Lecture Notes: the fall of a modern city | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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Lecture Notes: the fall of a modern city

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Downtown Detroit's elaborate Michigan Theatre movie house was built in the 1920s on the site where Henry Ford had created his first car. Attached to a larger building, the theater thrived through World War II, but--like the rest of Detroit--it fell on hard times in the 60s and 70s, becoming a porn theater, a supper club, and a concert hall in quick succession. "The owner tried to demolish it but couldn't, because it was structurally interdependent with the office tower," says Charles Waldheim, director of graduate studies at UIC's School of Architecture and coeditor of the new book Stalking Detroit.

Instead, in the late 70s the owner ripped out the balconies and put in a parking garage. "The velvet curtain is still there," says Waldheim. "They cut out what they needed to, and cars park in an Italianate plaster movie palace.

"It's a very pragmatic solution. It's very Detroit in that sense."

After World War II, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the U.S., with over two million inhabitants within the city limits. But city dwellers began leaving for the suburbs as early as the 1910s, when Henry Ford moved his auto-making operations north to Highland Park, where taxes were lower and labor was cheaper. Today the population is less than 950,000, and over the past decade the city has demolished an average of 2,000 buildings a year.

Most American cities have areas that have been abandoned because of decentralization and globalization--such as U.S. Steel's 600-acre South Works site in south Chicago--but, according to Waldheim, Detroit decentralized "first and fastest" because the city's economy was so inextricably tied to the auto industry. Detroit's rapid growth in the early 20th century and its calamitous decline in the postwar years were equally determined by the imperatives of that industry. Thus, argue Waldheim and his coeditors Georgia Daskalakis and Jason Young, "Detroit is the most thoroughly modern city in the world."

In 1994 Waldheim, Daskalakis, and Young, all architects, were teaching at the University of Michigan when they decided to join forces to work on a project that "examined the condition of American cities." Stalking Detroit, the result of their collaboration, is a slickly produced multidisciplinary anthology of essays, photos, and design projects that includes work by aerial photographer Alex MacLean and Barcelona-based photographers Monica Rosello and Jordi Bernado. In focusing on Detroit--a "typical yet extreme" case study of the effects of globalization--Waldheim says, "we've tried to document the physical reality that that economic system produced."

Waldheim will give a free slide lecture at 6 on Wednesday, October 2, in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit of photos, diagrams, drawings, and texts from the book. It's at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton, where the exhibit--also titled "Stalking Detroit"--will be up through November 14; for more information call 312-787-4071 or see www.grahamfoundation.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/S. Dinh/Robert Drea.

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