Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travel, and the Detroit We've Been Through


Most people love to travel.

Me?  Not so much.

For many Americans, a vacation isn't a vacation if you don't travel anywhere.  Going someplace else - practically anyplace else but home - is considered at worst an adventure, and at best, an opportunity for fun and pleasure.

Even folks who have to travel for their job likely don't consider it as onerous a task as I consider travel to be. 

I'm not adventurous, curious, or thrill-seeking.  I'm actually, genuinely content to see the photos other folks take on their travels without getting any urge within my own soul to go and experience those places for myself.

Perhaps it's my fear of the unknown, or my chronic clinical depression, that makes me a homebody.  I certainly can't afford to travel far, but I don't even like driving into Dallas or Fort Worth, which are mere minutes from where I live.  But I will travel when I have to, whether it's to Dallas for church, or Fort Worth to have dinner with friends.

I say all of this to help you understand what an undertaking it is for me - both physically and emotionally - to travel, even for personal family events such as my brother's recent milestone birthday in Michigan.  Shucks, the last time I traveled outside of Texas was to my eldest nephew's wedding last summer in Ohio.  Pretty glamorous destinations, don't you think?  But hey, isn't family more important, wherever they live?

So last week, Mom and I flew to suburban Detroit.  And I have to admit, the flight was as uneventful as possible - which is a very good thing in my way of thinking.  My brother and his family live on a sizable bit of acreage about 45 minutes outside of the rapidly-shrinking, bankrupt city, between Novi and Brighton, for those of you who are familiar with the area.  Their lot is heavily treed, with most of it lying in a protected woodland with marshes and a pond that freezes solid in the winter.  You can see their neighbors on either side through the trees, since technically, they're located in an otherwise ordinary subdivision, but it's solid forest directly behind their property.  Quite private, very quiet, and decidedly non-urban.  Even though the nearest town is literally two minutes away.

They've lived there for four years already, but this was my first visit.  And I completely understand why my sister-in-law, a country girl at heart, fell in love with the place the moment she saw it.

The thing about Michigan, of course, is that it's the world's headquarters for the mass-production of automobiles.  And where my brother lives, in suburban Detroit, my Honda Accord would seem a bit out of place.  Everybody in his family - everyone in his family are now drivers (yikes!) - drives an American nameplate.  I didn't see any vehicles in their entire neighborhood that wasn't American, except for one Subaru, which considering their fierce winters, is entirely understandable.

Here in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Lexus is by far the most popular luxury nameplate, followed closely by Mercedes-Benz.  In Michigan, it seems that the stodgy old Lincoln brand still has a loyal following.  In fact, I was surprised to see hardly any Cadillacs, just like here in Texas.  I guess that former symbol of American "excellence" has lost its luster even in the land of its namesake, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, the French explorer who founded the city of Detroit.

Driving around suburban Detroit, it was striking to see so few people texting behind the wheel.  Here in Texas, it seems I'm the only driver who doesn't text.  Yet in Michigan, most drivers actually watch the traffic ahead of them as they traverse the state's brittle roadways.  Where my brother lives, many of the side roads are still hard dirt - an aesthetic that the state of Michigan propagandizes as country chic - while other roads bear the unmistakable pitfalls (pun intended) of too much salt in the winters and too much rain in the other three seasons.  Newer, freshly-paved roads are few and far between, unless you're driving in one of the many recent subdivisions that have been constructed for the masses of Michiganders continuously fleeing the older, more urbanized Detroit core. 

Indeed, as Detroit continues to hemorrhage population - despite having weathered its stunning bankruptcy - the metropolitan region continues to travel north and west.  Its close-in ring of suburbs having matured long ago, Detroit's more bucolic outer ring of exurban towns and villages is swelling with transient suburbanites who have the economic wherewithal to put even more distance between themselves and Motown's continued dysfunction.

We toured downtown Detroit during our visit, and while the area around General Motors' world headquarters, on the riverside, appears quite vibrant, the rest of the city continues to shrivel up and wither away.  There's a stretch of promising new urban revitalization blossoming between the southern flanks of downtown and Belle Isle, the city's answer to New York's Central Park, but drive just one block west of Belle Isle's entrance, and deep blight is all there is to see.

By now, everybody knows the "ruin porn" that is Detroit:  Block after block of vacant lots, with perhaps a rickety old house or an abandoned structure of some sort still standing to break up the monotony.  On other blocks, the monotony is row after row of boarded-up houses and businesses, huddling together like heaps of bricks and wood that are struggling to retain some semblance of once being livable structures.  Even the graffiti is faded, their decay has become so old.

Churches - Detroit used to be full of churches - are literally falling in on themselves.  One massive church sanctuary we saw from a freeway had a prominent, circular rose window facing the setting sun, but all its missing shards of glass looked like black thorns, not a glorious flower.

