For my Mother’s Day treat, we spent a chunk of our weekend in Detroit. My impression of Detroit has been shaped, in reality pretty much formed, by Time Magazine photos of rundown, abandoned buildings, and destitute people hunched over cracked stoops. In the past, I never paid Detroit any attention but now that we have relocated to Michigan, albeit 2 ½ hours north of Detroit, I find myself fascinated by the concept of how a city is born, develops, thrives, and then (inevitably?) declines and dies. So I read the newspaper articles and scrutinize the Time photos in search of clues to explicate this life cycle.
However, given Detroit’s current reputation, I had always assumed that the closest I would get to viewing Detroit on a first-hand basis was the airport (which is quite nice and unexpectedly cosmopolitan, by the way). When my husband’s colleague mentioned he and his wife had spent an enjoyable night away from their kids in downtown Detroit, my ears pricked. I sent my husband to work with a mission: find out more details about exactly what they had done and where they had stayed in the city.
My sister was coming for a long weekend and wanted our kids for a night on her own. It seemed that our night in Detroit might be imminent. Mark grilled his colleague, and we laid our plans. Then my sister’s plane was cancelled, cancelling her entire trip. I was bummed, until Mark said, “Well, we’ll just take everybody to Detroit.” I hadn’t thought about taking the kids—it seemed that much of what we were going to do was walk around. But it is true that they used to walk around New York with the best of them, so perhaps they would enjoy it. Saturday morning, we threw a change of clothes in our suitcase and piled in the car to head south.
I realize that I only saw 24 hours worth of Detroit, and this morning’s chunk was spent in the hotel in the (very nice) gym and pool. So clearly my perspective on the city is a bit narrow, but I was so taken with it. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan our trip to include a walking tour of the architecture of the downtown area (did one of these in Chicago recently and found it fascinating), but we will next time. Because the architecture was beautiful. There were parks and a few apparently well-utilized restaurants, and even a people mover to loop a rider around the downtown area.
Last night we went to a show, Motown 1962, at the Detroit Film Institute located at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. The show, a production of the Mosaic Group in Detroit, was a fabulous showcase of the talent of the Detroit high schools. Let me make it clear that it was not a high school production. It was amazing, even more so because it was teenagers with that much talent.
When we left, my husband commented that while he knew so much of the music in the show, he hadn’t thought of those songs as “Motown Music”, but rather the classic music of the 60s. I think that’s because Motown defined so much of the 60s, at least musically if not otherwise.
I woke up this morning obsessed with the conundrum of how a city like Detroit, which has been so influential in so many areas of American life, can be in such a decline. The infrastructure is all there. Gorgeous buildings, River Walks, parks, space for restaurants, cafes, and shops, funky old loft apartments and shiny newer ones, and even a people mover, limited in scope as it may be. Three sports arenas are plopped practically right in the middle of the city. Culture is certainly there. The Detroit Institute for the Arts reminded me in both size and design of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. On all sides of the DIA were a smorgasboard of museums—the Science Center, the Historical Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a children’s museum.
I know the automotive industry was the foundation of Detroit, at least of the modern city. And I know the state of that particular industry is a huge reason for Detroit’s current problems. But this morning, I have puzzled over what can be done to bring what was obviously a once-great city back. In the few hours that I have been giving this problem my somewhat scattered attention, I am convinced that a few financial industries need to pull up stakes from Manhattan and head west. The buildings they could buy would be cheap, at least cheap relative to Manhattan real estate prices, and so much of what financial industries do can be done remotely anyway, meaning they don’t have to be in New York to be successful. Yes, they would need to travel back to New York, but the money saved on the cost of doing business, I would think, would more than compensate for those plane tickets. AND this great, modern airport Detroit has could finally be put to good use.
Of course, revitalizing a city like Detroit is far more complex than just dropping a few businesses (even large businesses) in the city center. To get people to reside in the city center, there need to be stores, pharmacies, cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, decent public transportation, and the all-important schools. As an educator and a mom, I spent several concerted minutes in my musings this morning trying to think how Detroit could grow quality public schools in the city center.
It all seems like a chicken and egg sort of problem. People come, and all of these things will spring up by necessity. But simultaneously, if these things aren’t there, people aren’t going to want to come. (I can only imagine the reactions of these fictional financial institution employees when told they will be relocating fro Manhattan to Detroit.) However, it also seems that in a place like Detroit, it would be easier to have both happen in a similar time frame, because the space for all of that infrastructure is already there. It just needs the human element to make it happen.
Ultimately, what will draw businesses is price but also tax breaks and other incentives the city or the state can provide. The little I’ve read about the city government indicates that it is corrupt and inefficient, focused on less on revitalizing the city and more on padding the individual government official’s wallet. I can’t make a personal judgment about that, but if it’s true, it’s unfortunate. When we sat in the café this morning on a beautiful May morning, looking down the nearly vacant streets, feasting our delicious Mother’s Day brunch, I couldn’t help but be taken by all the potential Detroit has and hope that this is one city’s whose decline won’t end in death.