Detroit: “This Place Will Bloom”

When vampire Adam leaves his house in an abandoned Detroit neighbourhood in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), the front-yard abounds with rampant grass. This grass is nature, is life. In the media perception of the last years, however, the bankrupt city in southeast Michigan evokes the rhetoric of death, from Bloomberg’s “Detroit Is Dead” to the Guardian’s “death of a great American city.” The conceptual contradiction is rooted in the present-day understanding of a living city as an economically functional organism. Urban researchers such as Richard Hornsey and David Harvey have suggested that socio-economic power is connected to spatial control of the city.[1] Henry Ford’s spatiotemporally coordinated labour processes at the Highland Park plant neighbouring Detroit were an example in the work space;[2] the restriction of nature to a groomed rectangular front-garden lawn an example in residential space. The wild grass demarcates the present loss of economic and spatial power exercised in the past. At the same time, the flourishing residential wilderness relates to the future. Detroit, at the Detroit River, “will rise again. […] There’s water here,” says Adam’s vampire wife Eve. “[W]hen the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.” Note the double connotation of the term “bloom” that is economic and natural. In this logic, the natural resources will tempt humans’ economic resources back to this urban area. The forlorn fire hydrant on the sidewalk will operate because Detroit will have both the money and the water for it. A single Detroit front-yard collapses not only the past, present, and future but also the cause and consequence of the conditions of Western living. The cause is the nineteenth-to-twentieth-century machine age; the consequence is global warming for which the industrial craze is widely blamed. The film casts Detroit as a microcosm of space and time. Yet, some questions remain unanswered: If Detroit transforms again into a “great American city,” will it again control its people and spaces? Will the grass be “put in its place”? What new and old prices will its population and the environment have to pay? While Ford has begun to turn to “greener” production in Michigan, Only Lovers Left Alive never mentions the Garden of Eden that the protagonists’ names Adam and Eve evoke.[3]

Elisa Jochum

[1] David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989); Richard Hornsey, The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly Life in Postwar London (Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
[2] Richard Hornsey, “‘He Who Thinks, in Modern Traffic, Is Lost’: Automation and the Pedestrian Rhythms of Interwar London,” in Geographies of Rhythm: Nature, Place, Mobilities and Bodies, ed. Tim Edensor (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 101; Bill Vlasic, “Detroit Is Now a Charity Case for Carmakers,” NYTimes.com, September 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/business/detroit-is-now-a-charity-case-for-carmakers.html?adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1417615611-d8SuMd/7Ie0bjyCG6HHKNw.
[3] Bill Vlasic, “Ford and Detroit Rivals Make Strides in Fuel Economy,” The New York Times, January 6, 2011, sec. Business Day, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/business/07green.html.