Along one avenue lined with majestic trees, some large, old homes that were probably fashionable mansions in their day have been connected by rickety facades and re-branded as nursing homes, probably to scam Medicaid by claiming that they're providing suitable care to the city's stock of elderly blacks who can't afford to leave.  One of my nephews is an EMT who works in and around the city.  He recognized several of these so-called nursing homes, having made multiple trips to them, and he testified to the horrible conditions inside, hinted at by the derelict upkeep of their exteriors.  We winced upon viewing some of the homes, imagining all too easily what life inside must be like.

Oddly enough, there doesn't seem to be an over-supply of liquor stores like in other urban American slums.  Detroit is so desolate, it apparently doesn't have the population to sustain even those ubiquitous bad neighbors!

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit Riot, a five-day-long race-fueled tipping point in Detroit's fortunes as a thriving urban center.  Historically, like many old American cities, Detroit has always been a tinder-box of bias and bigotry, whether over race, or ethnicity, or religion, or country of origin.  But in 1967, long-simmering tensions between whites and blacks exploded into a conflagration of violence, arson, looting, and mayhem that opened the floodgates of white flight.  Combined with the city's cresting dominance in industrial manufacturing, the unabating popularity of new suburbs, frustration over municipal corruption, and the rise of the sunbelt, Detroit began its head-long free-fall into the abyss of urban decay. 

In 1950, Detroit's population peaked at over 1.8 million people.  But that was the decade in which suburbanization took off across the United States, and many of our large cities began to lose their middle class in significant numbers.  By 1967, Detroit was slowly losing residents at a steady pace.  Yet today, Detroit's head count has plummeted, standing at 670,000, and still dropping...

670,000 is still a lot of people, but it represents a stunning 62% decline from the city's peak.  Population-wise, Detroit is back where it was in 1910, before the automobile age.  No other large American city has experienced such a dramatic decline without any signs of stabilization - let alone reversal - in sight.

Sure, Mercedes-Benz runs a foreboding-looking research and engineering campus along the city's western flanks - literally on the city line.  Some huge hospital complexes continue pumping life blood into the city's renowned bio-tech sector.  A major subsidiary of Johnson Controls has announced that it's relocating downtown from the suburbs, purchasing a long-dormant 10-story office building for its new home, and hundreds of employees.  Other companies have made measured gestures of corporate support for Michigan's largest city, and the owner of Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, boasts that he now employs over three thousand city residents.

Yet while such glimmers of hope are certainly better than nothing, the magnitude of the losses Detroit has suffered remain staggering by comparison.  And the many factors that have taken Detroit on this miserable journey have yet to be thwarted.  Municipal corruption, for example, remains intransigent.  Detroit's schools remain atrociously inferior to anything any decent parent would want for their children.  Much of the city's abandoned landscape is polluted.  Many experts say that in theory, the city's remaining residents should be consolidated into a far smaller street grid, so they can at least be better protected and serviced by the city's woefully under-funded first responders and utilities.  However, the logistics - both legal and practical - of forcing such an upheaval makes the idea virtually impossible in reality.

Detroit's journey down this sad road, at least as it's been measured since its epic riot of 1967, has lasted almost as long as I have been alive.  Which means that even if Detroit's many problems were somehow fixed today, it likely would take decades for the city to backfill itself with revitalized new homes, businesses, and infrastructure to replace what it's lost.

Meanwhile, the travel many Detroiters are taking as they leave the city remains much easier.  In 2010, the Wall Street Journal recognized the phenomenon of "black flight" in the city.  Black flight is a term that describes how dynamics not of race, but economics, have become the last resort for the city's proud black population.  In other words, the reasons people are now leaving Detroit have little to do with racism, but everything to do with quality of life issues like employment, safety, housing values, public schools, and reliable municipal infrastructure.

So, Detroit's blacks who can afford to leave, do.  Just like anybody, black or white, who has stuck it out as long as they can.  Yes, there has been an uptick in the number of whites moving into Detroit, but few of them are families intent on homesteading in Motown for the duration.  Few seem eager to bet that their idealism will provide sufficient fortification in the city's raw, impoverished slums, eerily removed from within walking distance of downtown, where luxury condominiums and shimmering marinas dot the well-preserved riverfront.  Instead, they seem to be opportunistic Millennials or empty-nesters angling to enjoy some trendy loft living on a budget, since Detroit is hardly a high-rent district.

Besides, who says Detroit's revitalization depends on the skin color of the people moving back in?  Isn't it the industriousness of the newcomers, and their willingness to build something bigger than themselves?  As it is, Detroit needs more than corporate tokenism and frugal white folk to rebuild.  It needs entrepreneurs willing and able to take a long, arduous journey in a deeply blighted city.

Funny how travel can work, isn't it?  Only for Detroit, the joke makes nobody laugh.


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