What’s left of Motor City?

How Detroit's phoenix struggles in all these ashes

By Christoph Dabiri In United States 15 minutes reading time

An average of 350 murders per year, more than 100,000 abandoned buildings, high unemployment rates, extreme crime rates and several bankruptcies – the things you hear about Detroit are usually nothing good. And if you look at the hard facts, there isn’t really any reason to set foot in this city. But it can’t possibly be as bad as everyone says. I think.

At an intersection, our taxi comes to a stop in front of a traffic light. The driver eyes us – once again. “You’re sure about the address?”, he finally expresses his thoughts. “What sort of accommodation is supposed to be here? Do you know where you are? Why the hell are you staying in this area?” “I read a recommendation on the Internet,” I’m answering. I realize that several of the last decade’s tragedies probably began with that sentence. His reaction follows quickly: “I should probably drive you back into the city center, guys. This place isn’t safe, you shouldn’t try to save on the price of a room. You’ll pay a lot more when you get mugged here.” I confess that I’ve never had too much patience for mathematics, but this cost calculation makes sense even to me. Despite that, I decide to at least drive to the address that I had written on a crumpled note.

It’s early evening by the time that we drive along the city highway. In the distance, you can see Michigan Central Station. A huge neoclassical building, once the tallest train station in the world. In 1988, the last train left from here for Chicago. Since then, the landmarked building has been abandoned to decay. It might be the clearest symbolization for many things in this city. For the many different legacies of a golden era. For the standard-setting and innovative Detroit, most of which, these days, lies fallow. Or for the many employees of the automobile industry, which today seem condemned to the bitter fate of futility.

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A few blocks farther along, the taxi stops again, this time in front of a brick building. It must be our home for tonight. I’m relieved: no walled up doors or smashed windows, no traces of fire. Without question: My standards for a place to stay had sunk rapidly with each kilometer that we had driven out of the city center. That was another reason for the decision to stay here, I guess. “Call me if you change your mind… and take care of yourselves, ok? This area is…” – you know how the sentence ends. He leaves a note with his phone number before returning in the direction of the highway.

Here we are. In an outer suburb of Detroit. In the distance, you hear the roar of the highway. Here and there a guy loitering around. A car, looking ready for the scrap heap, drives down the street. After a little while, the loitering men form small groups. To the right, a ruin. To the left, an abandoned house. In the middle of it a trailer with lights on inside. And our accommodation. That’s it – nothing more going on. And what was going on was deeply dodgy. An impression that I already had at my short tour through the city center.

Detroit, laid out for more than 1.8 million people, is now inhabited by fewer than 700,000. That means a demographic decline of about 60%. And you can feel that. In huge shopping centers, where thousands of people should be bustling, you find a few employees, here and there a businessman, and a handful of beggars. The downtown is similar. Detroit has an impressive city center with unique buildings, covering many different architectural styles. It must have been wonderful to stroll here in the years when the city was in its blooming period. But now?

Freaking empty.

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Vacancies and decay wherever you look. Whole skyscrapers – empty! In the middle of the city center of an American metropolis. Yes, it takes a while to believe it. For a few minutes, we see no other foot traffic than the beggars at the large intersections. At red lights, drivers are forced to stop. That way, the beggars could process the line car by car in the hope of getting a few coins. Pedestrians they follow for hundreds of meters. An experience that we made plenty of times, too. It shows what existential poverty seems to reign in this city.

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Detroit is plainly the car city – simply “Motor City”. The world’s most famous classics from General Motors, Chrysler and Ford were built here. Today, the city has lost the glance of a Ford Mustang or a Corvette. But despite that, it’s still the automobile that gives the cityscape its (admittedly weak) life. It is one of the last noticeable signs that Detroit is no true ghost town.

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Most of the time at least.

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I also need to mention the elevated railway, which goes through downtown in a continuous loop around 5 kilometers long. Every now and then it rushes past you with no one in it. “Peoplemover”, it’s called. What irony – clearly no “people” are being “moved” here (not even a driver!). I try to stay fair: Surely it’s just due to the time of day that it’s so empty. 5:30pm – rush hour. Ouch.

In my internet research later, I would find out that this train was never connected to local transportation structures, so that it doesn’t really offer a transportation alternative for most residents. Too bad actually. At least it’s a fantastic tourist attraction: It travels along the Detroit River (which forms a natural border to Canada), past the Renaissance Center and the many Art Deco high rises (such as the Penobscot or the Guardian Building), farther through (yes, through!) the Cobo Center, along the Grand Circus Park (where you can see not just the opera, but also, in the distance, the baseball and football stadiums of Detroit), to the jazz and dance clubs of Greek- and Bricktown. Squeezed down like that sentence, it gives you a multitude of attractions to admire in about 15 minutes. Perfect for a first overview of the city. Even at rush hour.

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I’m convinced that you don’t get to know Paris at the Eiffel Tower or New York City at the Empire State Building. The full identity of a place often only reveals itself when you’ve also seen the less shining sides. That doesn’t make Times Square less fascinating and doesn’t take away the value of a place, quite the opposite: it’s only when I have the feeling of having gotten to know a place more completely that it really begins to affect me. For that reason, New York City will always be Times Square to me, but equally the Bronx. Paris is the Champs-Elysees, but also Banlieue. And Detroit is – well, downtown and equally this outer suburb and this accommodation I’m standing in front of.

To go inside, you have to type in a pin code. I received it earlier by email.
I type it in – wrong. A classic. A reason to panic? Not really. But statistics always shoot into your head at the wrong moment: 350 murders a year. The first nervousness spreads out. Who likes to be that one poor person that is murdered here every day? This time, I press harder on the buttons of the door’s lock. As though I want to tell this stupid box that I’m not kidding around. It works – open! However.

Inside I’m left speechless. One of the doors is cracked open and I can see in: old newspapers, leftover food and old plates. Scattered all over the floor. A towel hangs, crooked, in front of the dirty window. An old television flickers. In the corner a bed (or at least its legs). Covered in dirty laundry.

Fuck.

I notice the reproachful glance of my companion. “I don’t know what sort of place I’ve taken you to either,” I have to say beforehand. We stand in the hallway for a few minutes, not knowing if we really want to stay here. A thin man with a white beard comes down the stairs and takes the decision from us: “Oh, new guests.” He seems to know more than we do. The greeting is short and without much politeness. He introduces himself as the manager of this place and takes us to our room. It looks good, way better than expected, a mixture of second hand and home-made furniture. The rest of the building is similar. His room is directly at the entrance of the building, he tells us. I don’t mention that I’ve noticed.

Quickly, he teaches us some rules to follow in Detroit, so as not to get into trouble. He also presses a city map into my hand, on which he circles blocks and whole neighborhoods that we’re supposed to stay away from. Not a recommendation, more of an instruction. A dialogue begins:

Manager: “Smile, look people in the eye, don’t walk on the footpaths and if you feel uncomfortable, get out. And avoid these areas I marked.”

Me: “What might happen there?”

Manager: “This is the gang’s area. Those guys are bored most of the time, they are broke and mostly on drugs. They’ll play with you a little bit if you go through their neighborhoods. Might be that you’re dead at the end of the game. Sometimes nothing will happen to you, or they’ll just steal your clothes – that’s when you’ve been lucky.”

Me: “One of these circles looks quite close to this place!”

Manager: “Down the street, 2 minutes.”

Me: “Don’t they come here? This is the only building in the area that looks like a building.”

Manager: “They have their neighborhood back there. Sometimes guys come by and make some trouble. Probably mostly to frighten the guests. No big deal.”

No big deal.

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Me: “Why shouldn’t we go here?” (I point to another circled neighborhood).

Manager: “You could go there – but that’s where the dead bodies are lying around.”

Okay, now it’s getting a bit too bizarre to me. We’re in an American metropolis and not during a civil war. Where exactly is the flashlight that he should’ve held under his face to tell his horror story? I won’t buy another word from this weird storyteller. Confidently, I lean back in the chair, listen only half-heartedly, and simply google the neighborhoods he talked about. Spontaneously, I find this article.

And again: Fuck.

The manager invites me onto the little wooden balcony to talk more. This time, of course, he has my full attention.

Manager: “You see that house over there?”

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Manager: “What do you think? Abandoned or occupied?”

Me: “Abandoned, I hope.”

Manager: “Don’t be so sure. Call over if you want to find out. Never go in, even when it looks that uninhabited.”

