20 June, 2012

A journey into the past: Detroit in words

We left Chicago on Saturday morning. We had three days to get to New York and one of our planned stops was at Niagara Falls. Because, you know, you have to. Once you've decided to detour to Niagara from Chicago you can go one of two routes - south of Lake Erie via Indiana and Ohio, or north of Lake Erie via Michigan and Ontario. We chose the latter.

And en route we made the unusually spontaneous decision to stop for a night in Detroit. Detroit. You hear so much. Motor City. Motown. In decline. Dying.

I don't know how to begin. Detroit was one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. Beautiful. Poignant. Intimidating in places. Confusing.

We booked into a hotel just east of midtown - next door to two enormous buildings - the Fisher Building and Cadillac Place. And around those buildings, not much. Nothing on that scale. We walked down Woodward Avenue towards midtown and downtown. At first there were small down-at-heel shops selling wigs, pawn shops, liquor stores. Then the Amtrak station. We walked under the railway bridge. Set back from the road, you could see large unused buildings. It was clear they weren't in use as there were no windows, and there was lots of graffiti, wasteland around. The closer we got to downtown the more amazing buildings appeared. And it's the contrasts which are so startling. A French chateau, smart, elegant, in use as a law firm's offices next to dilapidation. A posh restaurant full of wealthy guests and outside, clearly poor people going into a sad looking corner shop. There are theatres in use and theatres not. Buildings converted into loft apartments and buildings falling to pieces. And unlike many cities, these buildings are right next door to each other. We had dinner in a busy Italian restaurant next to the ball park (Tigers were playing at home that evening) and on the same block a few doors down, barely standing was the Wurlitzer building. Graffiti painted windows. Walls collapsing. Beautiful. Decayed. Blocked off.

Detroit's population has declined by 25% over the last 10 years. Imagine. I can't. That's the downtown area. The greater metropolitan area hasn't actually suffered such a population crash - the people who can have moved to the 'burbs abandoning this great city. And in fact the high point for the population was in the 50s. The city must have reached a tipping point in the 90s when businesses really could not go on, buildings were closed up. Huge buildings of over 40 floors. Architecturally important buildings which is why they stand there mouldering. Protected from demolition but not protected from decay.

I wish we had had longer. I'm already trying to work out how I can go back for a longer visit. I know there are interesting projects there such as the Heidelberg project and the movement to farm inside the city. This used to be one of the richest cities in the world. Now it looks like the ruins of capitalism. Buildings like so many mausoleums.

And yet. The evening we were there the Tigers were playing at home. There were crowds of people around downtown near the ballpark. The city is not bustling. You don't have to go far down a street to leave the busy areas and you start to feel a little intimidated. And strikingly most of the residents of central Detroit are African American and yet most of the people watching the ballgame or in the smart restaurants were white. This is clearly a city with huge problems. How do you rebuild your city when the fundamentals of its economy have been shot to pieces? How do you attract people back to a downtown when half of it is crumbling away?

It could be so beautiful. Indeed it is so beautiful. And it still has energy. If you ever get the chance to go, do.

1 comment:

Soilman said...

Have been desperate to see it ever since I saw those Time pix of Detroit in ruins. Hard to believe that a whole city – a great city – can just... crumble away.

But then, it's happened/happening to European cities, too. Think of Venice. As more and more people leave, the fundamentals required to keep a city going (schools, hospitals etc) become impossible to maintain. Then the exodus quickens.