Archive for the 'disaster' Category



The Renaissance Center is one of the most bizarre architectural creations of the 20th Century.  It was built in the late 70s to symbolize hope for Detroit’s rebirth, following the 1967 riot/rebellion and the subsequent disinvestment and flight from the city.  GM purchased it and made it their headquarters in 1996.  Walking through it tonight, totally quiet except for a handful of restaurant-goers and security guards, as GM stands on the brink of collapse, it felt like a symbol for all the stupidity and emptiness of capitalism, but also some of the thrill and magic.

I remember running around there as a kid, and wanting to ride up and down the glass elevators, looking out at the city.  Later as a teenager, trying to sneak into the rotating restaurant on the top, and stay long enough to make one full rotation before getting kicked out.

Upon entering the building you feel transported into a late 70s vision of the future. Tubular concrete structures form a “rosette” of buildings that seem designed specifically to disorient the visitor.  There is no main ground floor.  Level 1 at one side of the building will be level 3 at another side.  To get to the place we needed to be tonight we had to take 3 separate elevators and 2 escalators.  The businesses housed in it are chains, overpriced novelty shops, offices that seem like front operations and a rotating restaurant on the top that no longer rotates.  As difficult as it may be to reach your destination inside the Ren Cen, nothing compares to the task of finding your way out.  Somehow, when trying to retrace ones steps, nothing is as you remember it.  Doors and passageways seem to have shifted, signs point in different directions.  It’s similar to the panic of being trapped in a bad dream.

But despite everything, the Ren Cen has its charm.  Like the People Mover.  If you think of it as a ride or a game, and not a form of public transportation, it changes from depressing to endearing.  If you think of the Ren Cen as a maze, with magical tubular rides that can shoot you up to the highest vantage point in the state of Michigan, giving you a completely new lens through which to view your city, then plunge you back down into a haunted house of tunnels and showcars, from which you have to escape, then it’s awesome.  Plus you can re-enact Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video on the backlit glass pathways and pretend you are in a Doctor Seuss book, where trees grow from concrete platforms suspended in air.


Still, walking through there today, I couldn’t help but imagine a day, in the not-so-distant future when kids cut holes in barbed wire fences to go explore this abandoned place, with it’s blown-out windows that let you look straight through it.  There’s something both hopeful and heartbreaking about that.  How many more abandoned structures can this city hold?

As we work towards a different kind of economy for Detroit’s future, with different ideas of wealth and progress and power,  I wonder what symbols will capture our imaginations, what kinds of playscapes they will offer kids in future centuries, and whether they will have to die and become abandoned before we understand what they mean.


When disaster is everyday

When my friend asked me what I thought about the killings in Virginia and the potential ramifications for Asian Americans I had to admit that I hadn’t been thinking about it all that much. The whole thing has disturbed me in the “wow the world is one monumental disaster unfolding after another” kind of way. And on some subtler frequency I have worried about how my Dad or brother (who can pass less easily as Icelandic, or whatever else, than I can) may be looked upon in certain contexts as a result of this. But I have not felt compelled to draw the same conclusions as this piece by Tamara K. Nopper, in predicting “What May Come” for Asian Americans.

I think her analysis is valuable to a certain point. The tactics of stereotyping and dissection of racial/ethnic groups by corporate media she describes are no doubt destructive, age-old tools. They have been used to control people’s understandings of themselves, as well as societal understandings of different racial/ethnic groups, to the point of shaping social policies, justifying wars and infecting peoples’ one-on-one interactions on the smallest level. But in this specific instance, from what I can tell from the limited corporate media I’ve been able to consume, Cho Seung-Hui is not being pathologized for his identity as an East Asian, so much as for his identity as a person with mental illness.

This is part of the privilege that the “model minority myth” affords us as East Asians. Cho is the anomoly. We are seeing a distinctly different discourse around the incident than if he had been Arab, Muslim, South Asian or Black. I really appreciate No Snow Here’s commentary on “Why the Virginia Tech Massacre is Different” :

The difference is that the collective American people already expected this from us (us meaning Arabs and Muslims), and 9/11 validated that for them. We are the first ones the nation looks to when these tragedies occur. As Angry Arab said,

When a tragic story like this unfolds on TV, you just want no Arab to be around that story. You know that no matter who was responsible, unfounded speculations and premature conclusions will be circulated to the effect that some Arabs or Muslims are guilty. In fact, some news reports admitted that this was the first suspicion of the police before the sighting of an “Asian student” as suspect was confirmed. [note: There were Arabs around, and included in the death toll.]

