of Detroit Industry by Diego Rivera in 1933

City as Classroom is one of my favorite McLuhan books. It’s written as a lesson plan to “notice accurately.”

Using “figure/ground” technique, the book helps readers see the whole situation. A figure is where we place our attention. The ground is the space of inattention, out-of-view. Cities are rich places to learn if we pay close attention to the surroundings.

Cities are a lens into how society can change and transform. Our team recently met in Detroit to discuss our own change agenda. Why Detroit, of all places? It is both symbolic and educational to understand large-scale transformations taking place.

Do we live in a time of doom and decay, or do we live in a renaissance moment?

It depends on which narrative we choose to believe. In this regard, Detroit is a classroom to learn from.

The Surface Narrative.

Detroit’s “known narrative” is well-documented. The automobile blew up convention. It transported people more quickly and farther than anyone could have imagined. New automobiles prompted the construction of new roads, suburbs, and parking lots. Manufacturing factories employed a new middle class and altered their perceptions of time. Mass media, shopping malls, and mainstream consumer goods followed the money.

The cascading impact of automobiles, let alone the need for motorized transport, couldn’t be seen in the moment. The world didn’t get a faster horse. It got something categorically different.

Detroit fueled the economy and portrayal of the American Dream. It also drove creativity and innovation beyond the automotive industry. Breakthrough architecture, design, and entertainment were also city staples. Throughout Detroit, you find works of art and expression like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Lafayette Park. Albert Khan’s New Center Complex. Motown Music. Cranbrook School of Design. Augustus Woodward’s hub-and-spoke city configuration was designed to radiate out. Cultural innovation flowed from Detroit’s city center to the world.

The luster and appeal of America’s fourth-largest city didn’t last. Over 60 years, the city population dropped by roughly 60%. Violence, punctuated by riots in 1968, led to dividing lines between city and suburb, between blacks and whites. The 2008 financial crisis required government intervention to save the automotive industry. On July 18, 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

The effects created by industrialized mobility hollowed out its center. By 2014, Detroit had an estimated 71,000 abandoned buildings, including 30,000 houses strewn across the city. This footprint of decay was said to span four Manhattans.

Mass abandonment turned into a media phenomenon. Detroit eventually earned widespread media notoriety framed as “Ruin Porn.”One writer captured the macabre allure of Detroit’s fall from grace this way:

“Detroit ruin porn functions as a memento mori, a call to remember that the same fate as Motor City could befall all of our great cities, all of our unstable accomplishments. I think Detroit ruin porn is so popular and such a well-traveled visual avenue, in part because we want to be reminded that it could all fail. The voyeurism isn’t just gawking at the old buildings; it’s gawking at the possibility and the danger of death.”

Outlets such as The Atlantic asked, “Is it OK to admire destruction?” Is it OK to tout empty schools, abandoned skyscrapers, and tumbleweeds blowing down the streets? The media forewarned and moralized about the “state of the country” using Detroit as a prop. This city that represented post-war optimism turned derelict and defunct ghost metropolis. It could happen to any of us. Never mind, almost 700,000 people still lived there.

Roosevelt Warehouse was once the main post office in Detroit. Source: Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre Photography

An Alt Reality.

As the press danced on Detroit’s grave, the community brought it back to life. People returned. Creatives class from all parts of the country came to town. Industrial carnage turned into ingenious innovation.

The surface narratives omitted “ground” truths. People in Detroit make things. In some cases, world-altering, soul-stirring things. Second, people from Detroit believe in Detroit. Even more, bleed Detroit. Believers who do change the world.

First-generation, industrial Detroit was a use case for American invention. The current polymath Detroit is something different but no less powerful. It’s an exemplar of innovation, using a changed perspective as a superpower.

New Detroit is about what architects call “adaptive reuse.” This generation creates remarkable new things within existing forms — like buildings, walls, soil, and soon, automobiles. It preserves the original character of form while accommodating changes in technology, tastes, and use.

Adaptation requires seeing potential over an accepted depiction. In Detroit, a defunct sewing shop can become one of America’s hottest hotels. An abandoned school can morph into sustainable, urban housing. An old machine shop can become a denim shop. Neglected neighborhoods can become agricultural communities.

Beyond architecture, adaptive reuse is the basis for artistic expression. Thousands of murals illuminate a city’s renaissance. A “City Walls” initiative turned into a full-scale, city-wide beautification program. It’s an act of communal, creative jiu-jitsu, a city as an artist’s canvas everywhere you look.

The same place that produced thirty Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees also morphed into a breeding ground of musical cross-pollination. Artist communes sprouted up, exemplified by Assemble Sound, a former church turned 24/7 recording studio.

Photograph by Sal Rodriguez / Library Street Collective

One of the most ingenious examples of reimagination is Rebel Nell. Amy Peterson, the founder of this social impact collective, discovered potential, in of all things, crumbling walls. Her team turns fallen graffiti into wearable art. These artists aren’t coming from design schools or hip neighborhoods. They’re women from homeless shelters in Detroit.

The list of imagined potential made real could go on and on.

A Change in Perspective.

Kim Rusinow is an ambassador every city needs. She runs a company called Destination Detroit Tours. Her clientele ranges from locals to business types to journalists wanting a bead on what’s happening. Her mission is simple: Change people’s lagging perceptions about the city.

I didn’t think much of touring my home city. I was born and spent half my life there. My family still lives in the suburbs. I do business and travel to Detroit often. People ask me about it, the people, its backstory.

I’ve always confidently answered as if I knew. Thanks to Kim’s tour, I realize how little I know — about its history, inner workings, and even my family’s place in it.

One of the city’s architectural beauties awakened a sense of ignorance. For almost three decades, The Argonaut Building housed The General Motors Research Laboratory. It was the heart of the world’s most innovative metropolis. Every GM car and technological marvels like the automatic transmission were designed there.

The Argonaut Building in New Center Detroit. It sits alongside GM World Headquarters and the Fisher Building. All were built and designed by famed architect Albert Khan.

I worked in The Argonaut Building, my first assignment for GM. The company’s new e-commerce unit, “eGM” symbolically set up shop there. This unit generated visions for future transportation, new shopping models, and in-vehicle services like OnStar. Immersed in the newness of it all, I missed the deeper story of where we physically were and the legacy we could build on.

I didn’t appreciate the history, and more importantly, the soul of the place. The neighborhood was in decline. I only saw despair and decay, whereas others would see inspiration, promise, and renewal.

My depiction of reality about my hometown is now skewed and weak. In seeking perspective about the world, I missed something right under my nose. My narrative didn’t depict the reality of Detroit and the expanse of potential being realized.

It’s an important lesson with application beyond a place. It’s a reminder about risk in surface assumptions, at times arrogantly naive ones, that impact potential in work, people, and situations. You must put in the time to see the whole picture.

Surface assessment carries risk in viewing transformation. Doom or renaissance. Decay or creation. End or beginning. Which narrative will you embrace?

Going beneath the surface is necessary to see situations with clear eyes. I rediscovered that cities, and hometowns, are good places to relearn this.

Kim, thank you for the reminder. You teach a great class about Detroit and the importance of perspective.

This post was originally published on Substack, called “Perspective Agents.”

Perspective Agents is also a book in development about ways of seeing in a digital world. It will to be published early next year.

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