Kabul's main boulevard circa 1995. Pic by Steve McCurry
This is a tale of two cities, once proud in their own ways and now reduced to a shadow of their former glory. It is a story that harks back to the hippy trail of Afghanistan and the humming asphalt of America; the silk road of Kabul and the streetlights of Detroit.
It is a story that follows the time-honoured trajectory of rise, fall and possible redemption. It is fragranced with the aroma of opium poppies, exhaust fumes and the shit of kamikaze camels. But finally it’s a story about the necessity of contraction, urban and imperial.
But hush, the lights are dimming. Look now. See the needle drop on the vinyl. Hear Paul Simon’s thin voice singing faintly.
“It’s carbon and monoxide, that ole Detroit perfume. It hangs on the highways in the morning, and it lays you down by noon… ”
A foggy Detroit morning. Pic by MiSkyPig at Flickr.
“Oh, Papa Papa Hobo, Could you slip me a ride? Well, it’s just after breakfast, I’m on the road, and the weatherman lied.” Paul Simon.
It’s long after breakfast in the chronology of Detroit’s day. It’s dusk and it’s cold out there. The ride has stalled and the streets are empty. It’s a bad time to be a hobo, lying weathermen or no, but with an unemployment rate of 28.9%, the city’s producing not a few.
This metropolis used to be known as the “Paris of the West” for its architecture. Did you know that? It used to be the center of American industry and engineering. But all the roaring machismo of mankind’s oily ingenuity has fallen pretty quiet here. It’s looking a little ragged round the edges.
It used to be a city of purring wheels. High rollers. The Big Bankrupt Three are headquartered here: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. But you knew that.
It’s full of “little wheels” now. That’s what roulette means in French. Did you know that? Yeah, they’ve replaced much of the industry with casinos. People throwing money away: that’s what they call urban regeneration these days. Did you know that? They call it regeneration, poker-faced.
(Sure, your occasional off-duty cop is gonna burn twenty-thousand odd at the MGM Grand and then shoot themselves in the head at the blackjack table, but that’s collateral damage, you can roll with it.)
Remember that song by Buffy Saint-Marie? “Little wheel spin and spin, big wheel turn around and around”? Well that little wheel’s spinning but the big wheel has pretty much juddered to a halt. “Hearts they shrink and pockets swell, everybody know and nobody tell”. Yeah, that just about sums it up too I guess. Though there ain’t too many pockets swollen round here at the end of the day.
The motor city has been shrinking for over half a century. Yeah, more than a million people have fled this place since the 1950s. There were two million folks working and drinking and singing here back in the days after World War Two. It’s less than half that now and the city’s falling apart. If you leave the casinos behind you and head out of town, you’ll encounter packs of wild dogs flitting like shadows in and out of burnt down suburban houses. There are things that are green and grow wildly wedging unforgiving fingers in crumbling redbrick.
You know, someone from Newsweek drove every street of the city back in 2007. This is what they saw from their car window:
People living ordinary American lives amid an extraordinary landscape of abandoned and burned-out homes, factories, schools, and stores in what was once the epicenter of American manufacturing. Even Detroit’s many gracious neighborhoods have boarded-up homes, and some blocks are ghost towns in miniature, with house after house empty and crumbling.
And that was before the recession. Gracious indeed.
The devastation here is a tourist attraction now. Folks gape at the “extraordinary landscape” and those brave-hearted photographers who fear no hobos and dare to pick their way through the nettles to snap decrepitude on their pricey Nikons. Holy fuck, it’s like one of the wonders of the world now. Or an inverse image thereof. You’d think people had never seen a busted-up city before. Well, sing on Mr. Simon:
“Sweep up, I been sweeping up the tips I’ve made. I been livin’ on Gatorade, planning my getaway. Detroit, Detroit.”
