Say “Detroit” to someone outside of the Motor City, and they will take it as a euphemism for the failure of the old American economy. At its zenith, Detroit was the wealthiest city in America, home of the great automotive juggernaut that made Henry Ford a household name. The long decay of manufacturing, beginning in the 1970’s, exacerbated by rising oil costs, the ascendency of foreign autos, the passage of the job-killing NAFTA legislation of the 1990’s and the economic crisis of the 2000’s have had particular impact on Detroit. This decay has been well documented, especially by the bloggers at “Forgotten Detroit,” and it isn’t hard to see it at street level.
The 1987 action film “Robocop” chose for its backdrop a decrepit, future Detroit, one where crime lords and drugs brought the city to crippling blight. Law enforcement became a sort of warfare. No child of the 1980’s thought that this movie would have been prophetic. In the film, big business relied upon the absolute blight and crime to drive down property to a point that the city could be leveled and gentrified into a new “Delta City.” Life it seems, imitates art as this has in fact happened in a way, as the downtown, surrounding the central Campus Martius park, is almost exclusively owned by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans. His private police–Rock Securities–monitor the downtown, working with police to keep the core of the city functional amidst the nearby chaos of Livernois Ave–the most dangerous street in America, where a citizen has a one-in-seven chance of being victim to a crime.
My last stay in Detroit was in the Renaissance Center–or RenCenter–, a relic of the 1980’s concept of insular, contained worlds, separated from the beating heart of the downtown. I stayed far above street level in the hemisphere’s tallest hotel–the Marriott Renaissance housed in the RenCenter. Looking down the 60 stories below me, I felt as disconnected as one could be from Detroit, and for many a business traveler, this is exactly the distance they’d want to keep if they believe the poor press the city gets. However, where the national story has been about the decay of Detroit, there are green shoots to be found. To find them, I’d have to abandon the glass towers of “Delta City.”
Those green shoots are the in the perseverance of Detroiters to see their city back from the ash. Celebrity sons like Kid Rock, the recent mayor Dave Bing and Dan Gilbert have focused their energy on bringing this city back from the edge. Detroit’s cultural institutions still radiate. The Detroit Institute of Art still sports a Rodin “Thinker” on the main steps. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra still has a national broadcast hosted by the legendary Dick Cavett and under the baton of the Midwestern Maestro Leonard Slatkin (a former conductor in St. Louis, prof at Indiana, and globetrotting conductor). And Wayne State University still attracts 28,000 students to call Detroit their home away from home.
However, piqued by the catalogue of rotting buildings in “Forgotten Detroit,” I was more curious about those landmarks that are thriving and surviving the neglect. Of particular poignancy is the Mariner’s Church near the Tunnel to Canada. The little parish is dwarfed by the nearby GM Headquarters, and barely noticeable by car. Built in 1849, the old chapel served as a spiritual safe harbor for those weary travelers on the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. Each sailing season, the church offers blessing for sailors heading out on the Inland Seas. And in times of shipwreck, the chapel has served as a memorial place. After the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a freak storm on Lake Superior in 1975, the chapel famously rang its bell 29 times, one for each crewman lost at sea. The event was immortalized by the Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, in his “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” To this day, the chapel holds a memorial for the Edmund Fitzgerald, and all of those lost at sea, annually.
Walking onward from the Mariner’s Chapel toward the downtown, I see that I am not alone on the sidewalks. What was once the domain of multi-lane throughways has been turned back over to pedestrians. The Motor City surrendered much of its downtown greenspace to transportation hubs in the 20th century, as the automobile supplanted any need to ever walk in downtown Detroit. However, as cities are rediscovering the value of foot traffic along its main streets as the key to economic revitalization, the old roundabouts and traffic lanes are being leveled in favor of pedestrian zones. In 2004, the city re-established its town square–the Campus Martius. This downtown park was restored to its place as the milestone for the city–all of those roads named for their mileage, such as “8 Mile,” take their origin from the Campus Martius. In winter, the ice rink welcomes downtown workers, and in summer time, an urban beach. The farmers’ market was restored after an 9o-year hiatus.
Culturally, Detroit has the feel of any other Midwestern metropolis, the remnants of immigrant waves from eastern Europe still flourish, as local deli’s still serve Reubens and Pastrami on Jewish Rye. Meanwhile, new transplants, such as the Clevelander Michael Simon’s Roast offer up high-end foodie experiences. In short, whether high-end bone marrow shooters and duck confit, or mounds of deli-style charcuterie by the pound, Detroit is a carnivore’s town. While new restaurants blossom around the Campus Martius, some of the long-established diners and greasy spoons are slightly farther afield. Those institutions have survived in neighborhoods that have turned over to blight, vandalism, crime and ruin. Places like Hygrade Deli are worth the urban safari, but probably not on foot. Yet these anchors on street corners may attract a new generation back into Detroit, especially those yearning for the authentic.
When it comes to the authentic, Detroit is so maligned that credit is stolen for the good things about the city, such as its rightful claim as the inventor and the promoter of the “Coney” hot dog. My first reaction was the same as others–that certainly the “Coney Dog” is a New York creation; its namesake the Island with the amusement park. Rather, the Coney’s roots, like that of Cincinnati Chili, are eastern European. The Coney chili, bearing some resemblance in texture to the meaty sauce from Cincinnati, was developed in the Detroit region by Greek and Macedonian immigrants. Like Philadelphia’s rival cheesesteak shops, Detroiters will debate endlessly over who makes the better Coney–The American Coney Dog or the Lafayette.
Coney favorites and internal rivalry aside, Detroit still has fight. Native son Joe Lewis would be proud of the stamina and the relentlessness of his hometown. Locals are proud of Detroit, warts and all. As the cliche goes, sometimes you do have to hit rock bottom. Detroit, and perhaps Buffalo, are the last of the rust belt cities (the others being Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Toledo) to emerge from a long industrial winter. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have achieved balance with a smaller population and diversified economy. On the ground, there is evidence that the winter in Detroit may be turning, and a rightly sized Detroit is emerging to join her post-industrial Rust Belt neighbors in a Midwestern Renaissance.
Detroit Fist or “Monument to Joe Lewis”–Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
GM Renaissance Center: Photo credit: paul bica / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Nothing Stops Detroit: Photo credit: memories_by_mike / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Campus Martius Aerial: Photo credit: Joyce Pedersen (addict2pics) / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Camus Martius Beach: http://nedhardy.com/2013/10/03/no-this-is-detroit/
American or Lafayette: Photo credit: Urban Adventures / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Mariner’s Church Photo credit: cseeman / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Robocop: Orion Pictures. 1987.