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  • Stephen Connolly

Ground Truthing near downtown Detroit

Artist-filmmaker Stephen Connolly takes us on a short walk through the northeast corner of downtown Detroit. He examines the spatial configuration of the city, how it has been shaped in the interests of capital, and how this has impacted on Detroit's predominantly African American population.

'Machine Space' - vehicular circulation, Stephen Connolly, 2018

Machine Space – vehicular circulation

Stephen Connolly, 2018

In my practice, I've always been interested in the idea of space as a medium for politics. This perspective arises from experience; working with homeless people on the streets of London in my early twenties. An exploration of the political attributes of space informed my encounter with Detroit, a by-product of attending a nearby film festival over the past decade. This city expanded rapidly to serve industrial capital in the manufacture of cars; it has been more recently, and just as quickly, been abandoned by industry and people. It is an intensely political, deeply contested urban space.

My film Machine Space (2016) visualises Detroit as a space of circulation; a space constructed through the motion of people, material, and finance. Enabled by the motor vehicle, this motion is made manifest in the spatial configuration of the city and is expressed in its material environments and infrastructure. The moving image - able to animate space in time - can visualise everyday activity in these spaces.

Henri Lefebvre, the Marxist philosopher of the space, theorised space as a production of social activity; accessed through different registers of representation. He was interested in spatial visualisation, suggesting linkages between maps, aerial images, architectural images and the interests of power. A short walk through the city, assisted by representations, can reveal their traces in the facts on the ground.

Walking route plotted in Google Maps

(click image to see map online)

We start at the street corner at the centre of the entertainment district in the downtown – on the corner of Monroe Avenue and Beaubien Street next to the Greektown Casino. As a production of space, gambling is a spatially restricted activity, legally prohibited elsewhere. Casinos were introduced to the Detroit downtown as a means of revitalising its economy, a change in production Lefebvre predicted in his suggestion that the production of things has been superseded by the production of space.[1]

The Native American Sault Tribe based in upstate Michigan were the first operators of this casino, as permitted by the Indian Gaming Act. In 2010 the tribe lost control of it to a consortium including Dan Gilbert, online mortgage king, Detroit property magnate and general city plutocrat.

1300 Beaubien, Former Detroit Police HQ

August 2018

Walking north past the bland eateries clustered in the ‘entertainment district’ we reach the 1300 Beaubien - the former Detroit Police headquarters - and the haunt of novelist Elmore Leonard. The station was his research beat; the cases and gossip of police officers fuelled his Detroit crime fiction.

In my Leonard favourite, Swag, the two principals - a car dealer and a thief he has caught stealing one of his vehicles - meet on the steps of the Halls of Justice nearby. The dealer suggests teaming up; they spend a boozy evening agreeing a set of operating principles for a successful criminal career. Their speciality is liquor store holdups, using multiple getaway vehicles. Their methods are perfectly enabled by the automotive infrastructure of the Detroit Metropolitan area.

Across his Detroit crime fiction, Leonard’s white criminals seek to leave the city, preferably to relocate in Florida or California. This pattern is mirrored locally by white flight from within the city limits to the suburbs in the post-war period. The city of Detroit’s population peaked at 2 million in 1951; it is now home to 720,000; 78% of whom are African American. Levels of poverty in the city are extreme and many lack the resources to leave. Incarceration is a constant threat to the city’s residents; almost a third of young black Detroiters will accrue a criminal record.[2] Today the police station on Beaubien is at the apex of the incarceration corner of the downtown, consisting of three jails to process and detain Wayne County’s nearly 2000 monthly arrests.

‘Fail Jail’ site & Frank Murphy Hall of Justice (R) Wayne County Juvenile Detention Centre (low rear - glass pyramids) Greek Street Casino & carpark (rear tower) August 2018

The construction site for the notorious Wayne County 'Fail Jail' is a block east from Beaubien. Aimed at consolidating the capacity of the existing jails, building ceased in 2013 after budget overruns. Since then, developers have made increasingly aggressive plays to replace it. In June 2018, city plutocrat Dan Gilbert was given the go-ahead to build a jail elsewhere in the city; and develop the site for retail as an extension of the entertainment district and his casino. His masterplan envisages converting the existing courts and jails into condos. This is turbo-charged gentrification, displacing public institutions for private gain.

