The Desolate City


A lead article in the National Post this morning tells the sad story about the attempt by Detroit city planners to excise the rot of an increasingly desolate city. The economic downturn, especially in the auto industry, has left the city with thousands of vacant houses and buildings (including Detroit Public library–pictured to the right). What was once a booming city of 2 million is now about 800,000… and receding.  According to the article, the city plans to demolish 10,000 homes (yes, you read that right) in the next three years. Some groups say they really should be aiming to demolish 40,000 homes, but 10,000 homes alone will cost the city $100 million. (For a photo gallery of the desolation, go here.)

In his own day, the prophet Isaiah warns of a day when Yahweh would lay waste the earth and bring it to desolation, scattering its inhabitants (Isa 24:1). Later in the same prophecy, the prophet, echoing God’s own Word, declares,

The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred. In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all gaiety is banished from the earth. The city is left in ruins, its gate is battered to pieces. (Isa 24:10-12)

It would be irresponsible directly to correlate this prophecy and instances of urban desolation in our current day–as if somehow Isaiah was predicting something very specific about the urban rot of the city such as Detroit. Indeed, such desolation of urban centres has taken place many times throughout the centuries. Detroit is likely no more or no  less wicked than most other world cities who have seen such declination. The history of its desolation, though, is particularly poignant because of how closely tied it has been to the twentieth century belief in the salvation brought about by industrial progress. Detroit, in other words, is experiencing its desolation not, as so many other cities in history have faced, the desolation caused by war, famine, or drought. Its struggle is directly tied to the collapse of a sector of the industrial complex which in its early stages, brought significant economic prosperity.

It has clearly been too easy for us North Americans to think that economic collapse couldn’t happen to us. But in Western nations where “GDP” has become a replacement for “GOD,” we shouldn’t be surprised when the idols of perpetual progress and economic prosperity show signs of beginning to wobble on their shaky foundations.

Later in Isaiah, we read of the man who, though poor, saves enough to find a craftsman to create an idol that won’t topple (Isa 40:20). But later, the Yahweh mocks such persons: “When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away…” (Isa 57:13a). However, Yahweh graciously goes on, “But the man who makes me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain” (Isa 57:13b).

Detroit, of course, is a living (dying?) parable. The inhabitants of that once great city are no different that you or me when we spend our time in unending and uneasy servitude to the vicissitudes of the “The Economy.” Such servitude simply won’t save us, and we have need to be reminded, as the sad decline of Detroit does, that we simply aren’t as invincible as we have rumored ourselves to be.