Breakfast in Detroit

“If [Detroit’s]  bankruptcy is disallowed, frankly, expect all hell to break loose,” said Anthony Sabino, a lawyer who teaches business law at St. John’s University in New York.  [It would be like] “wolves rending the carcass piece by piece.” –  AP

Long ago I learned to deal with fear in this manner: First try to ignore it. And if you can’t, observe it. Observe the fear, and your immediate surroundings. So, the morning I walked to breakfast in Greektown in Detroit, I was intensely observant. The fear was present because I saw no one else on the street, which in a city of 700,000, at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning seemed ominous. Like a sniper might be on the loose, like a dirty bomb might have gone off, like it was  the day after the end of the world and no one had told me.

There was the sound of a bird singing, and a faint clicking which turned out to be a cigar rolling on a manhole cover.

There was a parking lot, with grass growing up through the seams in the concrete. The grass in fact made the seams in the concrete visible, I could clearly see the neat grid that was used to lay down the cement in other times. And the grass was not green but gold and tan and brown because it was Fall. And the grass was long, because it had not been cut and was not going to be.

Detroit Train Station

There were two tall buildings, fourteen story buildings with most of their window glass gone, except from the topmost floors. On the bottom three floors, the ones that you could reach easily by climbing, the doors and the windows were cinder-blocked in. But still there were the pediment windows, and the Greek revival details, cresting, and did I see an egg-and-dart design?  But still there was an arched window and still hadn’t that building been painted a pleasing ochre yellow shade, and still I saw a segmented pediment window with bracketed cornices, with empty oval shapes in the center that seemed to have once had something.

It seemed urgent to me to document these details, because they tell the frightening story that these were not buildings that were thrown up carelessly.

Okay, maybe the collapsing drop ceiling that I used my camera to zoom in to look at, with its supports now pointing downward, and its tiles folded like a sculpture and its visible water damage – maybe that cheap drop ceiling was not installed with the utmost concern for aesthetics. But someone cared about this place, once, many people did. It was not always ruins and neglect.

In the bright beginning, when an architect spread plans out on a drafting board, when a construction worker held them up into the sunlight, when someone selected the ochre paint and said let’s go with the pediment windows, they did not think about bricking the accessible windows with gray cinder blocks. They did not worry about how they’d prevent people from entering through the windows when the city around them died.

When I was in Detroit, I did not believe I was in America. This is what I’ve told people when I returned. But I was just trying to impress them so they’d listen to my story more closely. The fact is that I did believe I was in America, I could not have been anywhere else. And I was looking at the evidence that all things end,that  everything that manifests must pass. I didn’t think that applied to me, and my city, though. I just moved through Detroit towards my breakfast because I was a tourist and I would soon return back to the land of the temporarily living.

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