While others have reported a sense of, “Oh God, please don’t let it be an Arab/Muslim/Desi” upon hearing the news of the shooting, I didn’t feel that. But just the mention of the feeling sends me straight back to 2001, and the way it felt to be in a high school classroom full of white people when a bunch of Muslim Arabs flew the planes into the towers. It was one of the worst days of my life, and I don’t feel like I’ll ever get over it.

When thinking about who will be targeted in the wake of the killings in Virginia we can’t ignore the inevitable backlash against people living with mental illness and other disabilities, especially those who are poor, or who are people of color. This is another group which “the collective American people” stereotypes and dissects and criminalizes relentlessly, especially in the aftermath of events like this.

People are talking a lot about the shortcomings of mental health services in the media right now. But for the most part they’re saying, “Why didn’t they catch him?” Why didn’t they lock him up sooner, as soon as he wrote those crazy plays?” If we follow the path of such reactionary thinking, how long will it be before people struggling with bipolarity or manic depression or cognitive impairments get tracked straight into mental institutions or onto medication because they wrote or drew or said something that was perceived as crazy? How long before public school classrooms become even more segregated and hostile for people with disabilities than they already are?

The failures of mental health care, especially within the educational system, do need to be examined and addressed. But how can you address the fact that people are crazy without also addressing the fact that our world is pathological and violent and one monumental disaster unfolds after another?

My friend was in a restaurant with a TV on the other day and a some tough-looking white dude was irate about the news coverage of Cho Seung-Hui, saying something like, “why are they analyzing this asshole?… he’s just a psychotic asshole.” It’s true, we don’t need analysis in the form of sensational dissection or convenient cultural explanations. But I do think we need to analyze the whole psychotic asshole identity of the system, the culture and the history, which his violence and insanity merely reflects.

Comparative Literature


Today Mike and I did a little holiday shopping at John King Books, one of Detroit’s most awesome places to lose hours in. Although I barely scratched the surface, I still found some things: one Russian dystopian sci-fi book called We and two reproductions of old-tyme wood-cut christmas cards. The cards are really beautiful, if surprisingly morbid. One of them depicts “Charlie” – a little boy on a “wintry, piteous night,” who’s getting ready to “meet the angels.” On the inside it says, “amidst the joy there are still too many Charlies in the world.”

John King Books is one of the places that makes Detroit great. It boasts “over one million used and rare books.” It has a range of categories that resembles an encyclopedia. There is no computerized method of tracking the books, but if you ask the woman behind the desk on the first floor about the illustrated book of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde, the Illuminati Papers or the history of Hamtramck, she will tell you whether or not your selection is among the million. Then, if for some reason it’s not, she will recall the person who came earlier and luckier than you, to obtain it. Finally, she’ll assure you that multiple copies of your selection exist in the world and if you just try back often enough, you’ll get it eventually.


This is something I found on flickr. I guess it’s a picture of The Detroit Public Schools’ book depository. The post said: “…it was finally abandoned in the 80’s with a building full of supplies that have sat deteriorating and wasting-away while the school system can’t supply their students with the basic necessities.”

It’s interesting. Though I’m pretty heavily involved in educational justice stuff through Detroit Summer, I didn’t know this existed. Looking at this picture gives me the same tragedy-stricken sense of disbelief that driving past the Packard Plant or the old Michigan Central gives. But even more than that it gives me a gross sense of gazing upon tragedy through the lens of an “urban explorer.” I could be really wrong… but the photographer, and the flickr community of photographers who commented on this image, struck me as archetypes of the unfortunate, suburb-dwelling, disaster-fetishists. Many of the comments were predictable: from “what a mess” to “how hauntingly beautiful.” But others went so far as this one: “…after checking the forecast for Detroit – I can only think of one thing left to do with this mess. Bring your hot dogs though.”

If this urban-explorer-photographer’s efforts amount to this, to pats on the back from his collegues, to expressions of immobilizing despair, and conclusions for a ‘final solution’ to Detroit’s problems, then I hope the next adventure is met with this: a hauntingly beautiful pack of wild dogs.

…Not really. Some friends that were visiting me from out of town last summer got chased by a pack of wild dogs and it was no joke! I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. But I do wish that the people whose curiosity brings them in and out of this city had more humility towards the vitality that persists here, more respect for facts of suffering, less enfatuation with the fantasy of the post-apocalypse. And I wish that they would figure out something better to do than take pictures of it all.