It had been over 30 years since my last visit to Detroit. It was time. Ruin porn. That was the term I'd heard used to describe why tourists were now descending on buildings like the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station in Corktown. How could a city let its own Grand Central Terminal go the way of the Pinto?
An Angeleno urbanist jonesing for the sort of brick and mortar one is hard pressed to find in most parts of Los Angeles, I was excited to be heading back to a place I'd been fascinated with since taking a course at the University of Michigan on urban development in the American rustbelt.
Armed with a map, my own notes and a laundry list of things to see from Jennifer and Daniel, friends who had moved back to Michigan from Egypt after Hosni Mubarak got what he'd long deserved, I made my way from Detroit's massive airport onto an empty rental car shuttle for the ride to the equally empty Avis counter. Who are they expecting? The sea of celebrities who want to buy the Clippers?
Within minutes I was in a car heading into the motor city. Though it had been a while, some of the must sees on my list were familiar. I knew I'd have to visit the Cass Corridor, the Fisher Building, the Fox Theatre and the Masonic Temple. But other ideas were new and unfamiliar to me, like the spectacular Guardian Building and The Heidelberg Project out near the colorful Eastern Market.
Downtown, it was immediately clear why "We Try Harder" is the order of the day in a once great city that recently went into receivership. Along Cass and Woodward, two of Detroit's grand boulevards, just steps from once great sources of civic pride, sit empty lots and abandoned buildings that once housed generations of proud city residents and businesses. Near Wayne State University, a day after President Clinton had visited, I marveled at the out of my price range but beautiful, handmade in Detroit bikes and watches at Shinola and local crafts at City Bird. My excellent lunch at the hipster Bronx Bar cost me a fraction of what I would have spent on the same in LA's Arts District or Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. But even fortified, it was clear that beyond the charming areas like Canfield Street, this was going to be a mostly car visit rather than a walking or biking tour of downtown Detroit. The nearby Fox, Fillmore and Masonic theatres are still there in much of their former glory. And the Tigers stadium, with its chintzy asshat features does sparkle a bit across Woodward Avenue.
At my friend Dan's suggestion I drove through Lafayette Park, a great compendium of Mies van der Rohe houses near downtown. As he told me when he shared his must sees, "Detroit's a fascinating place which will outwardly loom horrible, but has a lot of soul and many sprouts starting to bloom."
So true, and yet so unforgivable, that the great city is even now considering selling some of the treasures of the world renown Detroit Institute of Arts to pay its bills.
With many of the country's cities, including my own -- Los Angeles, experiencing unprecedented redevelopment and investment, I can only wish Detroit the same. Abandoned by the once, and sometimes still, giants of American industry, what a shame America is still not adequately investing in the transit-oriented smart growth development that could accelerate the revitalization of Detroit, a city of massive potential. Decades after the 1967 riots decimated the motor city, at its core, Detroit remains a diamond in the rough. From its fine cultural and educational institutions to its countless examples of beautiful mid-century architecture, the city is poised for rebirth. All it needs are the waves of urban living enthusiasts who have repopulated and revitalized Los Angeles, Oakland and Brooklyn. Sure, some will say this 'gentrification' will mean further displacement of Detroit's poor and working class. To this I respond, on Detroit's under-populated streets there is room for all. And as the newcomers or returnees inevitably bring businesses and jobs back to Detroit, all the better.
Like the Watts Tower in Los Angeles, Detroit has its own artistic masterpiece in The Heidelberg Project. Heidelberg is a work in progress public art project set along a residential street not far from Gratiot Avenue. With its polka dot covered abandoned houses and empty lots filled with art installations, The Heidelberg Project is a thought-provoking prod to those who visit about the plight of all inner-city communities. Just as the artist behind the work took what the riots left in their wake and turned it into a provocative, positive message, I hope Detroit as a whole can do the same. With so many of us seeking an urban alternative to sprawl, forty-seven years is too long to wait for Motown's rebirth.