Monday, August 19, 2013

Borderland - Windsor and Detroit - part four

I’m home and will conclude my walks in Detroit.

Of America’s large cities, Detroit has the highest rate of violent crime. It can take police an hour to respond to a ‘priority one’ call. I ask at the Institute of Arts if it’s safe to walk the two-and-a-half miles (a little over four kilometres) back into the core. On a weekday afternoon, I’m told it should be fine, but don’t wander too far off the main street.

Okay, here I (somewhat cautiously) go: prepare yourselves for a Detroit potpourri

These medieval warriors keep watch over the entrance to the splendid Maccabees Building, erected by the Fraternal Order of the Knights of the Maccabees. The order provided low-cost insurance for much of the last century.

Unlike thousands of buildings, the onetime warehouse below has survived by becoming trendy lofts. ‘Now you can call it home from the low $100's,’ says the website. I’ve checked and that just might buy a decidedly untrendy condo in arguably the most violent (not by Detroit standards) suburban area of Toronto. This, however, is a short walk from downtown.

Nearby, a wonderful art deco facade on the Majestic Theater molders.

Not far from the theatre, a vacant factory.

The Italian Renaissance Hotel Eddystone was built in the city’s Twenties heyday. The Eddystone went from posh hostelry to transient shelter and then closed. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, but that won’t save it from demolition.

In deserted side streets, there’s an unsettling absence of people and traffic. A person could be knocked on the head - or worse - and there’d be no-one to help.

I stand in front of once charming family homes thinking gloomy thoughts. A hundred years ago, prosperous businessmen could easily stroll or take a tram to downtown offices. What would the original occupants think if they could stand here now?

Click on the picture and note the fire damage.

In 1926, the Wurlitzer Building was one of the world’s larger music stores. Although masonry was reportedly falling from the fourteen story structure, a shortage of pedestrians means no-one's been hurt ... yet.

The Park Avenue Building’s restaurant isn’t open.

Across the street is a commuter rail car. ‘NOT IN SERVICE’ states the obvious.

I try to enter the oddly named ‘The Detroit Shoppe’, which, as you can see, claims ‘Nothing Stops Detroit’. However, it’s ‘not In service’, too. A locked door and no sales people prevent me from making a modest contribution to the local economy.

However, the resplendent Fox Theater with its stunning box office is open, although not this afternoon. It claims to have been the world’s first cinema with built-in sound equipment.

A short car ride from the city centre - now with my friends - takes me to a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

Among the most quoted statistics are that forty percent of the streetlights don't work and seventy to eighty thousand buildings are vacant. Where properties have been demolished to discourage crime, lots are overgrown. Scrubby bushes and trees give a bizarrely rural feel within sight of downtown towers. 

The inspiration for Rivera’s celebration of Detroit industry is no more.

‘Home folks think I'm big in Detroit city,
From the letters that I write they think I'm fine,
But by day I make the cars,
by night I make the bars,
If only they could read between the lines …’

(Bobby Bare - 'Detroit City')

The massive Packard Plant - parts date from before the Great War - has become something of a poster child for Detroit’s decline. For decades, cars were made here.  Here, from my recent Route 66 blog, is a Packard.

Now the plant and its namesake motel are a destination for the desperate homeless, druggies, metal scavengers and those who revel in photogenic urban decay.

The Michigan Central Railroad Station is particularly sad for someone of my age. When I was three, my mother and I travelled by rail from Vancouver to Washington, D.C., from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The power and glamour and comfort of crack trains were part of my upbringing. And the great railway stations - cathedrals they were - reflected the centrality of rail in people's lives.

It can be no hyperbole to say that millions must have passed through this terminal. Now pigeons, feral cats and phantom passengers haunt the platforms. 

But, let’s not end in complete gloom. I survived walking on my own in Detroit, although I certainly wouldn’t do it at night.

Here and there are signs Detroit may just be able to pick itself up from the canvas and bloodily stagger through the fight without being counted out. Islets of residential near-normality remain mid the aforementioned apocalyptic devastation. Glorious and interesting buildings (but only a few) are converted to new uses. In the place that produced Motown - some of the Twentieth Century’s signature music - innovative entertainment venues still attract patrons. Work - mostly related to new technology - trickles in. There are even hopes city farming - on fields that once had homes - may offer a fresh vision for postindustrial conurbations.

Not really my taste, but an art installation - the Heidelberg Project - has attracted international attention. Look it up on the internet.  Many of the reviews are laudatory, although I suspect some are kind simply for the sheer guts of the idea. Houses that might have been vandalized, burned down or demolished become canvases. It ain’t Rivera, but it does demonstrate resilience.

Detroit is a city blighted by a history of inequality. I am charmed by a middle-aged black lady walking towards me on an otherwise empty street. Our eyes cross, she smiles and says, “Have a good weekend!” Her civility to a white stranger made me feel unexpectedly good about Detroit. Lady, with people like you, there’s hope.

Thanks to my dear friends and onetime newsroom companions - Thomas who was an editor and Vince a cameraman. They made my time in Detroit and Windsor enjoyable and informative. We're already planning for next year.