Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Detroit: Renewal or Rigor Mortis?

I remember when my brother and his family moved to suburban Detroit.

It was about 15 years ago, and even back then, Detroit was so bad, my sister-in-law insisted I tell people here in Texas that they were going to live in "suburban" Detroit, with the emphasis on "suburban."

She didn't want people to think she and my brother were endangering their family by moving to actual Detroit!  And although we'd all heard plenty of bad stuff about "the D," as colloquial expressionism is trying to re-brand Motown, it wasn't until I visited them at their new home that I saw for myself how badly bizarre a place it is.

Of course, that was 15 years ago.  It's even worse today.

Back then, on my first evening in Michigan, my brother offered to take me on a drive to downtown Detroit and the riverfront.  It started off normally enough, through the western stretch of the metropolitan area's suburban sprawl, much of which differed little from older suburban areas around Dallas and Fort Worth.  But my brother didn't need to tell me when we'd crossed the city line from Dearborn into Detroit.  It was as if an invisible wall of dereliction, neglect, poverty, abandonment, and despair opened up and swallowed us.

Detroit's empty streets are now legendary, as are the weed-choked fields that used to be urban neighborhoods of trim single-family homes.  Every now and then, a tumble-down shack could be seen among meadows with grass tall enough to harvest with farm equipment.  A liquor store, usually the only building with any activity around it, anchored just about any block with commercial buildings still standing.  We drove past the old Tigers Stadium, which my brother said the city would soon be tearing down, since the venerable team had decided to build a new baseball palace downtown, near the river.  Die-hard Tigers fans were still livid over the prospect, even if going to games in a new neighborhood would likely be far safer.

Off in the distance, I could see a pock-marked tower of a building, standing grandly off to the side of the urban wasteland.  It was Michigan Central Station, a once proud symbol of Detroit's economic might, now languishing in blatant decrepitude, its 18 stories of office space gutted, its haunting profile ridiculed by flimsy chain-link fencing and razor wire that, by the look of all the graffiti, only keeps out those willing to abide by the law.

Once downtown, my brother drove me past wonderfully-designed Art Deco skyscrapers that appeared frozen in time.  Some had trees growing out of windows, and sprouting from rooftops.  Not shrubs, but actual trees.  It was early evening, almost dusk, but if anybody worked downtown back then, they must have all cleared out right at 5:00pm, because I remember being struck by how deserted every sidewalk was.  There were no pedestrians, and hardly any vehicular traffic.  It was too eerie - like the city had received early warning of a natural disaster, and had staged a mass evacuation ahead of it.

Today, I understand that downtown Detroit is a far livelier place than it was 15 year ago.  In 2010, the entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, who founded Quicken Loans, relocated his corporate headquarters from the suburbs to the Compuware building, a new edifice designed to help jump-start downtown's renaissance.  Gilbert has become the face of downtown Detroit, having purchased about 40 properties in the dilapidated business district, and turning most of them into apartment buildings and boutique office spaces for adventurous - and indeed, pioneering - new urbanists.

Back during my first trip into the wilds of Detroit, however, none of that optimism existed.

My brother drove me over to Belle Isle, the city's once-grand island park in the middle of the Detroit River.  It was mostly empty, due to the fact that dusk was settling in, and the place was exceptionally dangerous after dark.  What once had probably been a beautiful public space looked to me as though it had suffered some cataclysmic crisis, like maybe a flood, after which all of the grass died, along with many of its towering trees, eventually being replaced by thin patches of weeds and scrubby bushes.

Not long after we arrived, it became apparent that we were probably the only people of our race and economic class on Belle Isle that evening, so my brother, who's rarely intimidated by anything, sped through the rest of the loop around the park, and we crossed the bridge back into what were ostensibly some safer streets in mainland Detroit.

We did go down some broad boulevards and streets that still were graced by dramatic trees, reaching over the pavement with thick branches and leafy canopies that blotted out what was left of the day's sunlight.  But streets themselves were strewn with potholes, gaping cracks, and other uneven problems created by - and left unresolved through - years of harsh winter weather and road salt.  Which actually, my brother said likely meant that all of this damage unfolded years ago, back when Detroit actually did plow its roads after blizzards, and applied rock salt to help keep ice from forming on the pavement. 

For his part, back downtown, Gilbert is getting tired of all the "ruin porn" exposure Detroit is getting, both before the city's bankruptcy filing, and after.  What Gilbert and fellow boosters of the D are fighting against, however, is the staggering amount of unmitigated blight that, even with the polishing its central business district is undergoing, appears to have suffocated sustainable life out of the rest of their city.  Talk of such land reclamation projects as urban farming - in soil that, under any other circumstances, liberal environmentalists would be claiming is one big massive Superfund site - paints recovery efforts in a caricature of post-apocalyptic dystopia for the rest of us who see Motor City in rigor mortis.

Then today came a piece in the Detroit Free Press about a new commune-type experiment under way in the ironically-named neighborhood of State Fair, one of the D's most crime-infested.  Within houses that have been abandoned, burned, and left for scrap have come bohemian artists, drifters, and other new-age grunge aficionados looking for free rent and, well, free love.  It's as if they've stepped straight from the drug dens of San Francisco in the 1960's and found their way to one of Motown's most neglected 'hoods for a little peace, freedom, and communal harmony.

They call it a place to "self-actualize," but their neighbors, people who lived in the disintegrating district before this new generation of hippies began to drift in, aren't sure what to call it.  Apparently, the drug dens of today's State Fair 'hood and the 1960's counter-cultural drug dens aren't as compatible as one might think.  Of course, reporter John Carlisle of the Free Press doesn't accuse these young newcomers of being druggies; just the people who were already living there.  But in a story that perhaps can only come from someplace as dysfunctional as the D, the fact that squatters with no obvious aspirations for gainful employment can even become somewhat established "off the grid," as Carlisle puts it, doesn't bode well for the city's immediate future.

Despite being without electricity, gas heat, or even running water, these new bohemians say they're there to stay, and believe they've begun to win-over some of their neighbors, giving away used bikes and home-grown vegetables from their urban farm for free, mowing vacant land, and forgiving people who steal from them and shoot at them.

Even if it hasn't been easy.

“You’ve got mainstream hip-hop culture - cash, money, ego," Carlisle quotes one of the new squatters, speaking about their brittle acceptance into the neighborhood, "and we’re like, ‘Dissolve your ego, live in peace and harmony.’ It’s not cool. They’re like, ‘What do I get out of that?’ It’s a hard sell.”

Which, actually, may speak more to the long-term problems facing Detroit than just whether some new bohemians can get along with longtime, impoverished Detroiters.  Prostitution, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and thievery are rife in this neighborhood, and across the D, and these are all problems stemming from a desire for quick fixes and immediate gratification.

Furthermore, if Carlisle's story has any merit, it's in showing that the only other form of immediate gratification in the city's vast slums apparently is found in newcomers who don't want city services, choose to live without electricity, are willing to chop their own wood for heat, and quietly tolerate oppressive crime.

That's not a Detroit in which people like Dan Gilbert can earn back all of the money and energy they're trying to invest.  But frankly, it fits the city I saw for the first time 15 years ago.

Talk about "self-actualization."


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