Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Motor City

The best commercial that aired during the last Super Bowl was a Chrysler ad that featured the city of Detroit. Detroit of course is the quintessential rust belt city, the epitome of the run down, crime ridden, great city of a bygone era whose best days are behind it. The commercial makes no bones about that, at the outset it describes the city as a town that's "been to hell and back". Why then would we want to buy anything that comes out of this place? Well "it's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel" as we are told by the voiceover with an attitude. The soundtrack and cameo appearance by Detroiter, Eminem, give the spot an edge that is entirely appropriate.

The tag line coming from the rapper, his only line: "This is the Motor City, and this is what we do" sends a chill down my spine. And the slogan invented for the campaign: "Imported from Detroit", lends a memorable, if quirky bit of irony.

It's a brilliant spot:

You may have noticed that the makers of the commercial chose to show you more of Detroit than the car they're trying to sell. That may speak volumes about the state of the U.S. auto industry, to which the fate of Detroit is intrinsically tied, but that's a story for another day.

It can't be good when you Google your city only to find that half of the images on display are of urban decay. See for yourself. Detroit's hardships have been so well documented that there is a cottage industry in exploiting the ruins of what was until not too long ago the fifth largest city in the United States. And what magnificent ruins they are.

The statistics are grim, here are just a handful plucked randomly off the internet. Some of them may even be true:
  • Detroit's boom in the first half of the twentieth century was nothing short of meteoric. In 1900, the city's population was 285,704. By 1920, the population was pushing one million, and in 1950, over 1.8 million called Detroit home. Detroit's fall was almost as meteoric as its boom, in 1980, the city's population was 1,595,138. From the 2010 census thirty years later, it was cut in less than half to 713,777. Civic leaders who were surprised and appalled at that low number, complained that the census takers failed to count the folks who would one day return from prison.
  • From the 2000 Census, 21.7% of families in Detroit lived below the poverty line.
  • 50% of Detroiters are functionally illiterate.
  • The unsolved murder rate in Detroit is approximately 70%.
  • Depending on how you define unemployment, between 25 and 50% of Detroiters are unemployed.
  • Approximately 30% of the land area of Detroit is vacant, so much so that there is a movement to remove much of the existing infrastructure and return the vacant land to nature.
and on and on.

So why is Detroit in such bad shape? The easy answer is that the city is essentially a one company town. As long as the auto industry prospered, so did Detroit. But the downward population shift in Motown began in the fifties, long before the crash of the U.S. auto industry. In that sense, Detroit is no different from other cities in the United States.

In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that a large part of what makes a vital urban community is a vibrant street life. Cities with people out and about contribute to a healthy social structure. She sited several criteria that contribute to an active street life and used Detroit at least three times as an example of what not to do:
  • Lack of diversity. By diversity, Jacobs refers not only to population but diversity in how a neighborhood functions. She believed for example, that successful urban communities do not segregate commercial and residential functions. Easy access to shops and services ensures a constant flow of people within the neighborhood. A mix of people with different types of jobs and schedules, means that there are folks out on the streets at all times of the day. Detroit's neighborhoods have been historically segregated in both regards.
  • Lack of density. Contrary to common wisdom of the time, Jacobs believed that urban crime is not born out of overcrowding. She points out that some of the most successful neighborhoods in the country are the most densely populated. Crime thrives on desolation, empty streets and sidewalks are far more dangerous than crowded ones. Area wise, the city of Detroit is sprawling, as much of its housing has traditionally been devoted to the single family home. From this map you can see that you could fit Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston within Detroit's city limits and still have room to spare.
  • Building a city around the automobile. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Motor City should be this way. Jacobs does not blame the automobile itself for urban decline, but the theories of urban planning that insist that the city become the servant to the automobile and not the other way around.
Put them all together and you get what Jane Jacobs called "the great blight of dullness", cities lacking cohesive communities that encourage people to stick around. It's the same story in big cities all over the United States, only more so in Detroit.

Or so they say. In my life I've barely scratched the surface of Detroit, merely passing through it on trips to Canada. That is until last week when my job brought me to the Motor City for a few days.

Unfortunately, my experience exploring the city on this visit was limited by time constraints and a bad cold. I did manage to briefly get into Detroit from the suburb of Dearborn where I was working. One evening after work I headed straight in the direction of the Renaissance Center, the 1970s skyscraper which is visible from all over town.

I have to admit that I had low expectations of Detroit, having been swayed by the impression described in the Chrysler ad as: "the one you’ve been reading in the papers, the one being written by folks who have never even been here."

I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that there was indeed life and beauty in downtown Detroit.

For starters, Detroit has several fine skyscrapers built during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a collection which is rivaled only by New York and Chicago. Notable examples, the Dime Building by Daniel Burnham, the Fisher Building by Albert Kahn, and the Guardian Building by Wirt C. Rowland to name a few, grace the skyline with a mixture of Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance and Art Deco styles. There are also newer buildings of note: One Woodward Avenue by Minoru Yamasaki, the aforementioned Renaissance Center by John Portman, and John Burgee and Phillip Johnson's One Detroit Center are three distinctive landmarks of the Detroit skyline.

