The Irony of American Modernity Gone to Seed

Filed Under the Detroit Lament

When the recent policymic article and Reddit compilation of Detroit Google Street View images began circulating last week, I couldn’t stop thinking of Jerry Herron and his essay Three Meditations on the Ruins of Detroit.

Eastwood Avenue
(2008, 2009, 2011, 2013)


Of course, it took me an hour to remember Professor Herron’s name. Luckily, I keep an extensive paper filing system.

In 2003, long before social media as we know it, some friends and I shared a Yahoo Group to facilitate a long distance book club of sorts.  Similar to chain letters, we’d read a book, email the group, and snail mail something to friends to get them to read the book, too.

At the time, I had just read the new American classic Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. With access to an industrial Xerox machine, I printed and mailed out a series of Detroit themed postcards to my mates.  And I still have a file folder with some extra postcards.


I had printed my favorite quote about Detroit on the back of this postcard.

“Detroit is the most relevant city in the United States for the simple reason that it is the most unequivocally modern and therefore distinctive of our national culture: in other words, a total success. Nowhere else has American modernity so completely had its way with people and place alike.”

Jerry Herron, Director of American Studies, Wayne State University, 2001.

In his essay, Herron explained that American modernity “had its way” with the first city I ever loved. Depleting Detroit of its economic capacity with modern efficiency, in just a generation or two.  Then American modernity literally picked up and left town. Now nature reclaims the once booming cityscape.

That’s ironic, right?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Google

Detroit has been America’s punchline and post-apocalyptic posterchild for decades. Today, I feel less saudade for my first city than I feel gratitude for Google. Bogeyman to many, yes, I know. But I am grateful for the Google technology that allows me to look at an old street. Whether to mourn, rejoice, or simply visually archive the passage of time.

Last year, when protesters were slashing tires of the vilified Google Bus at the West Oakland BART station, my friends debated it on Facebook.  We recalled the Bay Area’s first dot com backlash in San Francisco a decade earlier.

During the original dot com boom, the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project may have been one of the most famous movements.  But I had a fondness for the clever visual simplicity of the Seismic Solution.


And thanks to Google, in less than 0.43 seconds, I was able to find a picture of the obscure Seismic Solution street art from 1998. Then, thanks to Facebook, another demonized tech company, I was able to share and relive the memory with friends in just a few clicks.

Ironic, yes?

What will the streets of the Bay Area look like, 75 years from now, once the latest incarnation of American modernity has its way with Northern California’s people and places? Will it be archived in Google Street View, too?

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