Detroit, May 2009

Last of a series of long weekends in Germany, so I pounced on a cheap flight, got an excellent hotel and car rental deal via Priceline, and spent the weekend in Detroit. Oh, and I spent Sunday biking through the city.

Detroit? Pretty much nothing but bad news coming out of there these days, except for the Red Wings. The city has become synonymous with urban decay, murder, poverty, and the ills of the auto industry, and not a whole lot of positive stuff has been reported about Detroit for many decades now. But let’s not forget that the city was a thriving place of 2 million people nearly sixty years ago, built on the automobile industry, and on immigration from central and eastern Europe, with some of America’s very best architecture. So I’ve been fascinated by this place, and finally had the chance to visit.

The glory days are long over. Many buildings are now endangered, and the once great boulevards of the city, Michigan Avenue, Gratiot, Grand River, are shells of their former selves. Only Woodward, the main north-south artery, retains its former grandeur. The churches of Detroit are also for the most part, in good condition, albeit with dwindling congregations. The once-German and Polish neighborhoods have been depopulated, most noticeably during the 1950s and after the 1967 riots that decimated the city.

St. Joseph's, just off of Gratiot. Still regular services in Latin and German!

St. Joseph's, just off of Gratiot. Still regular services in Latin and German!

Michigan Avenue from near the station, looking east. The remains of Tiger Stadium are on the left.

Michigan Avenue from near the station, looking east. The remains of Tiger Stadium are on the left.

Grand River Ave.

Grand River Ave.

Gratiot Ave.

Gratiot Ave.

Downtown is a treasure trove of distinguished skyscrapers from the first three decades of the 20th century, but as with much of the city, please go visit now, because there’s no guarantee that it will be there tomorrow. The area around Grand Circus Park remains a skyscraper graveyard, and many buildings are empty or abandoned. Parking garages seem to be almost as common as buildings. The few bright spots include the recent renovations of the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Fort Shelby, which have brought back a bit of life into the west downtown area. The Penobscot and Guardian Buildings are looking as good as new, as well. I’ll write more about the architecture in another post.

Downtown from Campus Martius

Downtown from Campus Martius

The neighborhoods, well, they are a different story. Inner Detroit is rapidly becoming an urban prairie. The great commercial arteries are now quite empty, with an odd business open here and there, but clearly unhealthy. So pretty much, the city is down to pockets of neighborhoods, with relatively few cohesive stands of houses. Despite this, Detroiters remain fiercely proud of their city, and a remarkably friendly bunch. 

One exception to the depopulation of neighborhoods is west and southwest Detroit, which are thriving thanks to a wave of immigrants from Mexico. And outside the city, in Hamtramck and Dearborn, a new generation of immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe have kept them very robust, interesting places to visit. Restoration of Detroit’s historic neighborhoods is ongoing, although too late for inner city areas such as Brush Park and the region east of the Medical Center. Some blocks have just a house or two left standing, the remainder is a large lawn. Even more odd, more often than not, the one or two houses left on the block are perfectly maintained, even inviting. Nevertheless, the restored houses give a glimpse into the once-grand past of the city.

The Polish Yacht Club, Jos. Campau Street, still in business!

The Polish Yacht Club, Jos. Campau Street, still in business!

Brush Park survivors

Brush Park survivors

Ex-firehouse, Michigan Avenue

Ex-firehouse, Michigan Avenue

Little house on the (urban) prairie

Little house on the (urban) prairie

And a few words about Michigan Central Station, probably America’s most famous ruin, beautiful and depressing all at the same time. The location was strategic and wrong. Strategic because it was at the Detroit end of the tunnel to Canada, wrong because the developers thought that downtown would expand west, which it didn’t. The park leading to the station is a beautiful piece of city planning, but now sadly overgrown and empty. The station was abandoned in 1988 when the last Amtrak train rolled through it, and has been weathered by vandals and the elements since then. Still, plenty of people wander around and inside it, and I was treated to an impromptu jazz concert from a lone clarinetist playing one evening. The massive building dominates the nearby Corktown and Mexicantown neighborhoods, and is now threatened with “expedited demolition”. See it while you can.

Michigan Central Station

Michigan Central Station

IMG_0139

Neighboring Dearborn remains the center of the Arab-American community, and Hamtramck, an oasis of stability surrounded by Detroit, is a fascinating mix of people of Polish descent, mixed in with more recent arrivals from diverse places like Yemen, Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia, and Bangladesh. I found a small-town feel in Detroit, where people were willing to stop and chat with a total stranger like myself, and I didn’t feel as anonymous as I do in Germany.

Kowalski Sausage Company, Hamtramck

Kowalski Sausage Company, Hamtramck

Krajenke Buick and Yugo, closed since 1992.

Krajenke Buick and Yugo, closed since 1992.

Carl's Chop House on Grand River, closed 2008. Given the surroundings, not a surprise.

Carl's Chop House on Grand River Ave., closed 2008. Given the surroundings, not a surprise.

Advertisements

1 comment so far

  1. vitasamb2001 on

    Sad story… Hope it will get better with time…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: