PRINT October 1992


Drive ten thousand miles across America and you know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together.
—Jean Baudrillard, 1986

I don’t drive, but I know how to take an airplane, pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV. And 1991 was the year when, 500 years after Columbus, 1,000 years after the Vikings, I discovered America.

I have spent the better part of the past year on this side of the Atlantic, my first extended visit. The encounter has been instructive but hardly meeting of the two distinct cultures: I may have grown up in London but I was partly made in America, thanks to Hollywood movies, imported TV series, and popular music. For the past two summers, Malcolm X’s X has appeared on every other hat and T-shirt in the East London District where I live. On the other side of the binary equation, the notion of a single white superculture licensed to speak for the heterogeneous experiences, the conflicting histories and aspirations, of the Americas is, of course, as much an anachronism today as the names “Yugoslavia” or “USSR.” In the ruins of the old world order, no screen is left intact to receive those time-honored projections from secure, collective “Thems” and “Us’s.” Far from identifying with a sophisticated representative of an ancien régime such as de Tocqueville, or Jean Baudrillard, far from being content to relay a distanced sense of fascination with American “banality” and neophilia to readers back home, I feel closer to Mark Twain’s “innocent abroad,” a blundering outsider from the sticks bewildered by the opacity, the chaos, the sheer unadulterated scale of this truly ancient continent. Even the Old World’s vaunted seniority is no longer guaranteed: in the words of one archaeologist, if the stone-ringed hearth discovered recently in northeast Brazil really does prove to be 47,000 years old, as preliminary carbon datings indicate, “then human beings were living in the New World at a time when Neanderthals flourished in Europe.”

Like a good tourist I “did” Stonehenge, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, and Pompeii on shoestring vacations in my youth. Having spent a year’s sabbatical traveling back and forth across the States and Canada and twice down into Mexico, though, I can honestly say I have never seen so many lost or threatened civilizations as I have in the New World. What I woke up to here in 1992 was the afterimage of the Dream; and I woke up to it on a hard bed stuffed with history’s landfill, with the sobering detritus of modernity.

New York, December 1991

One morning I go to see what I’m told is the last tent city in New York, supposedly located right near the Manhattan Bridge. I spend a couple of hours crisscrossing back and forth between East Broadway and the East River, wading in the bridge’s dank shadow, hunting in vain for the city of nomads I’d imagined nestling round the concrete columns. Eventually I thread my way back up past the projects and the demolition yards, the chop suey houses and Chinese gift stores, right back almost to the Bowery, to the point where the bridge begins its half-mile elevation before sweeping on to span the river.

Here at the bridge’s root I get to see Tent City: a bunch of maybe ten or fifteen rusting corrugated-iron shacks and packing cases crammed into a narrow triangle of muddy land at the intersection of three busy roads. In the center there’s a single canvas wigwam. This location, beset by every imaginable inconvenience—traffic noise and fumes, lack of privacy and drainage, lack of cover from rain and snow—would hardly be anybody’s first choice. In retrospect, the spaces under the bridge look positively penthouse in comparison to this—roomier, quieter, more sheltered, better views. If a larger camp had existed once, then maybe the police have driven it back and back from the river until only a few seasoned veterans are left dug in on this bleak, exposed peninsula pounded by a sea of traffic.

The tepee in Tent City is the landmark focus of this alternative “development.” A cone of dirty undyed fabric held upright round a tall, treelike wooden pole, it towers over the other makeshift shelters. The tent no doubt offers rudimentary shelter to however many people crawl into it at night, but it also works as a beacon and a sign—a reversed reflection of Liberty’s torch held aloft out there in the bay to light the tempest-tossed passage to the New World of the earth’s huddled, homeless masses. The Manhattan tepee has this disconcertingly monumental aspect. It draws attention to itself, as if it had been designed to make a historical point: Tent City’s wigwam announces the return of the repressed to the grimy nodes of New York’s ultrarationalist grid. It advertises the enduring failure of the capitalist city—and of the abstract technocratic regimes that the city represents, and on which it depends—to cater for its own. Made by the homeless for the homeless to a primitive design dating from long before New Amsterdam was acquired for the legendary handful of beads, Tent City’s tepee is both an invocation of the history of expropriation and genocide that accompanied the founding of the nation, and an indictment of a system that continues to uproot, “vanish,” and dehumanize the ghosts that—against all odds—go on dancing in its margins.

Perched on the divide separating the two streams of traffic crossing the bridge, I stand for a moment self-consciously contemplating this architectural statement. A black man in a tracksuit steps from its interior into the cold winter sunshine. He stands there in the mud for a moment, scratching, straightening the towel round his shoulders. Then he looks directly up at me, dissolving in an instant the distance between us with the intensity of that stare, so that the roar of the traffic seems suddenly to drop away and all I can hear is him drawing all the morning’s phlegm up into his throat, letting it collect there, viscous, on his tongue, before moving his head back slightly and sending out a great fat spume of spittle in an arc onto the road that separates him—a refugee in the City of Tents, interrupted in his morning ablutions—from me and the harder, higher ground I’m standing on.

Detroit, October 1991

Allegory is in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things.
—Walter Benjamin

I have never walked through so many ruins. From the jungle fastness of Chichén Itzá’s echoing ball courts and temples—originally built by the Mayans, rebuilt by the Toltecs, then deserted for 800 years—to the skeletal remains of Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, abandoned to the vandals and the elements on the wind-scraped Montreal site of Expo 67, I have never witnessed decay on such a grand (if sometimes toxic) scale. In Windsor, Ontario, I learn to close the window of my room when the wind blows across the river from Detroit’s municipal incinerator and the carcinogenic smokestacks of Zug Island. I have never come across so many effaced, overwritten inscriptions. On a wall next to a blood donors’ clinic in Detroit, the “saves” in “Jesus saves” has been crossed out and replaced with the words “is a vampire.”

Today we drove through the blasted city center, past the street-corner guys who just stand there all day in the doorways of the burned-out buildings, muffled up against the early snow in the gray light. We went there to meet the Texas property developer who owns the Michigan Movie Theater, located in the empty downtown core. The building, erected in the ’20s on the site of Henry Ford’s first workshop, was sold after the 1967 riot to a consortium that ripped out the brass, the seats, and the chandeliers and stuck a multistory concrete parking lot in the gutted shell. Now, twenty-five years later, the ragged plaster friezes of the old Deco facade are still up there along with the proscenium arch that framed the screen, the baroque “Egyptian” columns, the ornate ceiling, and the luxury boxes that jut out over the rusting cars dumped on the upper levels. Fragments of red velvet curtain still adhere to the wall where the screen must have been, flapping in the wind that whips in through the vast, glassless arched windows. The developer plods around the office in a permanent rage about Detroit, Mayor Coleman A. Young, the recession, the savings-&-loan failures, the $100 million reputedly already lost in the 150 West Jefferson building (the first completed project in downtown Detroit in more than a decade), and the $275 million that, rumor has it, has gone down the tubes in another still-unfinished skyscraper slowly rising out of a wilderness of empty lots a couple of blocks away, on the grave of the old Greyhound bus depot.

In the afternoon we drive way out past the thriving white “edge cities” of Dearborn and Grosse Pointe to a powwow at the East Michigan University campus in Ypsilanti, where we watch 200 mainly Ojibwa, Cree, and Chippewa people dance and drum their way through the afternoon on a basketball court beneath scoreboards covered in signs saying “We Are the Pepsi Generation.” Many of the dancers wear baseball caps. A 20-year-old Chippewa chicken-dancer dressed in buckskin, a feather bustle, and battered training shoes tells me that the eagle feather on the top of his corona is “an antenna sending prayers up to the Great Spirit.” Sitting on the wooden benches watching 200 individuals moving slowly, sedately, with a light-footed kind of plodding grace for hours on end in a great perambulating circle to the wail and thud of the grass-dance songs is literally enchanting. Driving back past the segregated suburbs, through the moonscape of Detroit, across the Ambassador Bridge, I play the Kiowa war-song tape I have bought at a stall in Ypsilanti. It can’t be long before they start cutting this stuff into the techno mixes. . . .

