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07.08.2013
Review> Disbelief Suspended
The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit examines a community's reaction to its urban condition.
Courtesy University of Michigan Press

Refuse is a word fitting for Detroit. As a noun, it is trash, something discarded, deemed worthless or useless. As a verb, however, it is a rejection, it expresses a determination to not participate, it is counter, and suggests an agenda of its own. Andrew Herscher’s The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit examines a community’s reaction to its urban condition. In its pages, he documents a seemingly impossible optimism for the public to shun the popular outside perception that their city is over, and rather turn its assets into something new—be that a sculpture of vacuum cleaners or literally a house as canvas.

Detroit has long been the image of urban blight. Photographers like Yves Marchand allow their audience to rubberneck past their gory exposés of urban decay and lament. These photos, statements in themselves, often stand un-interpreted, with captions, which are intentionally minimal, mainly for provenance.

Aside from evoking empathy, these mute images only reinforce preconceptions of the Motor City and foster a repetitious loop of despair, confusion, even disgust. Too often, the sensationalism of the negative overshadows the positive efforts taking root. An overdue response is Herscher’s book, which is profusely illustrated, but not manipulative. Capturing guerrilla art installations, meet-ups, and community activism in iPhone-quality snapshots, he catalogs the frustrations experienced by citizens that pushed them to react for the betterment of themselves, their community, and even just for art’s sake.

Despite the heavy topics covered, there is a lightness of spirit to his analysis. The text is not preachy and it is almost as if you could digest the book as a peel-away once-a-day calendar.

Thoughtful explanations preface segments within the categories of Unprofessional Practice, Unwarranted Techniques, Unsanctioned Collectives, and Unsolicited Constructions. Peaches and Greens for example, is an “Unprofessional Practice” and describes a local food truck. At first mention, it registers in one’s mind alongside New York’s ubiquitous idling fleet of refrigerated Fresh Direct trucks, only this one supplies the community with produce from local farmers and at self-proclaimed affordable prices. One hears the presence of this food truck as it travels the neighborhoods with music akin to Mister Softee, not when the doorman calls up to inform you. This truck was not created out of luxury for those too harried to choose their produce themselves, but because parts of Detroit are food deserts and locals are left to shop for groceries wherever they are sold. Often that means liquor stores. This was not the product of a helpful assembly representative or even an NGO. Peaches and Greens was begun by the local Christian community responding to inadequacy in their area.

In this corner of America, capitalism has failed, or perhaps, reached its ultimate end. But perhaps that absence will necessitate new solutions, which can transform the status quo of how the rest of our country consumes.

Where else in America can you just paint houses, which you don’t own, unsolicited, and orange, without ramification? Page after page, one has to wonder, where exactly is the government? Some of the interventions border on and fully cross into the realm of vandalism, but the worst repercussion cited is a project’s removal by city workers, further feeding a controversial city incinerator. Then again, with so much building stock left abandoned or lost to taxes, doesn’t it, theoretically, belong to the public? Unreal Estate is what happens when there is enough of a community left to claim it.

Value is another fitting word for Detroit. As a noun, it can seek to quantify a monetary value, but it can also impart principle, ethics, and customs, what something stands for or represents. Neither meaning alone can properly define a city.

We The People need to de-familiarize ourselves with standards of how things “normally” function. By becoming involved, and by refusing to give up, these communities are proving themselves resilient. The de-centralization of systems by the government has led to a hyper re-localization. Their example allows the reader to re-examine not only what we take for granted, but also what might be if familiar givens and infrastructures were absent. What if those of us living in more “functional” environments were motivated to push beyond the status quo?

Sean Khorsandi

Sean Khorsandi is a New York–based writer and architectural designer.