Me: “Is that one of the houses that you can buy for a couple of dollars? I’ve read that there are houses with property here for $500.”

Manager: “Another guy read that recently. He bought one of these $500 houses. I assume he was from out of town. Unfortunately, someone had already squatted there and hidden his bullets in the house. Of course, he wanted them back, and suddenly there was a new owner in the house. They started to fight. The end of the story was that the one guy had his bullets back and the other was lying shot to death in his new $500 house.”

Me: “…”

Manager: “There’s a lot of cheap property around Detroit. Just don’t be foolish and buy anything without seeing it. Or without being sure that it’s not occupied.”

The manager puts out the butt of his cigarette in an overflowing ashtray. This time, I don’t test the truth of his story, but it’s enough to send me into a certain level of paranoia.

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My head is full and I want to lay down. I go to the window to see what’s happening around the house. I turn off the light so that no one will see me from the outside. Who knows if the next maniac might use me for a target. I check whether all the doors are locked before I go into our room. Here, too: lights out! Admittedly, we’re not talking about a little paranoia here.

For half the night, I lay in bed with my eyes open. Shoes and pants right next to me, I want to have them close in case of an emergency, in case something happens and I have to get dressed quickly. For some reason, I’m convinced that the building will be attacked in the night. Or someone will go on a rampage. Or something.

I had heard a lot about Detroit before I came here. Lots of facts, stories and reasons why it was a shit idea to travel here. Would it all come true? That was almost more unbearable than being stuck in this dismal wasteland. From time to time, I look past the fly screen to the outside and try to see what’s in the darkness. I only see the mobile home, which still has a light burning.
The night stays quiet and, of course, nothing happens.

On the next day, I want to get to know it a bit more. I want to see the rest of the city, at least catch a quick overview. See what’s worth seeing. See what’s not worth seeing. I ask the manager if he knows someone who could drive us around. We get a number:

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Unfortunately, I don’t ask what’s up with the pentagram next to the name. And unfortunately, I decided against his recommendation. For later I’ll find out what “Oneita” we would have dealt with: Oneita, the Magnificent.

In hindsight, that was the worst decision I made on this trip. I would have liked to get to know not just this person, but also her view on Detroit (so anyone who is interested in this taxi ride should send me a short message for the “unencoded” number. I can hardly expect a short report about the trip!).

Instead, we sit in the taxi of a guy who calls himself “Lucky”. A guy who lightens our wallets by a few dollars, but at least he shows us some of Detroit’s hot and cold spots. We see the little enclaves of villas, which, a few kilometers to the west in Chicago, could certainly only be had for a high number of six figures – here, they’re a bargain. Although they’re rare.

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In nearly every street, I see at least one burned out house. I ask him what that’s about. “Arson”, he answers, “sometime’s it’s an insurance scam, sometimes it’s just boredom and kids throw Molotov cocktails in abandoned houses. At Halloween, to these kids it’s almost a tradition to burn houses. No one needs them anyway.” Somehow, it doesn’t shock me anymore.

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There is a big art project in Detroit, it’s called the “Heidelberg Project”. In it, the facades of empty houses are lovingly decorated and embellished. But even here the same game is still at play: “About the half of the houses of this project have been burned down and destroyed in the last months. You know, there are a lot of clever, creative people in Detroit. A lot of start ups are trying it. But there are at least as many idiots here. If you want to make a difference, you don’t just need money, time and patience, you also need a strong will,” Mr. Lucky is convinced.

And that is also my impression: There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of projects and attempts to make the city attractive again. But it will probably take many years to conquer the strong stigma of the city. Vandalism, poverty and violence are too much of everyday events in Detroit. It’s clearly everywhere. Yet there’s hope: Again and again, I hear that the people of Detroit are known for their resilience. I think it must be true, since anyone who’s still here after decades of decline can’t be shocked by anything anymore, right?
Later, I read that renovations on the old Michigan Central Station are beginning. Date of completion? Vague. But I want to look at it again in a couple of years. Hopefully, this time with Oneita.

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3 Comments
  1. phillip June 27, 2015

    awesome! really awesome!

    Reply
  2. […] The story continues! Read on on Chris’ brand new blog, The Travel Stories […]

    Reply