I read the other day that a busload of Baptist ministers on a day-trip from Detroit had been searched at the Canadian border. Customs officers found 19 handguns. One Sunday we go in a group to a gun-and-knife fair at the North Michigan Arsenal. We are asked to leave our cameras at the door. I rummage through the stalls selling semiautomatic weapons, copies of The Shotgun Times, bullets in the kind of innocuous-looking plastic boxes used to package nails and screws for home improvers back in Britain. Among the hunting and survivalist and Nazi-revivalist regalia, I manage to buy a pack of aircraft-reconnaissance playing cards (the joker is a Russian fighter plane) and a first-edition U.S. Army booklet from 1965 entitled “Boobytraps,” which contains information on how to install explosives in mundane bits of domestic furniture: an electric kettle, a sofa, an armchair, a bar of chocolate, a TV, a pipe. Even a logical positivist would agree that René Magritte had got it right in this case: Ceci n’est pas une pipe; it is a covert-operations execution device. Unsmiling white guys wearing crewcuts, camouflage, and army boots stride up and down the aisles fingering their knife sheaths just over the road from the Top Hat burger bar, where the mainly black clientele buy their paper-thin burgers—thin and pale as communion wafers—for just 59 cents. Here amidst the hardcore white gun lobby, just minutes away from downtown Detroit, you can hear the film Deliverance playing on a loop behind the anxious angry eyes, you can smell the masculine fear of penetration around which the whole psychosexual economy is organized. Put a hole in Them before They find your hole. Scary, scary stuff.

What do you expect a “successful” revolution to look like? It is paradise. Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise.
—Jean Baudrillard, 1986

Detroit isn’t a paradise. Neither is Dearborn, which houses the Henry Ford Museum. Here is an institution designed to immortalize the American dream of mobility and to immobilize the American dread of mortality. Decay is held at bay in a hall of memories untouched by the specters of declining American-auto sales, mass layoffs, and Japanese or European competition. History stays put here, stalled forever at a sunny intersection on an eternal amber light. There they sit in their gleaming pristine state, like toys unwrapped beneath the Christmas tree, the engines that made Ford’s fortune and made possible U.S. modernity’s promised subjugation of space and time: the model T, the Thunderbirds and Cadillacs and Buicks.

A steam locomotive—the spirit of progress—looms up dark and vast in the center of one gallery next to a mock-up drive-in cinema where a film of open roads, ’50s soda fountains, and American Graffiti and Grapes of Wrath extracts rolls on and on, nine to five, seven days a week. Henry Ford himself strides back from the dead in one video to share his harebrained schemes—for paint made out of soya beans, and jolly-worker farms in a four-wheeled Aryan utopia—with anyone who’s got ten minutes to spare. Meanwhile Junior and Sis can dress up in the appropriately gendered uniform as classic Ford workers in cloth caps, headscarves, and denim bibs and braces, and labor for a while on a motionless conveyor belt to make tiny wooden trucks. Time is under arrest here. If history is bunk, then you might as well freeze it at the high point of your own career, at the moment when, if nothing else, (white) America worked.

Yet an underlying mutter of mortality can be heard throughout this hymn to the virtues of perpetual animation. Among the creepier Barnum & Bailey-style exhibits here (in descending logical order for a museum ostensibly devoted to the history of American transport): the Lincoln convertible in which Kennedy was assassinated (a sign reading “Do Not Touch” positioned next to a bullet-proof window smudged with fingerprints); the chair in which Lincoln himself was fatally wounded; and a test tube allegedly containing “Edison’s last breath.” In fact Edison features throughout as the patriarch’s mentor and “mummy,” the U.S. counterpart to Lenin’s feted corpse: the first official candidate for cryogenization in Ford’s pantheon of American heroes. In Greenfield Village, the adjoining theme park dedicated to a century of invention in the States, Edison’s laboratory rests on seven train-car-loads of soil transported from the original New Jersey site, “so that,” to quote the docent on duty for one of my visits, “Mr. Ford could walk on the very dirt his hero walked upon.” Upstairs in the “laboratory,” the chair in which Edison sat during a 50th-anniversary demonstration of his harnessing of electricity is on display, nailed to the floor, on Ford’s insistence, the very instant the great man vacated it.

