You’re going to Detroit?! Why?
This was the most common reaction I heard when detailing my US travel plans to Americans. Occasionally I would meet someone more curious who thought it was a good idea, but they were few and far between. They wanted to go for the same reason I did: ruin porn – as it has become known – like this.
[An abandoned building in Detroit.]
So why was I going to Detroit? I was in Toronto for a conference and one of my friends who lives in Madison had said to me to drop by his place if I ever happen to be in the neighbourhood. Of course Toronto is miles from Madison (over a thousand kilometres worth of miles), but I tend to forget these details when poring over maps and connecting dots.
The easiest overland route from Toronto to Madison is via Detroit and Chicago. I have been to Chicago and was happy to have an excuse to go back, so this was the ideal time to visit Detroit.
Detroit – The Beirut of the Midwest?
There are no hostels in Detroit (apparently backpackers aren’t beating a path to get here), and the conveniently located hotels were well over my usual budget. The cheap chain hotels are in the outer suburbs, which is not an option if you don’t have a car (a prerequisite for living in Motor City).
As a last resort I had a look at Couchsurfing. I posted my Detroit travel plans and a woman from Indianapolis replied, inviting me to stay with her because “Detroit is like Beirut”. She didn’t know that Beirut is on my cities I want to visit list, so that just made me want to go to Detroit even more. Eventually a friendly Detroiter replied to my ad and offered a couch at his house.
Detroit is on the US/Canada border, with the Detroit river separating the city from Windsor, Canada. There is a special bus from Windsor that passes through immigration control, which turned out to be the least painful US entry point I have ever been through.
My host was at work so I left my bags at an accommodating hotel and began my urban exploration. I was slightly on edge walking around having had so many people advising me to be careful before my visit. I didn’t know if there were any invisible lines that demarcate good neighbourhoods from bad. With no maps to refer to or tourist office in sight, I just started wandering in any direction, which is my favourite way to discover a new city.
I didn’t feel unsafe, but there is definitely a weird vibe going on. It took me a few hours to work out what the problem was: there is very little retail in the downtown area. In a country that is wall-to-wall with franchised stores, I saw very few familiar brands.
At approximately coffee-o-clock I realised I hadn’t seen a Starbucks all day. I looked online and sure enough there are only two Starbucks listed in the downtown area: one in the Renaissance Building (where GM is headquartered) and one in the MGM Grand Detroit hotel/casino complex. Not that it’s a bad thing to experience a city without a Starbucks, but being used to having a Starbucks on every other corner in most US cities this just added to the apocalyptic feel to the quiet streets of Detroit. Of course the benefit of so few Starbucks is that it gives independent cafes a chance, of which there a are a few.
Whether the city likes it or not, Detroit has become known for abandoned grand old buildings. One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to see Michigan Central Station, which I had seen in a photo essay.
[Michigan Central Station]
The building is as magnificent as I hoped it would be be, but it’s fenced off with razor wire so you can’t just go in and look around like the photo essays suggest. Probably a good thing though as it would be an ideal crack den.
In the downtown area there are numerous buildings that are boarded up, waiting for a savior to restore them to their former glory .
[I <3 this building and I hope it finds salvation.] Meanwhile, the Broadway Cafe (one of the good indy cafes I mentioned) has taken matters into its own hands and is offering a free coffee to whoever purchases the building next door.
[Broadway Cafe and Wurlitzer Building.]
While “ruined” buildings like the old train station get plenty of attention, Detroit has an abundance of early twentieth century skyscrapers in various working condition. My favourite building in Detroit is the Book Tower, which was completed in 1926 and stands at 38 stories high. It is currently empty, but not (yet) ruined.
[Book Tower – Detroit]
Detroit reminds me of Downtown Los Angeles, another city which had a lustrous past and then went into a slow decline. I was surprised at how many of these old buildings still survive, like this cluster of buildings that can be seen at Capital Park.
[Capitol Park – Detroit]
One of the best kept is the Guardian Building, which is worth going inside for the opulently decorated foyer.
[Guardian Building – Detroit]
[Masonic Temple – Detroit]
Along with the lack of retail, another unsettling aspect of Detroit are the vacant lots. Whole city blocks that once had buildings are now car parks. While a clean, empty lot is better than a burnt out ruin, it’s still a reminder that all is not well here.
[An advertisement for an electric car – 30 years too late to save the local car industry.]
[The abondoned Hotel Eddystone building, surrounded by empty lots.]
The Comeback of Detroit?
[Can Ryan Gosling save Detroit?]
Since my visit, Detroit has become the biggest US city to file for bankruptcy. Urban renewal is an interest of mine so I follow news like this about cities around the world. My Couchsurfing host happened to be an urban renewalist as well so it was great to spend time with him and see the community activities he is involved with, while I got to ask nerdy questions about town planning, white-flight, and public transport. If I had stayed at a hotel I would have missed this insight.
I know some entrepreneurs who have moved here for the cheap rent in old buildings, and there is certainly plenty of old buildings for the hipster/artist scene to make a go of it.
Detroit was up until 1950 the fourth largest city in the United States. It was an economic and population powerhouse. Going to Detroit is like watching a heavyweight prizefighter knocked out on the canvas, with the referee standing by counting to ten. I’m watching on the sidelines willing the city to get up. Maybe it will have a renewal like Downtown Los Angeles is experiencing. I wish it the best of luck.