Life has been brought back to Downtown Detroit, (not that it ever really left), by a number of development projects mixing the old with the new. Perhaps the most famous rehabilitation project was the restoration of the magnificent Fox Theater.

Across the street from the Fox is the new home of the Detroit Tigers, Comerica Park, perhaps one of the very best of the new ballparks built for major league baseball. Beyond that is the new home of the National Football League Detroit Lions, Ford Field. I haven't read any reviews of that stadium but it appears far superior to the joint it replaced, the Silverdome in suburban Pontiac. Both teams were out of town during my visit but I can imagine the bars and restaurants in the area are hopping on game days.

On the edge of Downtown, the neighborhood of Greektown was indeed hopping, a commercial area that doesn't close up after 6 PM, as so much of Detroit seems to do these days. The other institutions that don't roll up the sidewalks after dark are the three casinos that call Downtown Detroit home. Parking lot attendants were out and about hawking spaces in their lots, just as they do outside sports venues on game days.

There were a few important attractions that I didn't get to visit this time, but will definitely make plans to see in the future. Eastern Market, is the largest public market of its kind in the United States, Belle Isle, the island park which features work of the architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Cass Gilbert and Detroit's own Albert Kahn, and Midtown which is home to Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Here is an article about the magnificent set of fresco paintings devoted to the workers of Detroit by Diego Rivera that graces the DIA.

After a brief tour of downtown and a pleasant dinner, I got into the car and headed back to my suburban motel. I entered the motel's address in my rent-a-car's GPS which dutifully led me to the walled expressway which would prevent me from seeing the devastation outside of Downtown that I've read so much about, save for one building.

The Michigan Central Depot, about a mile outside of Downtown, was a rail terminal built in grand Beaux Arts style that opened in 1913. It still stands majestically, though now even driving by at 70 mph, one can't miss the fact that you can see right through it as all its windows are gone. Here is a loving tribute to the building.

The Michigan Central Depot's days were numbered because it was built for a mode of transportation that would be supplanted by Detroit's chief export. Not only that, it was built in an inconvenient location outside of Downtown, along street car lines that themselves were put out of business by the gas powered bus, also manufactured in Detroit. But today it still stands, nearly twenty five years after being abandoned, waiting for somebody, anybody, to bring it back to life. Standing there, magnificent in its decrepitude, the old train station in many ways is a metaphor for its city.

It is impossible to downplay the role, for better and for worse, of the automobile in our society. I dare say that the automobile has changed the way we live more than any other invention perhaps since the printing press. The industrial revolution that Ransom E. Olds, Henry Ford and others started in Detroit is largely responsible for creating the middle class as we know it in this country. It was one of the first times in history where factory workers would build something that they actually could afford to buy. The automobile brought a kind of freedom, previously enjoyed by only the upper strata of society, to just about everybody.

On the flip side, it's easy to blame the automobile for all the woes that befell most older American cities, but let the truth be known that the real culprits are the social planners in the first half of the last century who believed they had a better idea of how to build a city. Whatever flavor the city of the future would take, be it the horizontal Garden City, or the vertical Radiant City, the role of the personal transportation device would be front and center.

We can thank the failed utopian notions of these planners for our suburban sprawl, traffic congestion, the decline of public transportation, for pollution and scores of other causes of the erosion of our great cities.

My superficial visit to Detroit did dispel many of the assumptions I had about the city. It's definitely a place I'd like to get to know better as Detroit remains an enigma to me. I was drawn to it in a way that I could not have imagined. I longed to turn back the clock to the Belle Époch, back to when the city was called the "Paris of the Midwest." Detroit is the oldest city in the United States outside of the eastern seaboard and had a magnificent history long before it became the Motor City.

As the Motor City, Detroit became one of our great cities, a powerful symbol of American ingenuity and resourcefulness. More recently of course it has become a much different symbol.

Beaten down as it is, it's not going away. It's not likely it will regain its power as an industrial giant, that simply has become out of the grasp of any city in the United States. But somehow it will revive, people will come back to the Motor City to live and to work, perhaps drawn by the impossibly low cost of buying a house, perhaps for the chance of starting something entirely new.

And when that happens, I'll be here to cheer it on, as every American should.

By the way, here is some tentatively good news about Detroit.

Detroit is a place where people make stuff, whether it be cars or music, or whatever. It was fitting that the last song I heard on the radio on the way home before leaving Detroit air space was this Motown classic by the Temptations:

And oh yes, after only driving Japanese cars for a very long time, the car that brought me to the Motor City and back was a Chevy Malibu, conceived and built (in part) in Detroit.

You know what? It was a damn good car.

No comments: