Atlas on Woodward Avenue

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The great power outage that struck Detroit on Dec. 2 reminded me — did it remind you also? — of the way in which Ayn Rand and some of her disciples used to look for signs that “Atlas is shrugging.” They closely inspected every sign that scientists and engineers were withdrawing from the industrial grid and that the grid itself was collapsing.

The apocalypse never came. Jimmy Carter was kicked out of the White House. Stagflation went away. Capitalism kept producing wealth even faster than the government could devour it. Even in this Age of Entropy, Atlas is not so much shrugging as working harder than ever to pay his medical bills. He’s depressed; he’s ailing; but he’s still showing up at work.

Nevertheless, there is something emblematic, something that provides a startling reminder of the End envisioned in Atlas Shrugged, in the horrible fate of the former industrial capital of America. Detroit is bankrupt. It has lost almost two-thirds of its population. Large segments of the city have returned to wilderness. Along Woodward Avenue, once the Champs Elysées of the Midwest, every large business has disappeared. The avenue’s distinguished churches, each an architectural masterpiece, still raise their towers, but several have been abandoned, and all are struggling. A classic theater, a classic movie palace, a classic this and that have been heroically preserved, but the monumental beaux-arts building that used to be GM world headquarters is a nearly empty hulk in a crime-ridden neighborhood, a square mile in which only 3,000 people dare to live. A magnificent art deco skyscraper now houses the countless bureaucrats of the failed public school system. The Institute of Arts, one of the world’s most important museums, the gift of fortunes created by the automobile, has been supported by the state for many years. Its hours are limited; its parking structure has been closed because of structural decay.

A picture tells part of the story. It shows visitors standing in the museum’s central court during the outage. The court, which is lit by windows in the ceiling and is therefore not dependent on electricity, is decorated by murals made by Diego Rivera, a communist, and financed by Edsel Ford, an industrialist. The murals show the progress of industry and suggest that it can be used either to create or to destroy. Beneath the murals, people mill about, apparently oblivious to the art. Perhaps a few of them are reflecting on the process of cultural disintegration. Perhaps one of them is asking himself, Did Atlas shrug — or did he merely lose what made him Atlas?

rsquo;s still showing up at work.

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