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From the Ruins that Fueled Detroit Techno to the Sound of Suburban Foreclosures

“Imagine a city designed for 4 million people that only less than a million people occupy now.”
—Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance


“While the ruins of the postwar settlement’s architecture – the under-maintained estates, the yawningly wide plazas, the vertiginous new spaces of towers and walkways – elicited aesthetic responses in post-punk and electronic music that matched the starkness, power and modernity of their setting, how do you respond critically to something that is trying so desperately not to offend?”
—Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, The Guardian, 15 October 2010


The once-bustling metropolis known as Detroit was, in a bygone time, the center of the known universe. The epicenter of the American auto industry, Detroit provided the backbone to the economy of a country that would find itself becoming, after the wreckage of World War II, the world’s premier superpower. New York may have kept its cultural and physical capital well-stocked and Los Angeles may have packaged the American Dream as a product for motion picture audiences to admire but, as the seed of industrialization, Detroit was the energy that made that superpower go.


By 1976, Newsweek declared Detroit a “wasteland that already numbers thousands of vacant and vandalized homes”. The plants and the manufacturing base had been hit hard by the energy crisis and were soon to be struck down again by the restructuring of neoliberalization. Unemployment during this period disproportionately affected blacks. Those in the African-American community who could find work for the auto-makers were given more dangerous jobs. Fordism’s model of compensating workers high enough living wages to afford the products they produced was withering under a crippled economy in the midst of a recession. When lawmakers and tycoons proposed postmodern solutions to the damage done in the ‘70s, the effects would ripple for years to come, cresting and ebbing the world economy in and out of crisises until each temporary solution’s bubble popped, raining hellfire down on the people the ruling classes deemed most expendable.


By 1982, Detroit had only half of the manufacturing jobs it had in 1962. White flight, which had begun during the post-war rush to the suburbs and escalated after the racially-charged 1967 Twelfth Street riots, continued as the city’s fortunes declined.  At the time of the 1976 Newsweek article, over 800 properties per month were being abandoned. The city looked in part like it had been firebombed, a post-apocalyptic panorama of glutted buildings, scorched homes, broken windows, malfunctioning cars forsaken in the streets, and weeds attempting to sprout through the cracks in the pavement. It’s notable that one of the most unique landmarks still present in the ruins of Detroit is a majestic old theater that was converted into a parking garage. The shiny new cars resting inside a reconstructed relic tell a new story for new kind of theater, the tale of a city whose exoskeleton fell apart as its defining technologic industry continued to breath a life of its own. (“The Ruins of Detroit: Exploring the Urban Crisis in the Motor City,” by Kevin Boyle, The Michigan Historical Review.  Volume 27. Number 1. Spring 2001.)





Then, in 1983, a record by a Detroit-based group led off with a track whose chorus commanded its listeners to “Enter the new round/ Enter the next phase”. Although this cut had a proggy vibe and was punctuated by snarling guitars, it was the jaunty and precise synthesizers underneath the guitars that would dominate the majority of the release. Like a parallax twin to the nascent cyberpunk movement, Cybotron’s Enter took this now-familiar image of Detroit as demilitarized zone, and replaced the neo-noir hues with the cold gloom of neon mechanical funk. Cybotron’s Detroit was a city colonized by technology and automation, lock-stepped in perpetual forward momentum by the steady clicks of a metronomic drum machine foreman. 


Taking cues from the growing popularity of the synthpop being played on The Electrifying Mojo’s Detroit radio show, Cybotron’s electronic apparatus anticipated the technological obsolescence of traditional music and decided to ride the Third Wave into the future. “The general attitude [in Detroit] with the powers-that-be is that industry must die to make way for technology,” Cybotron’s Juan Atkins would later say, but Atkins wasn’t about to be outdone by machines. Instead, he decided to merge with one, to preach the gospel of cyborg consciousness while remaining critical of the coming onslaught of the incoming information market. “The climate has definitely affected us,” Atkins said of Detroit’s ghost town ambiance, potent historicity, and widely prevalent inequity. “I think that we probably wouldn’t have developed this sound in any other city in America… There is a certain atmosphere here that you can’t find in any other city that lends to the technological movement.”  (“Electronic Enigma: The Myths and Messages of Detroit Techno”, Andy Thomas, Wax Poetics. 45, January/February 2011, Create Digital Music.com)


