Saturday, February 19, 2011

Imported From Detroit (II)


Over twenty years ago I was visiting back in Michigan and took my mother to visit my Aunts Alice & Doris in Detroit. We decided to go out to dinner but discovered it was prom night and all the local restaurants were full of high school students in limos. The ladies suggested an old hangout they used to go to, a Hungarian family style restaurant, so off we went. The place was as they remembered it - long wooden tables, huge plates of food served family style. I was fascinated listening to the stories from their youth. When the waitress overheard one story she spoke up and it turns out she was the granddaughter of the restaurant's owner they all knew fifty or more years ago.

What visually stuck with me from that evening was the view from the two story ceiling to floor windows. We were on the second floor and across the street was a narrow strip of land on the bank of the Detroit river. There posed on the very edge of the river was a former five story receiving building for offloading raw materials headed for the auto plants. I say "former five story" because the top three floors had collapsed and crushed the floors below. I was stunned both at the decrepitude and at the lack of governmental action to force the demolition and clean-up. This was probably 1988 or '89. Today there is small industry of photographers and journalists engaging in what is being called "ruin porn", chronicling the erosion and deconstruction of the great cities of the rust belt.

If you remember there was a derogatory line in the Eminem/Crysler ad about writers who "have never even been here" telling the story of the city. I am going to deal with ruin porn in my next Detroit post. But for now let me just establish my own street cred - I do know Detroit and I have been thinking about that city for most of my life. I am guessing my opinion of its future will not be enjoyed by everyone, but that also is for a later post.

What is clear is that Detroit has been leading the way in how this country will deal with its industrial decline. At this moment the response has been dismal. Neglect and corruption have contributed to the slow but steady abandonment of what was once the 4th largest city in the United States. We cannot say: "As goes Detroit, so goes the nation" that is simply not true. But it might be enough to say Detroit is the big, soot-stained canary in the mine of America's previous industrial might. Some would say the future is a slow burial.

More to come soon as I ponder further on the city of my birth.


Imported from Detroit Part I
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The photograph at the top is of the old Michigan Theatre in Detroit. As you can see it has been turned into a parking lot but in the demolition process the decision was made to preserve the outer walls and towering ceiling of what was once a theatre that could seat four thousand. It makes for an interesting or harrowing juxtaposition which speaks to the condition of the city.

2 comments:

Dr. Pauly said...

More stories about the Big D please...

AgSweep said...

Looking forward to more posts re Detroit. I too hail from the big D. I went to Cass Tech one of the buildings often featured in the porn. On my last visit I drove down Grand River Avenue, my old high school bus route, all the way downtown. This took me through areas that were hard hit in the '68 riots. 40 years later the city has demolished some of those buildings. It is going to be an interesting process to see if a landmass the size of Detroit can be reclaimed. Re-population will be key. There are rays of hope. There are groups of young people viewing this as chance to be urban pioneers and entrepreneurs. I not sure there will be enough to overcome the years of poverty, neglect and political abuse.