Rightway Jackson, a passerby interviewed on the street by a video team from Windsor Art Gallery, reads a graffito off the wall of the abandoned Motown Records HQ in downtown Detroit: WE DON’T SUPPORT YOUR WAR. WE WON’T CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORY. “What war? What victory? Take a look around. It looks like an automotive victory to me.”

In the two day-long visits I make to the Henry Ford Museum, I don’t see one African-American employee.

Edmonton, March 1992

My West Edmonton Mall souvenir booklet tells me that the development covers 5,200,000 square feet, is equivalent in size to 48 city blocks, employs 15,000 people, and contains 828 stores and services including an entertainment park, a water-world leisure area, a miniature golf course, 28,000 plants (600 of them over 12 feet high), 210 womens’ and 35 mens’ fashion outlets, 19 movie theaters, 110 food outlets, four performing bottle-nosed dolphins, two car dealerships, a three-kilometer walking track, four submarines, a replica of the Santa Maria, five postal codes, and an adjacent FantasyLand Hotel where guests can stay in theme suites that include the Truck Rooms (lighting provided by traffic-signal fixtures) and the Polynesian Rooms, where you sleep in a bed surrounded by “erupting volcanoes” on a warrior catamaran under full sail while a waterfall pours into your personal rock-pool Jacuzzi. We walk down “Bourbon Street,” where a band of Dixie-jazz mannequins is caught in a perpetually ecstatic pose. My friends tell me that when this section opened a group of mannequin prostitutes could be seen leering down from a second-story window, but an alliance of radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians lobbied successfully to have the figures removed.

New Orleans, April 1992

On Bourbon Street, black children as young as six and seven in traditional minstrel coats and tails are dancing in the noonday swelter to James Brown tapes in front of wooden boxes ready to receive our change. I note that they’ve got taps on their brand-new Nike trainers. . .

Santa Monica, April 1992

I am staying as a guest of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in a luxurious apartment in a Hollywood-baroque building situated on Third Avenue between Washington and Lincoln boulevards. Looking out past the palm trees and the fragrant bougainvillea that frames my window, I see a young man in a wetsuit with a ponytail carrying a surfboard down the street toward the ocean. He passes another, older man with a small child on his shoulders coming back the other way. The child is eating a Popsicle. Thin trails of yellow smoke drift through the air that separates these figures. A police siren can be heard a mile or so away heading toward Venice, where they say there’s been some looting and a few fires. I turn back to the TV to see the man we have all been watching on our screens, writhing in silence beneath the blows administered by four other men, night after night for more than a year, since before I even got here, finally, miraculously, stand up again. I watch him stumble painfully, blinking out into the light, visibly distressed, supported by his lawyer and a circle of friends to give a press conference he clearly doesn’t want to give but feels he has to give. I watch as this man, battling with shot nerves and emotions, looks into the cameras and says, “Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? It’s just not right. It’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice; we’ll have our day in court. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”

The object of public, media, and judicial attention has transformed at last before our eyes and ears into a subject. If I remember nothing else of this, the year of the Columbus quincentennial, I shall remember the moment when the subaltern finally got to speak.

Dick Hebdige is Dean of Critical Studies at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia. He recently wrote catalogue essays for retrospectives of Krzysztof Wodiczko, at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and of Jean-Michel Basquiat, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. His most recent book, Hiding in the Light, was published by Routledge, New York, 1988.