Monday, May 25, 2015

A Day in Detroit

I've been to Detroit a few times before.  The Henry Ford Museum.  A quick drive through the downtown on the way to Canada with a stop at GM headquarters for a look. I attended an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) convention 10 or so years ago which was held downtown.  On all of these trips I'd sort of avoided the 'donut' - the empty inner suburbs that have been in decline since the 70s and 80s.  Over the last few years I'd read various articles about some of the resurgences occurring in some neighborhoods and it sounded intriguing, and so different to our high priced inner city suburbs. Was it the place to visit while traveling with kids 7 months and 3 years old? Worth finding out.

The approach from Toledo is via a long freeway with high voltage power lines stretching into the distance. As the city nears, the freeway rises above an industrial wasteland.  The scale of industry here, past and present, is phenomenal.  As the city came into view, billowing smoke rose from beside it - an exploded semi oil tanker twitter informed me. Detroit was true to the old stereotypes so far.

Our first stop was Michigan Central Station, grand and abandoned since the late 1980s and a trademark of Detroit's decline.  I wasn't really prepared for how quiet it was going to be. This was a recurring theme throughout the day. Quietness. Stillness. Birds singing.  It was Sunday morning on a long weekend so maybe that was part of it? On driving away from the station I spied a coffee shop. Not a typical american coffee shop. This one had definite hipster vibes. Starbucks packs a flat white these days, even in Ohio, but my first REAL flat white since leaving home was truly a delight. This hipster hangout could easily have been West End Brisbane but for the lack of anything for miles around. 


One thing I love about GPS navigation is the ability to be totally random and know that whatever you do, your device will patiently guide you back.  I use this feature a lot to turn down any old street to take a look.  The one I chose after the coffee shop was still within sight of Michigan Central, but had a great little playground and a friendly vibe (albeit devoid of people due to the long weekend). Here we spent possibly the most peaceful, surreal half hour of our trip.  Colorful children's fun under the watchful, ominous gaze of post industrial America.
Driving through suburbs where 90% of the house s have been demolished feels quite rural - despite the city being only a mile or two away. The grass is green and long and the and of birds are everywhere. There's plenty of ruins and the occasional well-kept house.  Then there will be a few beautiful streets that could be straight from  any American movie. How did these few streets maintain their foothold while others faded?

One of our last stops was the Heidelberg Project. A few semi-deserted blocks turned into one huge recycled art project with dozens of people wandering around enjoying the spectacle. Colorful, playful and perfect.

So Detroit definitely has pockets of revival, but the pockets are smaller and further apart than I'd anticipated. It takes real commitment to choose to lay down roots here. There are some awesome communities you may wish to join, but you definitely will not have the walkable amenities of the idyllic inner city haunt we are used to in Australia. And the occasional arson attack is definitely on the cards.

Detroit. What do you think of when you hear the name? Motown music? Big American cars? The Eight Mile, Eminem and gang wars? From now on I'll think of inner city fields of green grass, diverse and resilient people and the only good coffee I've ever tasted in the mid-west.

(Note - I do not for a moment pretend I now 'know' Detroit.  We avoided the 'dangerous' suburbs.  The places where there is the most need and the most character.  We're just a soft family from Brizzy after all.)