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Rebecca Solnit’s “Detroit Arcadia” (2007)

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Harper's Magazine, July 2007

In July 2007, Harper’s Magazine published “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape,” by Rebecca Solnit. The piece was the focus this week of the Nieman Storyboard website’s “Why’s this so good?” feature. “How remarkable,” author Jennifer B. McDonald writes,

to encounter a profile of the city brimming with words like these: lush, rich, heartening, handsome, shining, flourishing, fertile, fine, sustainable, potential, visionary, beautiful, hope. They are the words of an alternative narrative about efforts to remake Detroit not according to the old constraints of commerce and industry, but in a wholly new image.

The original story, which was accompanied by the photography of Misty Keasler (whose work will be featured in the October issue of the magazine), ran in the months before the subprime mortgage crisis began, which in turn helped usher in the Great Recession, which in turn played a role in leading Detroit to file bankruptcy in July. McDonald again: “Solnit has an unusual talent . . . for spinning the camera so that it lands not on easy, vulnerable targets of blame, but on the shadowy, better-protected figures responsible for wrenching the levers of harmful change.”

Solnit also applies that talent to the history of the city, at one point suggesting how the seeds for Detroit’s downturn were planted during the period when it was growing most robustly: 

The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning.

You can read the entirety of “Detroit Arcadia” here, and Jennifer B. McDonald’s analysis of the piece here.

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