The Myths and, More Importantly, Magic of Detroit

Comerica Park

This is the part where I’m supposed to trot out the long checklist of Detroit cliches and rattle them off in a formulaic preamble about the plight of the city. Oh, the abandoned burned-out buildings, the crack heads and the crack whores, the poverty, the violence, the horror! Rehash the city’s well-known narrative, perhaps sprinkle in schmaltzy quotes from a Kent Brockman-style interview with a dismayed Detroiter or two, and generally paint a bleak picture of a once-great metropolis in decay.

But wait, there’s more to the story!

This is the part where I’m now supposed to surprise you by countering with inspiring tales of urban reclamation within decaying Detroit. Oh, the new coffee shops, the edgy bars, the gourmet restaurants, the hip underbelly of a gritty city on the rise! I’ll quote a thirtysomething chef who’s just opened a New American-style restaurant in Hamtramck offering farm-to-table cuisine on a seasonal prix-fixe menu. I’ll profile the underground music and arts scene, spotlight a local bakery that’s been open since the 1940s, paint a pretty picture of hope and renewal and of a brighter future for a city you thought you knew but don’t.

But wait!

I’d rather not do either. Detroit is too difficult, too complex — and far too often pidgeon-holed. In many ways, yes, Detroit is that city lazy journalists take repeated potshots at whenever he or she needs a safe metaphor for “ugly American metropolis” that won’t offend too many people (even Detroiters). In more ways, though, it’s not. But that easy “city on the rise” angle? Bores me to death too.

Most big cities have some new restaurants and some new bars and some new art galleries being opened by people under the age of 40. It’s happening in Detroit as it’s happening in St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland. Detroit is not a city on the rise, unfortunately. New restaurants and bars and a renovated waterfront help, but they are not going to change that; casinos are definitely not going to change that.

When I visit downtown Detroit I see all those things from the cliché checklist you’d expect to see, but I don’t see the really important things. In the heart of the city I don’t see markets and grocery stores. I don’t see much of any residential construction (on new buildings while tearing down or faithfully restoring the old). In the paper, I don’t read about public schools improving — yeah right — and I don’t read about significant tax cuts and other incentives being offered to rent apartments in downtown Detroit. I do read, of course, about scores of expensive homes in the suburbs going into foreclosure.

No, I don’t see or read or hear about any significant infrastructure improvements in downtown Detroit that could even begin to entice some of the area’s populace to consider migrating back from the blah suburbs and into the city, which in its most make-believe idyllic incantation could, well, it could be the great city it once was. Until the city’s population recoups a chunk of the roughly 1 million residents it has lost in the past 60 years or so, Detroit, or any other major city, for that matter, can never really be considered a city on the rise.

And, like most people, I just don’t see that major recoupment happening anytime soon. For now, I’d settle for “Detroiters” simply embracing Detroit again, because for all the bluster and city pride you see Detroit’s auto manufacturers manufacturing in TV commercials to sell cars, real “Detroit pride” amongst many Detroiters sometimes feels like little more than a romantic fallacy.

You can’t have pride in a city that you barely visit and gave up on 25 years ago.

Of course, I left 15 years ago. I was born and raised in the greater metropolitan Detroit area, an apologetic way of saying I was mostly raised in the suburbs of Detroit. I don’t live in Michigan anymore and will probably never live there again. I moved away to pursue my college education in Tennessee and, later, my professional career in New York. In a few months I’m moving to Singapore.

But I loved going downtown as a kid. To the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Science Center with my grandma, to Tigers games and Red Wings games with my dad, to Xochimilco in Mexicantown with my mom for beef enchiladas. Later, during high school and college, I loved going downtown with friends for concerts at St. Andrew’s Hall and The Shelter, for fake IDs at Bob’s Photo ID, and for raves at random sketchy warehouses I had no business being in at 18.

I have always loved downtown Detroit.

The high-rise buildings, the Joe Louis fist, The Spirit of Detroit, the museums, the Detroit River, the Ambassador Bridge – the big-city vibe and palpable energy of downtown Detroit is, in a way, what I think silently inspired my predilection for big cities when others are often repelled by them. Bangkok and Brooklyn over the Bahamas, always.

I still love going downtown during family visits. I don’t know it that well, where the very best bars and the very best restaurants are, but I go whenever I’m in Michigan, usually with my dad, who goes down there as often as anybody I know and always makes a point of telling me how much he likes it down there and wishes more people felt the same way.

In fact, though he lives just down the freeway in Woodhaven, he often goes downtown for the weekend, eating and drinking around Greektown after a Lions game and staying overnight in the Renaissance Center or historic Book Cadillac. When I go, I go to baseball games at Comerica Park. I like drinking craft beers at the sidewalk tables of Detroit Beer Company and on the roof of Motor City City Brewing Works. I like eating housemade cheese and baked goods at Traffic Jam & Snug and fried fish at downriver waterfront restaurants. I like walking along the Detroit River and through Hart Plaza. I have always liked the look and feel of the Renaissance Center and the cluster of buildings around it. Hell, I like riding the Detroit People Mover (real name).

Tigers Game

Author and his dad at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit

I like going downtown because it sparks fuzzy memories of almost catching a foul ball at Tiger Stadium, of a Red Wings and St. Louis Blues playoff game at Joe Louis Arena, of seeing Ween for the first time at St. Andrew’s Hall. Of stuffing my face with chips and salsa before the enchiladas at Xochimilco, and afterwards scooping those multi-colored mints out of the bowl in front of the cash register. Of seeing Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts for the first time, and of running wild through the hands-on exhibitions at the Detroit Science Center. I can even (barely) remember the ferry ride to Boblo Island.

Some of my most treasured childhood and teenage memories are from trips to Detroit; many of the highlights of my family visits as an adult are from trips to Detroit.

This is the part, then, where I tell you that, yes, the cliches are all still true. Last month as my dad and I cruised down I-75, I glanced at the once majestic Michigan Central Depot and wished I could see it in its glorious heyday, not as the condemned wasteland of crumbling ruins it is today. On our way to Motor City Brewing, we passed beautiful buildings on Cass Avenue that have been long boarded up and abandoned and left to decay, swallowed up by trash and graffitti and neglect.

We passed bedraggled homeless people sleeping on porch steps and prostitutes standing on the corner at four in the afternoon. Keep in mind this is one of the nicer downtown areas; there are massive swaths of the city that you just don’t go to (though to be fair, that’s true of many of America’s urban centers).

But warts are warts — we still had a great time down there that night, as I always do. I still truly believe Detroit is a magnificent city, even if it’s not a city on the rise. There’s plenty to love, plenty of reasons to visit, plenty of good memories waiting to happen. I don ‘t live around it anymore, but I take Detroit with me wherever I go. Detroit is a magnificent city.

I’m not a Detroit insider because when I’m in Detroit, I’m in Detroit as a vacationing tourist and not as a writer – yes, I love vacationing in Detroit. I’m not here to send you to any one specific art gallery or coffee shop or bar or restaurant, but I am here to send you down there, anywhere (except to the war zones). Beyond the cliches and the myths, I think you’ll find plenty to like.

One Response

  1. Jack July 14, 2012

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