This city has a long history of violence. Beginning in the 1930s, mass unionisation of the city's autoworkers was only achieved after over a decade of violence between strikers, and company goons and police. The race riots of 1943 were a precursor for the Detroit rebellion of June 1967. Incited by a police raid on a party for a returning serviceman, this rebellion was one of most destructive riots in American history, was stoked by years of police discrimination and violence towards African American Detroiters. The rebellion engulfed the city, resulting in 43 deaths and 412 destroyed buildings; the intervention of the US Army was required to restore order. Continuing calls for socio-economic change and a reset of entrenched attitudes are made by Finally Got the News, a powerful activist documentary made by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1972. On its fiftieth anniversary, the rebellion was powerfully evoked using drama and vérité footage in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit (2017).

Aside from these discrete violent events, Detroit evidences a form of spatial violence as the city is slowly shaped in the interests of capital. In the context of a black majority city, this violence fuelled by finance has ethnic dimensions. Detroit’s downtown is a citadel of 10 city blocks square, bounded by freeways, described by David Harvey, Marxist geographer of capitalist spatiality, as ‘moats’ protecting high-value real estate.[3] Sure enough, alongside the ‘Fail Jail’ is the excavated volume of the I-375 or Chrysler Freeway, built in the late 1950s to deliver office executives from the downtown to their homes in the suburbs. The urban freeway system completely encircles the downtown in Detroit. It was built over a period of fifteen years through the predominantly Black communities in the inner east and west sides. We need to turn east onto Gratiot, one of the major thoroughfares and a spoke on the city plan, to cross this sunken freeway barrier.

Detroit Inner East Side

DTE Aerial Photographs 1947 & 1957; SEMCOG Aerial Image 2010 (colour)

Memorist and writer Marsha Music tells of Black Bottom - the vibrant African American area of Detroit in the early 1950s based around Hastings Street on the East Side.[4] As this community began to attain an economic foothold in the city around, the city fathers decided the freeway should be sited just there - and obliterated the area. A palimpsest of cartography, aerial images and fire insurance ledgers can be assembled to evidence this spatial violence.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map 1962 - Detroit Vol 4 Sheet 23

Showing Black-owned businesses & Property razed for the I-375 on Hastings Street

The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, laboriously updated by hand, are literal palimpsests of this urban change. These maps, last updated in 1962, record the obliteration of the African American owned buildings with layers of white paper pasted over the street plans. Aerial photographs of the city, acquired at five-year intervals, documents the clearance of a community, the graded ramps to the freeway taking on an eerie anthropogenic outline. “Very few were offered compensation” says Thomas Sugrue, doyen of Detroit historians; also suggesting this set back compromised the generation of wealth in the African American community for decades.[5]

In any case, the majority of African American workers in the city were locked out of wealth creation by Federal banking and lending policies that became known as red-lining. These policies were spatially guided by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), commissioners of the Residential Risk Maps that guided development in American Cities. Neighbourhoods shaded red on these maps were denied mortgages and loans for housing, a form of spatial discrimination. A typical description ran ‘This is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is seriously doubted whether there is a single block in the area which does not contain detrimental racial elements … It is hazardous residential territory and is accorded a general medial red grade D.’[6]

Residential Risk Map of Detroit 1937

These maps were drawn up by the FHA in consultation with local Realtors to assess the risks of insurance mortgages on property. Finance was refused to property in red-lined areas; or Black and immigrant neighbourhoods.

(click on image to see map online)

Instead, “The FHA promoted home ownership in new – and primarily suburban – neighbourhoods so long as they were white and not ethnically or economically diverse” writes Antero Pietila of the forces shaping American cities.[7] Apart from the undesirability of segregation, this production of space is deeply discriminatory in an economic system using housing as a vehicle for material accumulation. Generations of African Americans have been confined to the inner city and denied access to the mechanisms of wealth creation - housing that increases in value - for working people. Through the FHA, between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans; 98% of them went to white households.[8] This lifelong investment in housing has been widely enjoyed by whites as the fabled ‘American Dream.’ In 2013, the median white household wealth can be calculated as $116,800; median African American household wealth is just $1,700 and if current trends continue, will hit zero in 2053. [9]

I’ve taken my own images and sourced the documents to illustrate this text. Out and about in the city, I’m reluctant to photograph auto-industrial and residential ruins in the neighbourhoods. There is an abundance of images of this kind online and this surfeit of imagery does raise issues of visuality. Thomas Sugrue puts it thus; in Detroit ”blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition… The physical state of African American neighbourhoods and white neighbourhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences." [10] In 78% African American city, images of ruins inevitably reinforce associations of ethnicity with this physical condition of places, eliding the important political and financial policy decisions that have overwhelmingly favoured whites in the production of spaces over time by human activities.

The Residential Risk map of Detroit identifies the boundaries of the downtown as adjoining the red-lined inner-city neighbourhoods. To a significant degree, these boundaries trace the freeways circling the downtown, further palimpsest evidence for Harvey’s moat. A sketch identifying the future I-375 as the Hastings Freeway shows a plan for a housing scheme. The demolition of Black Bottom presaged a commission for the architect Mies van de Rohe was commissioned to develop the site. The resulting Lafayette Park is a lovingly tended, stylish example of utopian modernist urbanism. [11] We can drop down Antietam Avenue to enter the district at the Pavillion, 1 Lafayette Plaisance Street.

Lafayette Park, East Side Detroit

Shopping Precinct. Architect Mies vd Rohe 1957 looking NorthWest

The Pavillion, 1 Lafayette Plaisance Street is the tower rear centre-left

Lafayette Park, East Side Detroit

Nicolet Place Residences, Architect Mies vd Rohe 1957

Out of the car, Lafayette Park is for walking and I spent a happy morning admiring its pristine high modern architecture. Some years ago, interviewing Marsha Music in one of the townhouses for Machine Space was a special experience. This place also triggers film memories for me - it could pass for the Paris banlieue in Godard’s Deux ou Trois Choses Je sais d’Elle (1966). This use of cinema as a form of sociological analysis of urban society has been a touchstone for my work since art school. Back in Detroit and today; as a caucasian visitor, wandering around with an expensive camera, my dérive through the Lafayette was untroubled and unimpeded; a black resident of the city may encounter more curiosity and interest from law enforcement.

For some years now, the city has proposed to decommission the I-375 freeway and replace it with a park or development, covering a water runoff to the watercourse (strait/Detroit) between Lakes St Claire and Erie.[12] Surveys of local residents have opted for one scheme or another; survey summaries note however that the views of Lafayette residents are contrary to majority opinions. My source in the city suggests the Lafayette residents deeply oppose the removal of the freeway; they want it to remain a barrier between their enclave and the rest of the city. A reversal of the spatial violence embodied by the infrastructure of a previous generation is not desired by them. Enlisted once more to serve the nuances of contemporary gentrification and segregation, David Harvey’s freeway “moats” remain useful after all.

Machine Space - residential circulation

Stephen Connolly, 2018


1 Lefebvre, H. (1992) The Production of Space. London: Verso

3 Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso

5 Sugrue, T.J. (1996). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP

6 Sugrue, ibid

7 Pietila, A. (2010) Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. Chicago: Dee

10 Sugrue, ibid


Stephen Connolly is an artist filmmaker and lecturer. His work is a practice of cine-assemblage: people, place, history and texts are brought together in an investigation of cinema and representation. His films have been shown internationally since 2002.

Connolly completed his PhD 'A Spatial Cinema; Lefebvre and the Production of Space as Moving Image Practice' in 2018, with 'Machine Space', (24 min HD 2017) being his primary output. Read more about 'Machine Space'.

Connolly will be releasing a collection of work on disc in January 2019.


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