- Introduction: Cities and the Narratives That Build Them
Cincinnati. Detroit. Pittsburgh. St. Louis. Flint. Those major cities of what has come to be known as the Rust Belt were our initial inspiration for the 2014 Midwest MLA conference theme, “The Lives of Cities.” Living in the Midwest, one is surrounded by the decaying powerhouses of the industrial age, testaments both to the cyclical nature of urban growth and decline and to the very specific economic crises that have befallen manufacturing centers in the United States. Those struggles are often expressed in numbers—disproportionately high unemployment rates, sobering crime statistics, depressingly low educational test scores—but are embodied in the citizens whose lives are far more than these statistics alone. And they are embodied in the built environments of these cities, which are replete with tangible reminders of their past prosperity.
In this regard, locations such as Detroit’s Packard factory complex stand as both landmark and eyesore. After production there ceased, the facility was allowed to spend almost sixty years slowly crumbling, acquiring graffiti by everyone from local teenagers to (purportedly) Banksy. Its vastness was turned to many uses: shelter, icon of urban blight, adventure playground, symbol of mismanagement. Scrappers [End Page 7] stripped the buildings of much of their valuable metal, glass broke, the weather invaded, and the structural integrity of the enormous production facility failed as spectacularly as had America’s most luxurious automobile brand. The plant ultimately became a forty-acre hazard of derelict buildings whose dangers included collapsed roofs and rotted-out floors, drug dealers and, most sensationally, a tiger on the loose.
The tiger was also a marker of one kind of urban “renewal” because, like many other ruins in Detroit, the Packard plant had become an attraction precisely due to its fallen grandeur. Urban explorers, makers of post-apocalyptic films, tourists, and—in the case of the tiger—wildlife photographers alternately breached “No Trespassing” signs and applied for permits to explore and document the glorious wreckage. The tiger’s escape (an incident that occurred at the same time that we were reading and choosing essays for this volume) was clearly not part of anyone’s plan. In fact, while the photographer in question had applied for a permit to work in the Packard plant, he had allegedly neglected to mention the wild animals he was planning to use for the photo shoot. He also apparently neglected to provide himself with adequate animal wranglers to deal with a full-grown tiger. Crew members on the shoot, who had been told they would be working with “models,” resorted to calling their local friends for assistance, and the entrepreneurial founder of the Detroit Bus Company—armed only with a weed-whacker and a Twitter account—broke the story of the capture attempt as he was helping it unfold.
While no one at the Midwest MLA could possibly have anticipated a jungle-cats-in-abandoned-buildings angle on our Lives of Cities theme, and, indeed, none of the academic essays in this volume include tigers, this bizarre incident at the Packard plant highlights the complexities of talking about precisely how to read contemporary urban landscapes. Are they derelict markers of economic failure? Ripe for a renaissance? Downtrodden? Hopeful? Should they be used as artists’ canvases, treated as problems to solve, or mythologized as emblems of a reimagined future? Are cities themselves defined by their architecture or their people? Their arts or their governments? And what do these narratives of cities today have to do with literary and social narratives of cities of the past, whether real or imagined?
For a start, the highest-profile places in decaying cities become metaphors as much as or more than they are considered realities. The [End Page 8] Packard plant has long been colloquially understood as a metonym for the failure of Detroit, a city full of abandoned land and buildings, sites plagued by industrial pollution and unpaid back taxes, too caught up in bureaucratic processes to sell, too far gone to develop. The fenced-off mess that was once a gleaming Packard production line stands for mismanagement and unsolvable problems, economic forces of a post-industrial information age...