A foggy Kabul morning. Pic by Gregory Maassen
Hell, you want to see a busted-up city? I’ll show you people a busted-up city:
Now sure, Detroit’s seen its fair share of battles. The French vs. the Indians in 1760 was no joke. And the unemployed councils vs. Henry Ford in 1932? That was some serious shit too. Yeah, more people died in the Ford Hunger March massacre in the depths of the depression than when the British put the whole city under siege back in 1813. Most people don’t know that..
But why not leave Detroit for a moment. Step away from the squalor of the slot machines and follow me as the crow flies 6859 kilometers east. There’s no mistaking this place. Kites fly above houses that make your suburban Detroit wreck look like a mansion. Wedding parties fire AK47s madly upwards, mountains jut up from the plateau. Everyone’s got a beard. Hell, even the women might have them: you wouldn’t know, they’re all covered up:
Welcome to Kabul.
Now, rewind a second. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t seem fair to make your better half live under a shroud with a hole in it, but bear with me, there’s probably good reason for that. You see, Afghanistan has been invaded by more megalomaniacal motherfuckers than you can shake a hookah at.
Wedged in a chaotic sprawl up between the peaks of the Hindu Kush for some 3000 years, it’s survived Alexander the Great, Timur the Lame, Gengis the Khan and George the W. Bush. Not to mention the squaddies of the British and the Soviet Empires. With that kind of company dropping by I’d probably keep my woman under wraps too.
But your local Pashtun, Tajik, Pashtai, Aimak, Hazara, Uzbek and Turkmen masses know how to look after themselves. They’ve given a few of those empires the finger in their lifetime and lived to tell the tale. Not too shoddy for a country that basically makes a living from growing flowers. Your Afghan florist is clearly not to be fucked with.
Kabul is looking less than pretty though; roses on every table? I think not. But you can hardly blame the mayor. The city’s taken a royal beating over recent decades; hell, if you think you’d look all that after being repeatedly mortared in the face you’d probably better think again.
(Detroit may have come under siege by senior British officer Major General Isaac Brock in 1813, but the American army there surrendered without a fight. Shit. They don’t pussy out, fly the white flag, or sit mute at the casino in Kabul while their suburbs rot. Only roulette they play out here is the Russian kind. But easy now: this place needs a lick of paint as bad as Detroit, not more blood splatters and bullet holes.)
The first Marks and Spencer store in Central Asia was built here in the 1960s, d’you know that? It’s long gone now, along with the pot-smoking dudes who rocked up around the same time in their colourful vans — some of them no doubt built in Detroit — to chat shit and chill before heading onwards down the Hippie Trail to Peshawar or Lahore, Goa or Kathmandu.
They certainly liked their flowers those hippies. And anyone in the know knows it’s all about the poppies out here in Kabul: big crimson, satin-petaled opium poppies, papaver somniferum, that sway somnambulantly in the sun.
Somebody better tell those Americans. They bombed this place with something called the “daisy cutter” back in 2003. That’s the world’s largest conventional weapon with a lethal radius of 900 feet to you and me. I think it’s called the BLU-82B/C-130 to the technically minded. Whatever. It’s designed to kill your missus and the kids.You could say the mayor wasn’t thrilled: it wasn’t really what Kabul needed. Besides, we don’t grow any damn daisies here. Total poppycock. Get the fuck out.
Abandoned factory, Detroit. Photographer unknown.
Talking of bombs, Detroit’s made bombs: in fact, you could even say that it’s the bombs that have made Detroit, or at least its freeways. You see, when the U.S. entered WWII on December 7, 1941, getting enough bombs to rain down on those Nazi Scheißters was serious business . So October the following year a brand-new, four-lane expressway from Motor City to munitions plants just out of town in Ypsilanti opened up.
It started as just a way to get Detroit workers to the bomb factories in Ypsilanti quicker and more efficiently, but ended up growing into a freeway extending first to, then through Detroit on the east and bypassing Ann Arbor on the west; a key link in the system of freeways in and around greater Detroit. (Hey, someone has to say it: I bet drivers used to bomb down that road.)
