Detroit, Michigan: The beautiful ruins of an American dream
Michigan Central Depot, a once grand railway station, now falls into ruins.
- Detroit suffered during the global financial crisis
Motor companies took huge federal bailouts
Bailouts paid off as companies return to the city
Property is virtually worthless in some areas
The city is shaking its reputation for crime and poverty
AS FAR as statements go, it carried Obama-like authority. Some in the city of Detroit wept when they saw it. The white rapper, Eminem, who grew up as a teenager in Detroit, Michigan, appeared to 90 million Americans during the screening of the Superbowl two weeks ago. The two-minute ad for Chrysler was the longest ad ever screened during Superbowl, the ultimate prime-time slot in the USA.
It was a car ad, but it meant so much more. Eminem spoke up for long-suffering, crime-ridden and financially strapped Detroit, a city deeply connected to the wider American psyche. The message was that Detroit was coming back.
General Motors and Chrysler took multi-billion dollar federal bail-outs during the 2008-9 crisis. Ford was more prepared for the crisis, both with the kind of smaller cars it has been making and better business planning, and took no money.
Detroit is making a comeback as companies return and rehire.
Many believed the bail-outs would be the most costly mistake President Obama would ever make. But the companies are coming back, hiring workers, paying bonuses, and repaying the loans. Obama is something of a hero in Detroit, but Eminem is now the true prince of this city.
“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well I’ll tell ya, more than most,” said Eminem over street scenes of this beautifully ruined city. “You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel. Add hard work and conviction and a know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That’s who we are. That’s our story.”
This was highly charged parochialism - and most unexpected from a rapper who might not have been thought to owe any debt to the hard streets which raised him. Eminem attacked the media, saying the story of his city was different to the one people have been reading in the papers. The ad closes out with the words: “Imported from America.” The message - apart from buy local, not Japanese or Korean - was that the people of Detroit are still here, and they’re still making cars.
Despite all their mistakes - such as for years blindly ignoring the smaller eco-car market, and producing cars of such poor quality that Americans started buying Toyotas - they’re now finally offering hybrids and economical cars, while still finding a market for their absurdly overpowered six-litre V8s.
There was a time when Detroit was known for its music - Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye - as much as its cars. All that changed with the oil blockades of the Seventies and the changes to music itself. There is little that Eminem has in common with the music of Motown. But they share the experience of survival - in a city widely regarded as among the most dangerous places in the States, and a shabby monument to American excess.
Yet the abandoned Michigan Central Depot is every bit as spectacular as Rome’s Coliseum, only more fascinating. Huge assembly-line buildings lie broken, in decay. There are no properly organized tours of the ruins. Detroit is embarrassed about these falling or fallen structures. They don’t seem to appreciate that Detroit’s ruins tell the story of the 20th century.
Wider Detroit has six million people; the true city of Detroit - from where you can stand at lake’s edge and see Canada - has one million people, or maybe less. In the business district there are about 50 large abandoned buildings; and an estimated 30,000 abandoned buildings and dwellings across Detroit.
We cruise through Eastside, which was once crowded middle-class suburbia. This is the bad part of town. Now, there are whole suburban blocks that might have only one or two houses. Other homes are abandoned or burnt-out either for insurance scams or by gangs having fun.
You can buy a house here for $5000, or less. But it’s not considered a good investment, if you value your neck. You wonder if the people who remain in this ghetto survive only because they themselves are dangerous.
In the better parts of town, where the sub-prime lending catastrophe hit hard, you can buy a good three bedroom, two-storey brick home for $60,000 - half what it was worth a few years ago.
In the Eastside ghetto, the street lights don’t work and the snow is not swept from the roads. Police struggle to attend emergency call-outs. Out here, you’re on your own. The Detroit mayor, former national basketball player, Dave Bing, has a dream: destroy what is left of the ghetto’s streets, offer people good deals to move back tight into the Detroit CBD. And then start rebuilding, piece by piece, and slowly move back to reclaim the Eastside.
This may be one of the few cities in the world where urban planning involves downsizing, rather than growth. In the meantime, proposals are being put forward to turn the ghetto land into small inner-city farming plots.
“The question is how are you going to bring back the middle class?” says Rick Tressler, a Detroit true-believer who lives the inner-city and manages a large apartment property which has been converted from one of the city’s once abandoned deco towers.
Tressler is starting to see young professionals moving back into inner Detroit, where the roads are wide and the architecture of the 1920s is so stunning. But the first question everyone asks him is: “Is it safe?”
People started leaving Detroit for outer-lying areas in big numbers after the 1967 riots. Mostly African-American people remained in the troubled suburbs, but then they too found they’d had enough.
“People have fled the city and it’s not white flight, it’s black flight,” says Tressler. “The schools are really so bad. We’ve been in disarray for a long time. We’ve had years of corrupt government and everybody around the world has seen kids being arrested in Detroit public schools. Our last Mayor’s in jail right now. Any time there’s crime it makes the news. We’re portrayed as a third-world city that is very dangerous. But the city’s coming back.”
Had Eminem’s ad played two years ago, people would have laughed. But no one did when the ad screened two weeks ago. America knows it needs Detroit. In the city itself, everywhere you go, anyone you ask, the Eminem ad has made them feel good about who they are, for the first time in decades.
“I’m not an Eminem fan - although, I am now,” says Rick Tressler. “This ad was a very emotional thing for us.”
The joke goes: “You probably won’t get shot in Detroit.” The place is utterly lawless, in parts, and you can get easily yourself mugged or shot if you so wish. But the perception that any person will be challenged with violence in Detroit is wrong. If you’re interested in hearing their story, you’re more likely to be loved to death.
A small downtown bar called Greenwich Time has watched its Friday night crowds dwindle over the years from three-deep at the bar to just a handful of locals. Owned by a family of Albanian-Mexican heritage, the way they see it is that they’ve been down so far the only way is up. Recovery is possible; life will go on.
The people who drink at this bar are different to us wait-back-and-see Australians. They do not wait for polite introductions. They address you directly, ask your story, engage in raging political debates, and insist you share their food. There is good in this town, which, as Eminem said, has been to hell and back. It has a story to tell.
Lowell Boileau runs a website forum on Detroit and takes people on virtual tours of the ruins. “Detroit has a maligned reputation,” says Boileau. “It is not understood. What happened to Detroit was a blind comfort - they thought it would go on forever. You had a good job, punched the clock, and always assumed it would always be that way. We didn’t adapt, and that wasn’t more evident than in our premier product, the automobile.
“There were the oil shocks of the 70s and Chrysler went bankrupt in 1980. They were just changing the exteriors on these cars. They had a lock on the market, so they put out any product they wanted. It was lethargy. The result was that foreign competitors started eating our lunch.”
Boileau says Detroit still rises and falls with the auto industry in south-east Michigan and southern Ontario. But there’s information technology and tax breaks for film producers (Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino was shot here).
“Things are getting better but we’re still snake-bitten,” says Boileau. “Detroit has gone through long periods of depression. Everyone talks about the 2008 collapse, but we’ve been down since 2002. In this country, we generally get sick first and we get well last.”
With so many empty blocks in Detroit, and so many empty buildings, Detroit now finds itself in a position to imagine a whole new start, and be whatever it wants to be - especially if the car industry continues to heal.
“People are forced to think of new ways and new ideas,” says Boileau, such as turning empty blocks in the ghetto district into small farming plots. “It’s kind of a mix between idealism and desperation. But it’s energizing being in Detroit right now. It is a very fertile place for possibility.”
At 2am, with some newfound friends, we park outside the Michigan Central Depot. It’s -15 C, or worse. Snow blankets the ground. The huge depot, which once saw 200 trains every day, stands alone on vast acreage. It is utterly beautiful. My Detroit friends likewise stare in awe, like they’re seeing it for the first time.
Take a virtual tour of Detroit with Lowell Boileau.
Source: News.com.au (18 February 2011)