Rusting & Rebirth


Richard Serra 1971 ‘Mozarabe’, Josephine Ford Sculpture Garden, Detroit,

In 1981 a controversy erupted over the installation at Federal Plaza in New York City over Tilted Arc a steel sculpture 120 feet long by 12 feet high. Eight years later, workers cut the sculpture into three pieces in the dead of night and carted it away as scrap. In many ways the work of this iconic sculpture’s work parallels, in an inversely proportional way the decline of what is lovingly called the American Rust Belt. Serra’s Tilted Arc cost $175,000 at the time. Serra was just rising to emergence in the contemporary art scene and was an outspoken figure, representing the paradigm of ‘working class’ emergence as befitting the American dream. Today, Richard Serra’s work requires a ‘deposit’ of $1m and costs at minimum, if he chooses your site as worthy, upwards of $3m.

The documentary Detropia highlights this decline of the very manufacturing base that gave Serra his early know-how in manipulating steel. It examines the sharp decline since 1950 in the city of Detroit and its huge manufacturing base, in their case automobiles. Filmed from the perspective of local inhabitants who have a stake in the city, the film poignantly reveals the human side to the American decline in manufacturing and in turn, the downfall of the Rust Belt.

DETROPIA Trailer from Loki Films on Vimeo.

I grew up just 40 minutes east of Buffalo, NY. In the 1970’s Buffalo was a big flourishing city with a manufacturing base built on the Bethlehem Steel mill in Lackawanna, General Motors and Standard Milling. It was also just south of the world famous Niagara Falls, which provided robust summer tourism to the area. Unfortunately by 1971 Buffalo’s population, much like Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh was already experiencing a downward trend. As of the 2010 census Buffalo’s population stands at 261,000 almost precisely 50% of it’s high point in 1950. 1971 saw the announcement that Bethlehem Steel would lay off 50% of its workforce due to competition from Japan and Germany. By the end of the decade that number was mirrored by other steel mills, General Motors and the milling operations. Combine that data with the superfund site discovery in 1978 called the Love Canal and it is easy to see why Buffalo’s population has declined so dramatically. In the last ten years alone, Buffalo’s population has declined 10% while housing prices plummet along with the rise in crime and unemployment.

Richard Serra bounced back nicely from his defeat by a federal courthouse in 1989. He has seen the expansion of America’s most important modern art museum, the Museum of Modern Art in NY with planning that specifically took into account the promise of his retrospective. In many ways this is a cruel irony. I in no way am diminishing Serra’s work or his standing as one of the greatest 20th century sculptors. Rather I am pointing out that the artist that brings us most of our global cultural recognition works in a material that harkens back to an era when American dominated the international manufacturing landscape. Now we dismantle Detroit’s ruins, angling toward an ‘urban farmscape’ so the scrap that is salvaged by the destitute there can be shipped to China and reprocessed into junk we don’t need. The dominant grandeur that is a Richard Serra sculpture no longer lives in the cities that made that expression possible.

There is a glimmer of hope in Detropia, where young artists are relocating to Detroit in order to find cheap rents and lots of space to experiment and create. Detroit has always been a hot bed of creativity, especially in music with Motown and Techno. If there is an American spirit left it could very likely find its home in the rebirth of Detroit. Add this to the fact that for better or worse the planet is getting hotter and the southern states that seemed cozy to baby boomers will not be so appealing to future generations. Finally, if we can sideline petty politics long enough, we can find Detroit may have a huge potential for reinventing our economy through renewable technologies. Little known is that Detroit contains 1400 acres of abandoned salt mines below its surface that could be a future containment vessel for carbon sequestered or hydrogen storage. Serra, a child of the depression, understands how learning from decline and war can produce great art. Lets hope it does the same for the young artists moving to the Rust Belt.

As the film points out, where Detroit goes, so goes America. We need to be weary of globalization, the emergence of the Chinese economy and our destruction of both unions and the middle class. We have added over 1 million millionaires since Obama took office while production of automobiles continues to move to China and Mexico. If you think this is a matter of pure labor costs as some would like you to believe and overpriced union demands, think again. In 2010 Germany produced 5.5 million automobiles to America’s 2.7 million. The average German auto worker made $67.14 per hour (including benefits – and keep in mind they have socialized medicine in Germany) while U.S. auto workers were paid $33.77 an hour. BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen are some of the most profitable auto manufacturers in the world. Last year, Germany is fourth globally in manufacturing as a percent of GDP and fourth overall in total manufacturing production. China is now number one, with the U.S. as number two, however we’re 7th and declining as a percentage of GDP and Germany’s population is a mere 80 million compared to our robust 300 million and China’s enormous 1.1bn. All this from a country that was largely razed to the ground 60 years ago. As the head of the local autoworker’s union says in Detropia, “a service-based nation is weak.”

I don’t mean to downplay the complexity of the problem which involves race, the military industrial complex, a shift away from limitations on banking and wealth that FDR put into place and Reagan through Clinton dismantled, but we certainly have the means. I hope Detroit becomes a parable for emergence, decline and rebirth rather than just decline.


