Autofill Mythologies

River Rouge Plant, by Charles Sheeler

To use Google autofill is to view the world through an unhappy tourist's eyes

The signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.

—Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957)

Ya know, the Motor City is burning people
There ain’t a thing that white society can do
My hometown burning down to the ground
Worser than Vietnam.

—John Lee Hooker, “The Motor City Is Burning” (1967)

The legends about a city for locals and outsiders aren’t the same. For dwellers, these legends are like in-jokes, made of tales from pubs and jungle gyms. Outsiders engage a different set of myths about a city, inconsequential fodder from tourism-industry billboards to virtually every think piece you’ll ever read about Detroit.

But sometimes it’s hard to tell where this contrived mythology ends and reality takes hold, whether any hard line ultimately separates them.

Enter Google autofill. Autofill serves as a de-facto choose-your-own-adventure in urban mythmaking. Want to know what people really think of your hometown? Milwaukee, where I lived my first 18 years, is, according to Google’s autofill suggestions, a “ghetto,” “a dump,” and located in a state many Google users apparently can’t place. (Type “Milwaukee is…” and up pops “in what country?”). Nobody appears even to care about its life-size bronze effigy of the Fonz, from the TV show Happy Days, which I’m not proud to admit kind of hurts my feelings. Toronto, where I live now, is both “awesome” and “boring;” its residents are, among other things, “so effing stupid.”

Autofill mythologies, like so many Internet mirrors, skew negative. “San Francisco smells like” produces “piss” — a complaint about the city’s homeless population. “Dallas” combined with “tastes like” reveals a phenomenon of dirt-flavored drinking water, an occasional draught-season occurrence immortalized as search-engine trademark by (predictably) shrill discussion boards.

With other cities—the ones most likely to attract the homespun wisdoms of armchair planners—the myths get specific. Type “Detroit food,” into the search bar and up springs “desert,” materializing a stack of evidence for and against the city’s scarcity, an SEO mirror to our subconsciously rehearsed notions of truth.

“The national media says Detroit is a ‘food desert,’ a Tumblr titled Detroit’s Grocery Stores explains on its sidebar. “Local activists respond that the city has 111 full-service supermarkets that fly below the national radar.”

The site then promises a snapshot of every single one of those supermarkets, confronting the myth from both sides. In doing so, it reveals two Detroits: an emblem of splendor gone awry and the living habitat of some 700,000 actual human beings. But the resulting project turns out not to be a case study in the coexistence of vibrancy and decrepitude, but an impartial approach to a seemingly unanswerable question: Which version of a city—the way it sees itself or how it’s viewed by others—is closer to being true? As it turns out just asking is messy; it forces us to distinguish between who is and isn’t a denizen, to assign or withhold belonging. Single truths aren’t available most places, but definitely not here.

The definition of Detroiter is rife with contention, jaggedly divided between the “raised-ins” and the “moved-tos.” Wally Nowinski, the 20-something Detroiter behind the blog, grew up in the city’s suburban expanse. As a small child, Nowinski internalized adult conversations about Detroit as abstractions. But the way Detroiters see their city, he’s learned since relocating there last year, is more nuanced. “When you’re in Detroit today, and you’re with a Detroit native over the age of, say, 35, they see things like Detroit’s very famous train station and feel a sense of shame,” he says, referencing a well-known site of disaster tourism within the city’s limits. “They want to take it down. Whereas for me, it is what it is.”

He adds, “I don’t get sad when I look at ruins anywhere else. No one sits around sad about the demise of the Roman Empire. They don’t call it ruin porn in Rome.”

The train station is a good example of what anthropologists Thomas Blom Hansen and Oskar Verkaaik call “urban charisma,” the structures and symbols that imbue a place with meaning and reinforce its everyday folklore. The crux of their argument is that outsiders seldom experience a new city through the “banal and unexceptional” of its daily machinery and spaces. In the tourist’s eye, even the banal tends to become something big and meaningful, a mythical everyday.

As Hansen and Verkaaik write in “Urban Charisma,” a 2009 essay for Critique of Anthropology:

The act of walking in the city is a collective, fantasmic re-enactment of a demotic, supposedly local everydayness that is only made possible by the presence of the tourists. Yet the awareness of this fundamental inauthenticity takes nothing away from the visitors’ experience because they do not walk in the actual city. They are ?âneurs du fantasme, walking in the fantasmic city whose symbolic weight and presence imbues everything occurring in the actual urban space, however banal and unexceptional, with a special signi?cance.

The idea of tourists as “?âneurs du fantasme ”-- which translates roughly to “ghost strollers” — strikes a fabulously creepy nerve. When I visited Los Angeles for the first time and had a nightcap at a downtown cocktail bar housed in an old storage room at Cole’s French Dip, I opted to dwell on the screen icons immortalized on its walls (Heather Locklear is, apparently, a real French Dip fan) instead of the tent city beside where my car was parked. At least with mythologies, we can forfeit accountability. We can choose to walk the ghost city instead of confronting brick and mortar, flesh and blood.

The bit roles we take on as visitors in a city’s performance of its idealized, collectively imagined self are not a matter of just taking in its monumental structures. It is also a matter of processing incidental, unintentional symbols of hardship or happenstance. Sometimes, as with Detroit, the show is in the contradictions between these, which is why the Internet is littered with snapshots of carefully tended crop rows against grand, empty houses where entire families once lived. These focal points give us mythmaking in three easy steps: pop in, feel profound and occasionally conflicting feelings, then pop out and tell your friends.

The experience of any place, but especially one we don’t belong to, is mediated by the fragments we collect through our wanderings, bits and bobs from the news and pop music and cinema and that infant-size pizza slice you once ate because someone told you it was “Chicago-style.” Lewis Lapham once argued that the imagined city, the one of our collective making, is realer than what we’re fed by maps and demographics, buildings and structures. The ideas, the symbols, ultimately carry more for us than the realities of its dwellers—the people in the neighborhoods that you see when you’re walking down the street.

Tourists get the Google autofill abstract of reality. It’s arguably the point of vacationing, of being casual inserts into new scenarios, in the first place. For people intent on the pursuit of authenticity, as though such a thing exists in concrete and quantifiable terms, this doesn’t bode well. The Cliff’s Notes version of reality is what you get instead. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing; the transformative magic of outsider myths, after all, is part of what keeps us engaged with the world at large.

But with Detroit, whose mythologies rest largely on questions of the city’s survival or reincarnation, it is more important to get at a comprehensive picture. It’s the kind of place where outsiders might bring in mythologies that piss people off or, worse, ruin their lives. As someone who’s neither a tourist nor born-and-bred city native, Wally Nowinksi is well-positioned to lay this out. He seems aware of this. “It’s not a sociology study,” he tells me. He just wants to see what’s out there.

As of early spring, Nowinski has shot 38 of the roughly 111 grocery stores in Detroit. Marked on a map, their coordinates neatly reflect the pockets of urban density visible in charts by city activists cum data wonks, a reminder that populated areas are consistently served. Some of the shops are, indeed, full-service facilities like the oft-cited 57-year-old Honeybee market near the city’s Corktown neighborhood. Some are local Detroit-only chains like Mike’s Fresh Market, near parallels of the national chains found outside city limits, if for a few off-kilter twists (“I’ve never seen eight-gallon jugs of sugar in the middle of the produce section before”). Some are, like the media reports, glorified corner stores. The true Detroit, if there is just one, lives somewhere between the myths.

Usually it doesn’t make much difference which version of a city we choose to see. When the outsider myths tempt savior games, it matters more. Better to err on the side of the photograph than the autofill.