The McKittrick Colony, Detroit: A Modest Proposal

"Nature has this huge power within this play, this sense of destiny and nothing you can do to stop it...Things are collected, crafted and manipulated...Natural force is very much in evidence in this space…”

Felix Barrett, co-director, Sleep No More

Farwell Building, Detroit, built 1915

Farwell Building, Detroit, built 1915

“Ruin porn” it’s been called, and the term is not intended as flattery.  (Which is odd, because I suspect most of the concerned citizens who use the term disparagingly support the people’s right to enjoy smut.  But it’s too early to digress.)  Detroit is the San Fernando Valley of ruin porn.  Dozens, hundreds, of abandoned and rotting and rusting and crumbling houses and factories and office buildings and theaters and train stations – some of them landmarked (or landmarkable) early 20th century masterpieces – draw photographers the way Chernobyl and Havana and post-Katrina New Orleans drew Robert Polidori.  Maybe because they provide an opportunity for large-scale renovation, even rebirth, for people with energy and vision and surprisingly modest sums of money, but also because there is beauty in decay.

(The anagram of my name, Michael Robertson Moore, is The Memorable Corrosion, which was the working title of this website, and suggests the beauty, or at least fascination, of decay.  I’d like to think the phrase reflects my interests, not my face.  Anyhow, the acronym of that anagram is TMC.  These three letters will reappear here.  Bear with me.  All the threads will converge.)

Before I go spinning romantic visions of a city synonymous with crime and decline and failure, let me confess that I’ve never visited Detroit, let alone been tempted to move there.  The weather alone rules it out.  New York winters I could handle; Midwestern winters are a rougher beast, and I don’t like having to cover every inch of skin before I step outside.

That said, it hasn’t escaped my notice that a number of promising strains of post-economic-collapse American culture have converged in Detroit.  Educated, unemployed young people are unexpectedly moving there and putting their energies into projects that combine imagination and social conscience.  While large American farms find themselves in a deepening crisis, swathes of abandoned inner city are being painstakingly cleared of ruined houses and turned into small farm plots by Detroit's equally abandoned working class, who not long ago couldn’t possibly have pictured themselves going American Gothic.

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord

Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord

No doubt a lot of the newcomers will grow bored or frustrated and move on, but a seed has been planted, and those with the will and patience to persevere may radically change the landscape.  The conversion of industrial ruins into mini-utopias has been one of the most hopeful stories of the last few decades.  Maybe the first great example is Germany’s Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a coal and steel plant abandoned, along with the surrounding landscape it despoiled, in 1985, only to be converted within six years to a park that must be heaven to children who prefer industrial ruins to jungle gyms and their wimpy plastic successors.  As a happy veteran of many cap-gun wars in the abandoned bunkers at San Francisco’s Baker Beach, I can testify to their appeal.  Another, New York’s High Line – a mile-long (and growing) stretch of elevated rail converted into a beautiful and innovative park through the efforts of Joshua David and Robert Hammond, two citizens who started out with no connections and a ton of determination – is the greatest public space in New York since the great parks (Central, Prospect, Van Cortlandt.)  That’s right, I said it and I’m standing by it.  Seeing the High Line last year made me want to move back to New York for the first time since I left in 1999.

As it happened, I had three life-changing experiences (said it, standing by it) on that brief visit.  The High Line was the first.  The second was the Alexander McQueen show at the Met, which changed the way I look at clothes, sparked my interest in fashion, and was the impetus I needed to finally smarten up my wardrobe, a long overdue move.  (McQueen was also, I think, fascinated by decay.)  The third was Sleep No More.

McKittrick Hotel lobby

McKittrick Hotel lobby

You know by now that the British theater company Punchdrunk has kept New York drunk on ecstasy and fear and wonder (and absinthe) for the last couple of years with Sleep No More, a brew of Macbeth, Hitchcock, Rebecca, David Lynch, film noir, and three warehouses full of detritus and treasures and treasured detritus.  This is “immersive” theater, in which, masked and silent, we follow actor/dancers through transfigured, wordless, sometimes naked and bloody scenes from the Scottish play.  The performance is impressive, but the alembic that makes this mixture so intoxicating is “The McKittrick Hotel”, the triplicated warehouse comprising the hundred or so rooms in which Sleep No More comes to life, rooms decorated and designed with meticulousness that shades into the obsessive, a warren of sound, light, dirt, taxidermy, hard candy, hospital beds, bathtubs, and antiques.  The setting evokes a blur of history – mainly the 1930s - but is authentic only in that it obeys no logic but that of dreams.  Which is exactly why Sleep No More, as has been noted many times, infects yours.

Nothing to do with this, but I love the title, also used by Gil Scott-Heron.

Nothing to do with this, but I love the title, also used by Gil Scott-Heron.

And that brings us by a commodious vicus of repurposing back to Detroit.  Three warehouses in Chelsea isn’t cheap real estate.  Imagine the McKittrick Hotel that could be erected in the bones of an abandoned factory,  or even an office building of the Louis Sullivan school, either one much grander than those warehouses, but at a sale price cheaper even than the rent in Chelsea.

The thing is, imagining the McKittrick doesn’t necessarily entail imagining Sleep No More, as thrilling as Sleep No More can be.  More than one visitor has missed an orgy or a murder or a bloody Lady Macbeth taking a bath because he was too busy rummaging through a drawer for a clue, even though there’s no mystery to be solved.  As consolation, though, he may leave the place with a McKittrick in his head, which he can populate and animate in his day and night dreams.

The rich and freaky atmosphere Punchdrunk creates is an amplified and intensified version of the environment so many artists create in their studios, their writing rooms: the clutter, the collection of fetish objects, the sounds and images.  It makes me wonder why artists’ colonies always seem to comprise an archipelago of spare, undisturbed cabins in the woods, each out of sight of the others.

One thing that makes sense in an artists’ colony is the silence.  They are designed so that no one talks to another, at least during daylight “working hours”.  The funny thing is that it’s assumed the artists can’t be trusted to keep to themselves; they need to be physically isolated from each other.  Unlike monks, and their visitors in the monastery, who work and eat and meditate side by side, pass each other in corridors and cloisters, and manage to respect the discipline of silence.  Which everyone, over the three or so hours of Sleep No More, also manages to respect.

I hope all the threads are starting to converge for you.  A converted warehouse or factory, complete with adjacent vegetable garden; a group of artists convening in silence, working in an atmosphere designed to burrow into their dreams.  It could be done, at a cost of less than a fortune.  New Hampshire has the MacDowell Colony.  Detroit could have The McKittrick Colony (TMC).  Offer me a week there and I’d be packed in fifteen minutes.  I’d even help build it.