Welcome, Neo, to the desert of the post-industrial world!
Leaving behind the gift shops of the "Big Three" car manufacturers, the Motown merchandise and the bizarre ejaculating fountains of the now-notorious international airport, things become stranger and stranger. The drive along eerily empty ghost freeways into the ruins of inner-city Detroit is an Alice-like journey into a severely dystopian future. Passing the giant rubber tyre that dwarfs the nonexistent traffic in ironic testament to the busted hubris of Motown's auto-makers, the city's ripped backside begins to glide past outside the windows.
Like The Passenger, it's hard to believe what we're seeing. The vast, rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, (some of the largest structures ever built and far too expensive to pull down), beached amid a shining sea of grass.
Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.
One in five houses now stand empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1.
Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit's population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone.
But statistics tell only one part of the story. The reality of Detroit is far more visceral. My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. "Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot."
Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there. The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction.
But the seeds of the Motor City's downfall were sown a long time ago. The blind belief of the Big Three in the automobile as an inexhaustible golden goose, guaranteeing endless streams of cash, resulted in the city becoming reliant on a single industry. Its destiny fatally entwined with that of the car. The greed-fuelled willingness of the auto barons to siphon up black workers from the American south to man their Metropolis-like assembly lines and then treat them as subhuman citizens, running the city along virtually apartheid lines, created a racial tinderbox.
The population of Detroit is now 81.6% African-American and almost two-thirds down on its overall peak in the early 50s. The city has lost its tax base and cannot afford to cut the grass or light its streets, let alone educate or feed its citizens.
The rest of the US is in denial about the economic catastrophe that has engulfed Detroit, terrified that this man-made contagion may yet spread to other US cities. But somehow one cannot imagine the same fate befalling a city with a predominantly white population.
On many levels Detroit seems to be an insoluble disaster with urgent warnings for the rest of the industrialised world.
With the breakdown of 20th-century civilisation, many Detroiters have discovered an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives. Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first "post-American" city. And amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer's map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all.
So perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest. That is why George and I decided to call our film Requiem for Detroit? – with a big question mark at the end.
by Julien Temple
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
Prof. Angela Denise Dillard
Design for Dreaming