Remembering the 1967 Detroit Riot, part 5: “All that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth”

by Brian Matzke on July 23, 2017

“All that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth”:
Detroit since the riot

Don’t Ask
Philip Levine

So Ask
Essays, Conversations, and Interviews
Philip Levine

The Bread of Time
Toward an Autobiography
Philip Levine

Detroit Is No Dry Bones
The Eternal City of the Industrial Age
Camilo José Vergara

The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit
Andrew Herscher

The legacy of the riots can be felt in the poetry of the U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine, whose “They Feed They Lion” was inspired by his visit to his hometown of Detroit after the riots, and his feelings of fear and rage:

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

In the interviews collected in Don’t Ask, Levine calls this poem “a celebration of anger,” and he refers to the riot as “the insurrection of 1967.” His words indicate how the events of July 1967 have come to be honored, sometimes even romanticized, in the history of the city, but the lasting effects of the riot are difficult to measure.

Levine reflects on the city of Detroit in his memoir, The Bread of Time, and finds continuity between the city of his boyhood in the 1930s, and the city as it exists in the 21st century. He describes it as “A city choking on the ills of the Great Depression, though it was no worse off then than it is now, despised and avoided during the glory days of Reagan-Bush economics and racism” (33). As a focal point of American racial and class struggle from the 1930s to the 1960s to today, Detroit has lived through a series of narratives of its decline.

In recent decades, the city’s population has continued to shrink. It was the first American city whose population dipped under 1 million after having been over 1 million. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit lost a staggering 25% of its population, and today it is home to about 677,000 people, its lowest number since 1850. As a result of this loss of people, tax revenues have declined and homes and other buildings have been abandoned, leading to a decaying infrastructure that further perpetuates the narrative of decline, creating a vicious cycle.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this cycle of decline, the city continues to boast a vibrant community of activists, artists, and urban explorers. Attracted to urban ruins, photographer Camilo Jose Vergara has been documenting Detroit for 25 years. He observes:

An interest in urban decline and deterioration clashes with the prevailing cult of hope that favors such dictums as ‘Nothing Stops Detroit,” “Don’t Dump on Detroit,” “Speak Positively About Detroit,” “Detroit vs. Everybody,” and “If You Can’t Say Something Nice About Detroit, Don’t Say Anything At All.” My view is that grand ruined buildings, and a green, largely vacant city, can coexist with economic development (1).

Vergara puts this philosophy into practice in his book of photography, Detroit is No Dry Bones, highlighting the beauty and life that can be found in the “ruined” city.

University of Michigan Architecture Professor Andrew Herscher also tries to get beyond the impression that Detroit is a problem in need of solving, asking:

What if Detroit has lost population, jobs, infrastructure, investment, and all else that the conventional narratives point to–but precisely as a result of those losses, has gained opportunities to understand and engage novel urban conditions? What if one sort of property value has decreased in Detroit–the exchange value brokered by the failing market economy–but other sorts of values have reciprocally increased, use values that lack salience or even existence in that economy? What if Detroit has not only fallen apart, emptied out, disappeared and/or shrunk, but also transformed, becoming a sort of urban formation that only appears depleted, voided or abjected through the lense of conventional architecture and urbanism?

In the eyes of people like Vergara and Herscher, contemporary Detroit presents opportunities to build new kinds of communities, communities that Henry Ford and the UAW and Jerome Cavanagh had all failed to create in decades past. Detroit, in their accounts, rejects the norms and standards by which it is viewed as a “ruined” city. In a way, this rejection perpetuates the spirit of the riot–or insurrection–of 1967: refusal to accept externally imposed norms, rage at failing schools and unemployment, rebellion against police shootings and raids on blind pigs. Detroit may be a “ruined” city, but it is also revolutionary.

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