Ruins

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After hanging around the ruins in Athens for a week it's fascinating the way they weave through the fabric of the city. Constructing anything new must be a monumental headache when every excavation for foundations might reveal something significant from one of the many cities that have been built in the same place.

Per the Oxford Dictionary ruin as a noun is defined as “the physical destruction or disintegration of something or the state of disintegrating or being destroyed.” Ruins certainly can create great value. Athenian tourism is largely built on this mother lode of archeological gold. Ruins are the attractions that draw throngs that drive adjacent real estate demand for shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Ruins are also important to help cities create a shared narrative. Though it seems enough time must pass before the pain of events passes to allow ruins to be marshaled for storytelling.

Everyone knows the accomplishments of Athens during its classic era drives a compelling narrative concerning the cradle of western civilization, the birthplace of democracy, and the elevation of logic and reason by philosophers.

More recent history, equally fascinating and insightful, lurks in the shadows. The emergence of the modern Greek State starting with Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, through the Greek Civil War 1946-49, spans governance forms from in-bred European monarchies to the Cold War.

Included within this time are also major Christian-Islamic conflicts including the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 and the 1923 Exchange of Populations where 2,000,000 survivors of WWI and the Greco Turkish War were forcibly relocated. More than 1.2 million Christian Greeks in Asia Minor were uprooted and moved to Greece while nearly 500,000 Greek Muslims were moved to Turkey.

From ancient to modern times, wave after wave of building up and destruction of city and society occurred. The Enlightenment notion of “progress” seems silly in this context. The Greeks have circumnavigated from one beginning to the next for over five thousand years.

Ruins in such a setting are important to mark the ages and remember the cycles of history. In North America we don’t have the long historical context to fully appreciate these cycles.

Just one cycle of birth/destruction – the fire that wiped Detroit out in 1805 – inspired Gabriel Richard to select Latin phrases Speramus Meliora and Resurget Cineribus or “We hope for better things" and "It will rise from the ashes" as the city’s motto.

While pride is growing in the nascent resurgence of the City there is an opportunity to better tell the story of the latest round of birth/destruction/rebirth. 

The kind of destruction that took place between 1960 and 2010 rivals the destruction that was done when Greece was leveled in wars of conquest. How can we leverage ruins to tell stories that might build a stronger narrative so that future Detroit might avoid the 20th Century pitfalls that brought the City to its knees?

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Michigan Central Station is a great place to start. It is a profound marker that properly utilized can both make Corktown an even hotter tourist destination but also remind us of how we in America in the 20th Century leveraged the automobile and unprecedented affluence to unleash destructive forces more lethal than wars of conquest and weapons of mass destruction.

Here are just a few narratives this ruin could inspire:

First off, it’s a great reminder of the 20th century battle between building up vs. building out. Frank Lloyd Wright remarked, “the outcome of the city will depend on the race between the automobile and the elevator, and anyone who bets on the elevator is crazy.”

What better place than the Motor City to have a war memorial to celebrate the victory of the auto over the elevator. That those upper floors were never occupied gives great testimony that this building went up at the exact time the auto dictated that cities were going out. Not to mention the triumph of the auto over all other forms of transportation, especially the train.

From time to time, and usually right before the bubble bursts, investors overreach anything that is remotely sustainable and Michigan Central Station embodies this cyclical tendency. Finished as the Roaring 20’s were drawing to a close, it perfectly caps the end of Detroit’s most successful decade.

Ownership by billionaire Matty Mouron is also part of the narrative here. Private ownership of vital public infrastructure is a very important discussion that will soon explode as President Trump seeks to improve American infrastructure.

Curation of ruins is an important issue too. Unlike Athenians or even Los Angelinos, we have a freeze/thaw cycle that wreaks havoc on ruins. Dedicating funds to shed water is key to survival of ruins. Here even recent replacement windows can become part of the story by encouraging a discussion about authenticity.

With our climate, the Michigan Central Station will not persist over the centuries as have those in Athens. If we carefully curate the ruin and use Michigan Central Station to inform a genuine narrative about our city, it would create something of great value.

Tourists would come and spend lots of money in the vicinity, but Detroiters might think more deeply about city making, about the role of oligarchs in building important infrastructure, about how we might encourage the elevator to continue to take market share away from the automobile, and about how we might build a different city – a city more sustainable than the last one Detroit built.