Detroit, Michigan, USA
Old news: Detroit is a wreck.
The downtown area looks like any American city— A hundred years of variously styled skyscrapers that seem to jostle each other for space in the skyline but stand blocks away from each other on the ground, like a mouthful of gap teeth. The wide streets leave ample space for cars and throngs of people. But people are surprisingly hard to come by these days, and for the past few decades Detroit’s emptiness has been its defining feature.
Many neighborhoods on the outskirts are so bombed out they look like the aftermath of a tornado, some houses reduced to literal piles of rubble while others look weather beaten but intact. Of course there never was a tornado; Just a long period of economic decline capped off by the crisis of 2008. Nevertheless, the level of physical destruction is jarring. In brazen contrast to all this, most people we saw out and about pleasantly greeted us on the street.
For me that was the deciding factor: I really did like Detroit, but mostly because there is a small town quality to the way people interact.
After a late evening stroll along the waterfront (say hi to Canada!), our group thought we might take the People Mover back to the car. The People Mover— yes, they called it that— is an above-ground train that circulates through downtown Detroit for tourists and bar hoppers. It has no obvious commuter benefits whatsoever, but it’s a really good way to see the whole city for a couple dollars. Since we were the only people on the last scheduled train of the evening, the conductor simply walked into our car to ask us where we wanted to go, and then drove us straight through to our stop. Sure, we were the last people on the train, but I couldn’t imagine a metro driver doing that for us in London or New York or Tokyo if we were the last people on earth.
Everyone on the Motown studio tour was best friends by the end of it. And yeah, a surprising number of those people were from Detroit.
The other highlight for me was the Detroit Institute of Arts. To check a box on my list of Diego Rivera paintings I’ve marveled at in real life, I went to see the Detroit Industry Murals. I’ve seen so many pictures of them, which of course could never compare to being in a room surrounded by them, but there were so many details and entire panels I never even knew were there. I spent half an hour in the atrium, which the rest of my company seemed to find excessive.
What I love about Diego Rivera is that you don’t have to know him to get him. His paintings aren’t coy or obscure, but the more time you spend with them the more you are rewarded with details that deepen his themes. A two-story, four-wall (plus ceiling) mural of workers in the Ford factory during its heyday is not something you need an art degree to understand, but it does draw you into a strange meditation on industrial production; Capitalism; Empire. Detroit was once one of the world’s most powerful industrial cities and now it is basically the opposite of that, despite General Motors retaining its Mordor-like headquarters downtown.
So is Detroit really nothing but a former great city doomed to wallow in the ruins of its golden years? Personally, I found a lot to do there. I saw a concert at the Fox Theater, I wandered around the DIA, I met old friends for reasonably priced beer. I ate the best griddle cakes with syrup I’ve ever had for $4. But by reputation, Detroit remains a crumbling monument to its former self, and more people are visiting to see the imploded remains of the old Packard Plant, the Michigan Central Depot, or the mansions of Brush Park than to absorb any present day sights or culture. Detroit is important because it reminds us of a time when you could work on an assembly line and be comfortably middle class; When jobs were plentiful and labor unions ruled the day. But if Detroit is to find a new way forward it will need to aspire to more than being an open air museum of the 1950’s.
If you do want to visit the past, might I recommend the hell out of the Motown Museum? Not only does the recording studio appear as if no one’s touched it since 1972, but you can still see the scuff marks and grooves in the floor where Smokey Robinson and Martha Reeves stamped their feet to the music as they sang.