But Detroit’s not making too many munitions nor cars anymore. And present-day mayor and former Pistons star Dave Bing has said only half the city’s land is being used productively, though the wild dog packs might disagree. The city is going to have to prune itself back. In nearby Flint, the local authority has already pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas and some streets now just peter out into woods or meadows. It won’t be too long before nature reclaims the bitumen. The big city is going to have to do the same.
It doesn’t come easily; in the heartlands of capitalism growth is an ideal to be sustained at all costs, even at the cost of sustainability. But you can’t keep puffing away at a balloon with a gaping hole in it, and the man behind the scheme in Flint, Dan Kildee, has been approached by the US government and asked to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Concentrating on 50 cities identified in a recent study as needing to shrink substantially to cope with their decline, Dan the Man includes Detroit on that list.
But just handing the damn town back to the prairie ain’t too imaginative: Detroit is surrounded by fresh water and green spaces. When life gives you lemons you gotta make lemonade. This smoking metropolis could wind up the cleanest, most liveable, environmentally friendly place in Michigan if it plays its cards right. One can only dream; call it the American Dream.
It’s not like you gotta look too far to find bright ideas. Shit, just give historian Mark Dowie a soapbox for a minute:
Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food.* And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.
Someone ought to put that man in touch with Michigan’s senator.
A U.S. marine narrowly avoids Taliban fire. Pic by Goran Tomasevic
Detroit’s man in Washington, Sen. Carl Levin (D.-Michigan) is not thinking about a few shoddy suburbs or feral dog packs though. His mind’s elsewhere — 6859 kilometers east as the crow flies to be precise — and on grander things than the decline of the city he represents and its potential saviour by goddam urban farmers and fresh vegetables. But he is thinking about trimming back, albeit soldiers not suburbs.
See, the occupation of Afghanistan isn’t going too well, as Gengis, Tamur, or any Victorian fool in a pith helmet could have warned it wouldn’t. So Senator Levin’s been busy letting the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, know in no uncertain terms that he’s not keen on putting more American boots on the ground around Kabul.
Now close to a third of Detroit’s folks are out of work. Shouldn’t he be thinking about them, you ask? Maybe he is: I doubt any of them want to end up in the Hindu Kush getting shot at by some bearded Pashtun florist with a fucking AK. (What the hell do they put in the water out there anyway?)
The devil you know is better for Michigan’s citizens, Carl’s thinking — when he thinks about them at all — and there’s already 65,000 troops out there in Afghanistan. And besides, when you’re faced with an enemy that’s countering your daisy cutters with exploding camels, you should know you’re in deep shit; it must be time to leave the kamikaze quadropods and their owners in peace and head home to the suburbs, or whats left of them.
Can’t faster action be taken to build up and train Afghanistan’s army and police forces, to supply them with arms and equipment, and to get lower-level insurgents to switch loyalties from the Taliban to their own local defense forces? Carl asked his committee lugubriously over a pair of pince-nez, rocking from side-to-side as he sat there a few days back like an elderly, indignant bear.
Those actions would demonstrate the U.S. commitment to success in the war “while avoiding the risks associated with a further increase in U.S. ground combat troops.”
You could say the senator’s right to be a little fretful and chewing his claws; just days earlier Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, had wondered aloud whether Western powers now in Afghanistan were running the risk of suffering the fate of the Soviet Union.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the old foreign policy maven with the consonant-heavy name meant simply localised failure or the collapse of the whole troubled edifice that is the American empire, but as Levin flew back over his own crumbling citadel he might have looked down and concluded there are not a few lessons to be drawn and things to be done back home in Detroit.
*(Unbelievably, as Dowie writes, the city is close to becoming a food desert. Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city; a city of more than a million people… Those looking to feed their families on healthy food in inner-city Detroit are in for a challenge. But the man’s got ideas…)
One obvious solution [for Detroiters] is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits.
Michigan Central Station. Disused since 1988. Pic by Romain Meffre
Darulaman Palace, Kabul. Pic by SirFin at Panoramio.