Ok, so I only rolled through town for a day and honestly spend most of that day at the zoo with my family and sitting on the Ambassador Bridge waiting to get into Windsor, Ontario just to say I’ve been to Canada.
Detroit is a city that has gotten my goat for quite a while now, pretty much ever since I got into various forms of doom & gloom/alternative media. It’s often been presented as the worst possible outcome for America and almost everything that gets presented about the city sounds like something out of a nightmare except for the occasional “Detroit is on the upswing!” posts about urban farming and/or hipsters moving in to take advantage of low housing costs. I recall the “Ruins of Detroit” photoessay that made the rounds of the early alt-right sphere. I’ve watched the political scandals unfold and read the steady stream of articles about basic services dwindling. I’ve seen the message board posts about what’s going on inside Detroit and almost always pry anecdotes from people I know who lived there. In fact, I’ve even written quite a bit on this site about Detroit. Naturally I’m curious to see it.
I went there because Mary’s family is originally from the Detroit area and her 93 year old grandmother still lives about an hour away in the country. She sprung this idea on me a few days before leaving and I didn’t want to go (traveling sucks with kids and it’s a pain in the ass for my dad to come over and take care of all of my animals) but I think I was persuaded by the possibility of finally seeing Detroit firsthand, as a day trip there was promised.
One thing about Detroit’s story that makes it so….sad is that Detroit apparently used to be a very nice place. The average person could get a decent job and make a good living. There was a lot of money from the auto industry and a nice civic/corporate parternship that made possible a lot of amazing public works. The architecture was ornate and reflected a real sense of pride in place without being gaudy or too extravagant. I noticed that her family really seemed to wax poetic about their old neighborhoods and their trips into the city in the past, but lament the fact that it’s become, well, a shithole.
I did notice that there was a lot more trash along the side of the highway coming into the city than you would expect in a more functioning city. Although much of the “landscape” was blocked by berms along the highway, you could still see boarded up houses and lots where the woods have reclaimed abandoned homes.
Generally speaking it seemed a little more vacant than you would expect from a city that size. There were fewer billboards along the road even than in other cities and traffic was lighter. Even the downtown area didn’t seem as busy as it should’ve been.
I did get to see some of the famed abandoned factories that ring the city’s core, which was eerie. They were beyond hope of salvage, covered in spray paint and often collapsing on themselves. It really did look like something out of a war zone. Well, a war zone with graffiti artists pulling up the rear.
The thing that went through my mind while seeing these kinds of huge buildings decaying into oblivion is how bad things had to have gotten to get someone to just give up such a big undertaking. Someone puts a lot of blood, sweat and tears into putting up a big factory like that…or maybe more accurately, someone puts a lot of cash into one of those buildings. At what point does someone just say “fuck it” and walk away?
I guess it doesn’t help that when you have a structure that holds a factory, there’s really not much else you can do with it besides have a factory. We have a place in downtown Des Moines that was a Ford factory and an airplane factory but was eventually “repurposed” into a giant school building. That’s worked out pretty good for this city, but what do you do when there are dozens or hundreds of factories shutting down in one concentrated area? You can’t just turn them all into industrial-sized schools.
Could you turn them into housing? Sure, but when the factories close the houses are “closing” too and fewer people are able or willing to buy houses. I think we’re seeing the same phenomenon right now with shopping malls and big box retailers. There seems to be a scramble to unload these kinds of holdings as fast as possible and get some other kind of occupant there before they run out of possibilities. If physical retail is dwindling, what can you do with a Best Buy building? Someone can find something, but are there enough “somebodies” to fill up what’s there? Probably not and unfortunately that’s made Detroit’s transition into a functioning post-industrial city really difficult. If the blight could just go magically away and leave a blank slate, it would solve *some* of the city’s problems. Not all, but enough to retool into something coherent.
I thought the downtown area was really nice. As something of a skyline aficionado, I loved the ornate buildings that dot the downtown area. Many of them had the art deco thing going on and stood out as individual buildings compared to what we normally see in newer cities. The view of the skyline against the Detroit river and the Great Lakes on the Ambassador Bridge to Canada was amazing, but after having to sit there for an hour on the bridge (busy travel day!) I admit it ran it’s course to me. Greek town and the stadiums in the downtown area all looked really nice, I’d love to catch a ballgame sometime there.
The zoo was really nice and reflected that era in Detroit’s history where they had a ton of cash and were ambitious with public projects. There was a bit of malaise from the employees (and the animals since it was 90 degrees), but it was in good repair. The neighborhood around it was really nice, which was good considering I was given some bad directions and getting around there – it’s always more pleasant to get lost in a place where you’re more likely to find a vegan cupcake shop than the plasma bank.
I have a feeling that since I now have some family connections to the area that I’ll probably be back in Detroit at some point in my life. Hopefully next time I can at least spend a little bit of time there without kids and see more of “real Detroit” and most importantly, “Old Detroit”, one of America’s most storied cities.
PS: Windsor, Ontario was a shithole too. The small part I saw looked like a beat up American strip mall. The one person I interacted with, the manager at the Tim Horton’s, was very polite though.