Detroit has spunk and a history of comebacks

Tales of the city's demise appear to have been exaggerated

If you travel far enough, sooner or later you will find yourself in one of humanity’s less successful experiments in socialization. It may be an African shantytown or a Brazilian favela; a banlieue of Paris or a Manchester slum.  But chances are it’ll be closer to home — Vancouver’s downtown eastside, say, or a roachy dead-end street in Toronto’s Parkdale district. Wherever it turns out to be, you’ll know the rules have changed because your long-dormant primordial instincts will kick in. You’ll feel more alert, slightly unsafe. The hairs on the back of your neck may begin to stir.

I know all about this sort of thing. I recently flew into Detroit.

“Brace yourself,” I told my flying companion. “We’re about to enter the Third World.”

It’s not like I was announcing breaking news. Everybody knows Detroit’s on the skids. In the past decade it’s lost 25 per cent of its population. One-third of Detroit’s 140 square miles is derelict.

The industrial juggernaut that once manufactured four out of every five automobiles in the world is a skeleton of its former self.  Ford and GM alone have axed 70,000 jobs in the past few years. Corrupt politicians, collapsing public schools — I knew we were headed into an urban no-man’s land once our plane taxied up to the gate. I just wanted to be sure my travelling companion wasn’t too shocked when we deplaned.

We were shocked — by the airport, for starters. It moves 30 million passengers a year, making it one of the busiest on the continent. Detroit is a transportation hub for all North American airlines and the Asian gateway for Delta, the largest airline in the world.  What’s more, the airport is not dingy like Pearson, bewildering like La Guardia, nor Second-Circle-of-Hellish like Los Angeles. There are automated walkways, a swift and whisper-quiet overhead shuttle train, dozens of bright and cheerful shops and most amazingly, a psychedelic tunnel that connects two main concourses. The glass walls of the tunnel are embedded with LED lights which sparkle and swoop and shift through all the colours of the rainbow and then some, and it’s all choreographed to symphonic music. If you want to go on a mild acid trip without ingesting the chemicals, Detroit airport has the venue for you.

I didn’t spend a lot of time in Detroit but none of the sights I took in or the people I met suggested I was in a down-and-out city.

There’s a cocky defiance — a kind of belligerent cheerfulness in the air.  The arts and culture scene (perhaps because of the cheap rents) is thriving. Some culturati have taken to calling Detroit ‘the new Berlin.’

I passed a sign at the outskirts that read “Welcome to Detroit, the Renaissance City, Founded 1701.”

Detroit’s got spunk — and a history of comebacks. It’s the only city in North America that’s been under the flag of three world powers — French, British and American. It’s where Henry Ford built his first car and where the Motown Sound was born.

You don’t know anybody from Detroit? Sure you do. Francis Ford Coppola was born in Detroit. So were Lily Tomlin, Charlton Heston and James Earl Jones.

Writers? How about Robert Frost, Elmore Leonard, Joyce Carol Oates?

My favourite Detroit sculpture occupies the middle of a traffic circle near the downtown core. It’s a twenty-four foot bronze of a brown, muscular arm culminating in a forbiddingly clenched human paw.

It’s called The Fist.

It’s an homage to Joe Louis, a Detroit native and one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.

Can’t imagine a better symbol for Detroit.

And they do have a helluva hockey team.

 

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