August 16, 2011

Blogging the PHI: The 40 Miles Between

13-(2)

It is easy to talk about empty space in Detroit.

The vacant lots that engulf modest houses, making them seem all the smaller.

The abandoned industrial buildings, fragmented shells that hold the absence of the past.

The streets and sidewalks, wide and silent, are abandoned stretches of nothing leading to nowhere.

This empty space has been described as desolate, but also as desperately hopeful. Some see in it the end, others see it as opportunity, as an inopportune beginning but a debut all the same.

As we ride the highway between Ann Arbor and Detroit, however, I’m pondering a different space of emptiness. It is the space of the journey between a town and a city.

There is so little in between these two entities:

Forty miles.

A smattering of other cities.

Tangled highways.

Strip malls.

And yet so much is projected into that space. It’s not just mileage that stands in between Ann Arbor and Detroit. It is a sense of traversing all the obstacles of class and race and unknowability. Detroit does not fit the paradigms that organize an Ann Arbor life (speaking from the position of a grad student whose life is touched by privilege in various forms), the models that sustain the logic and meaning for its citizens and its civic leaders. I don’t even know all that gets tangled up, self-conceptions and conceptions of the other, to build a wall in that would-be open space.

There’s nothing there. Why would we go? Where?

It is a sentiment that could be attributed to a resident of either place, though it would be short-sighted to say there is zero exchange between Ann Arbor and Detroit. But if we want to foster partnerships that reach from one to the other, I think that requires not only envisioning unprecedented uses of empty space, but making visible and dismantling the barriers that hinder the open road between the two. Not to ignore the ties that make an “us” and a “them” communities defined by particular circumstances, but to acknowledge them without letting them tie us down to one place and one point of view.

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