Addendum:  This was posted to Co.Design daily about a watch company that is repurposing Detroit space and making high end leather goods and watches called Shinola. “After looking at a number of cities, the team decided to establish the company in Detroit, the former manufacturing powerhouse and something of an American throwback itself. It’s a tidy fit that, like the Shinola name, Detroit too is in the early stages of a 21st-century reinvention.”

This entry was posted by Erik Odin Cathcart.

23 thoughts on “Rusting & Rebirth

  1. In 2003, when we were a few years into more obvious decline, I made a prediction to my dad that Germany would be the top economic performer in the world. It seemed ridiculous and was wrong for GDP, but they were in fact the top exporter in the world from 2003-2008. China displaced them in 2009. Make no mistake, China has huge problems now – 60m empty apartments and the only thing keeping that demand for scrap metal going is government stimulus and infrastructure projects to ghost towns. Southern Asia and South America seem to have the most legs for exporting to.

    The Rust Belt has a few more years of decline to go but a smart government would be using any stimulus they do toward moving populations around to get the maximum benefit out of it. We could help people keep their homes and regenerate these areas at a much lower cost than trying to follow the Sunbelt population. It will work out, we just have to be prepared to start over and accept that the old times are not coming back. -‘’

  2. Your blog is timed so well for me. I was watching a TV show about these kinds of things on our public station here in San Diego this weekend.

  3. Very sad to say that but currently the only German car manufacturer to close factories and cut back on workplaces is Opel. It’s owned by General Motors.
    BMW had to do run in the last several years “Kurzarbeit” – a system of keeping workers employed, but paying them for a limited time less and having them work less due to decreased sales / profit.
    Volkswagen however, did run a very clever “swallow all” policy now owning the brands Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati, Lamborghini, MAN, Porsche, Scania, Seat, Škoda as well as Volkswagen itself, of course.
    The downfall of entire regions we could see herein Germany in the East. After the fall of the iron curtain and re-unification in 1989 entire industries bled out in the area formerly the strongest country int he Eastern Bloc, the GDR. People left, first there was a brain drain with mainly academics leaving, than nurses, kindergardeners and many others followed. Slowly, slowly, like you’re describing, few people go back there. There’s an artist’s hub in Leipzig and of course: there’s Berlin with its hip eastern part.
    I love your article, so many things to think and chat about. – Let me add last not least a brief blurp about German health insurance:
    There’s compulsory health insurance for everyone, from baby to chancellor. A in the population widely accepted system makes you pay a certain percentage of your earnings. Poor people pay little, people with high income pay quite a lot. Kids and family members without own income are insured for free with a paying member.
    Sadly, people with a salary above 6.000€/month can opt out of public and go private. That means, especially quite healthy, well educated young earners with low risk profile and high salary are leaving the public health insurance system often. Which leads to less income and more spendings for the public insurances – elderly, poor and thus people facing often more health risks got to stay. Now: earning 5.500€/month means you got to stay public and you’re definitely not poor. But since the private insurances make you pay depending on your risk profile and are profit oriented, a lot of privately insured people can not afford private any more when they are older or get chronically and/or more often sick. For them, there’s not turning back to public…. it would be great if we had a truly socialized health care as I experience it when living in The Netherlands and Australia. But in Germany, most things are more complicated…

  4. sannekurz : Thanks for the clarity around German healthcare. Within the context of a “blog” it is difficult to capture all of the nuances relevant without writing a novella. A key reason American workers do not revolt is because their lifeline, literally, is not to the state but to private enterprise in form of ‘benefits.’ In this presidential election several corporations have posted top down ‘recommendations’ on how American workers should vote. Implied or otherwise, knowing your healthcare is tethered to a corporation leaves people with the understanding they could be fired for their political viewpoints or for protesting the government publicly. Tie that in with the confrontational aspect of union-corporate relations here as opposed to the collaborative nature in Germany, no matter how imperfect (and what system is?) makes change very difficult here. Add a huge dose of corporate-controlled media into the mix and you have a very misinformed public, living in fear of losing what little support they have.

  5. tarotworldtour: I plan on writing a follow up to this in relation to China founded in Ai Wei Wei that will tie into the discussion on American Rust Belt decline. Thanks for the comments!

  6. A very interesting post, and quite a fresh way to approach the subject of economic decline in America. As you say, the issue is complicated, and the way that it gets oversimplified for political talking points isn’t helping anyone. The world is changing, we need to change with it.

  7. I would be interested in seeing the rest of this documentary. It seems as though large sections of the Midwest have been hit hard by all this outsourcing. My town was featured in the NY times as “A Job-Starved City”, but then we still didn’t get much stimulus money from the government for public works projects, etc to put us back to work. Too busy bailing out the bankers, I guess. I am glad you are interested in telling the truth about these places. The truth hurts, but masking our need won’t allow us to recover at all.

  8. I really hope the best for Detroit in another renaissance and permanently too! They have to find something else than just the car manufacturing industry.

  9. Odin Cathcart, thank you for your reply. I found many people in the Blogosphere feel the same way you’re describing, that change would be very difficult in the US. You’re note helped me understand a bit more of it.
    Thanks for that and good luck with this election day.

  10. I saw an exhibit of Richard Serra’s sculptures at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. All the sculptures formed different labyrinths so visitors got to interact with the sculptures. It was pretty cool!

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