Though Atkins and his classmates Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson had grown up in suburban Belleville, they were all a product of the same racially-segregated housing schema that divided Detroit. It was in the empty spaces of the depopulated city, a place where it seemed like all hope had left, that the Belleville Three saw opportunity as they began to DJ regular dance parties. Using the prototype of Kraftwerk, who had found that the only way to rebuild after the Nazi catastrophe was to create a ripe and unique identity, the progenitors of techno music had a clear vision for the activation of something heretofore unknown. The “Strings of Life” were birth pangs. “Techno City” was a third place whose department of defense was “Off to Battle”. But most primal was the pleasure center (“Big Fun”/”Good Life”), which leveled the forces of class, racial, gender, and sexual difference.








“Tomorrow is a brand new day” a dry robotic voice remarked on Cybotron’s “Clear”.  “Clear all this space/ Clear today/ Clear your mind”.  In a place where it looked like there was none, three black kids making somewhat amateur music in Detroit had invented the future.


What followed was a remarkable flux. In Detroit and elsewhere, empty spaces began to fill with people. Techno and rave’s venue of choice was the discarded warehouse, the ones that used to house all the things once made in the depopulated cities that these events were cropping up in. As money had shifted from technology designed to build and produce to information technologies, corporations had relocated their factories to places where fair wages and workers’ rights were non-existent, gutting unskilled labor of its primary means of equitable living (that is, until the banks and the credit card companies began distributing loans en masse to people who couldn’t afford to repay them). Raves reappropriated urban ruins (illegally, mind you) almost as a reflexive defiance to the terms of the postmodern economic model. What’s more, by transgressing lines drawn by race, gender, and sexual orientation, techno reversed the tensions that had divided Detroit and other disadvantaged areas, which was significant even if this new heterotopian space was a subcultural blip compared to the larger forces of control and domination.


Fast forward to 2012, where the US is slowly recovering from another severe economic downturn. Techno and dance music’s accelerated drive of novelty and invention has long since sloped, preferring to focus on gradation and variation rather than innovation. Amalgamations of existing styles still result in the occasional new sound, but reverence to those old forms is usually a roadblock to the kind of sublimation that made so many of those original styles so special. In Detroit, techno is still thriving, but its vision of the future is stagnant and date-stamped. 


The latest recession caused huge waves, bankrupting large governments and skyrocketing unemployment across the globe. However, while a couple of large companies didn’t make it out alive, most of the largest lending institutions and wild west speculators did not lose their collective shirts, in fact they barely even got dirty. The big banks began reporting profits again almost immediately after the bailout and some have even surpassed their own record profits at this point. 





Meanwhile labor, particularly the homeowner, continues to struggle. The national unemployment rate averaged 8.9 percent in 2011, which was down from 9.6 percent in 2010, but still significantly higher than the 8.5 percent rate hit in 1975, the peak year for unemployment during the energy crisis, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Homeowner vacancies linger around 2.5 percent nationally, but spike much higher in some regions. According to the foreclosure tracking agency RealtyTrac, there are over one million homes currently in foreclosure. The FDIC estimates that one in every 200 homes will be foreclosed upon in the future and one in every 624 homes was in a foreclosure in 2011. In Detroit, the number of buildings and homes going into foreclosure per year easily tops the 800 tracked by Newsweek in 1976, and several studies have proven that minorities and lower income families living in rental properties have been disproportionately affected by the housing crash.


Yet, this ruination is not exclusively a working class problem. It has also had a crippling effect on the white collar worker, the “brain” to the former manufacturing base’s “brawn”, proving that Capital’s body without organs needs neither the corporeal nor the cerebral contributions of social democracies to prosper. Suburbs, the miniature cities built on the hill, are now a mishmash of consolidated commerce, decentralized neighborhoods, and marketplacs which resemble nothing so much as Eastern Europe during the final days of Communism, the only difference being the burnt-out halogen storefront logos casting a ghostly shadow over the streetscape. Main Streets were already in a state of entropy from the eviction of mom and pop stores by the big box chains, but now many of those larger retailers are starting to see their own lights dim, as well.

Timothy Gabriele is a writer who studied English and Film at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst. He currently lives in the New Haven, CT region with his wife, his daughter, his dog, and two cats. His column, The Difference Engine, appears regularly at PopMatters. He can be found twittering @Wildcorrective and blogging at 555 Enterprises.


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