A five minute drive across the Canada/US border into Michigan will bring you to Detroit, a place dripping with infinite musical, industrial and architectural heritage. Its cityscape, pockmarked with abandoned developments is a testament to its former industrial grandeur and decline. The burgeoning, innovative business peeking out, evidence its resurgence and the raw community spirit pervading the city. These are my impressions of the place.
From the border, we drive along mishmash of highways crossing one another and are deposited in the city centre. Magnificent skyscrapers, such as the Fisher Building loom above the city, relics of the 1920’s when Detroit was at the peak of its industrial grandeur. They give the place a strange Gotham-esque feel. It was here, in 1900 that Henry Ford set up his first car factory here, giving Detroit the nickname ‘Motor City’. People were drawn insatiably to industry like Nicki Minaj to an argument on social media, and Detroit became the fifth most populous city in the United States.
Our Air Bnb is very centrally located, within view of the Detroit Tigers hockey stadium that sits slap bang in the city centre. Yet even here, it is clear something is amiss with the city’s infrastructure. The entire city is littered with abandoned developments. Single houses stand alone where entire city blocks should be, their placement seemingly random. Detroit certainly has the highest ratio of car parks to people I have ever seen. Following its industrial decline in the 1970’s, Detroit’s middle class fled to the suburbs, presumably to eat hummus and read the economist. They left behind a population with a disproportionately high number of working class citizens. As crime and unemployment began to sky rocket, people began to leave for other places in Michigan. Thus, between 1995 and 2010 Detroit lost a staggering 60% of its population! Indeed downtown at rush hour is like a ghost town, with fewer commuters that there are feminists at an R Kelly concert.
Yet if you are to consider this anything other than a ringing endorsement to motor city, please read on. In spite of these socioeconomic setbacks, or perhaps because of them, Detroit’s has cultivated the most welcoming and inherently friendly community spirit I have ever encountered. As a British person, I inherently attempt to minimise all contact with strangers, such as the man at Gatwick airport who tried to sell me what he described as ‘ketamin’s distant cousin’. In Detroit, however, everyone we spoke to was imbued with warmth and friendliness. From taxi drives, to baristas to bartenders, everyone wanted to know what had brought us to their city and whether we were enjoying it. It was as if they felt an element of stewardship and responsibility for our trip. As one Detroit dweller put it “We actually have manners”.
As we wondered the city, it was a pleasure to discover the jewels hidden within the deserted lots. Detroit’s eastern market still runs every weekend whilst also providing plenty of space for start ups such as restaurants and enterprising breweries. There is also an abundance of street art, enabling me to pretentiously update my Instagram. Because there is so much space, gentrification has thus far avoided pricing working class communities out of areas. This is enough to allay my guilt and we visit numerous breweries. The friendly bartenders patiently wait whilst I inanely muse like a wanker over whether I should have an IPA that’s hoppy or smooth.
When not eating and drinking, we wonder among the numerous record shops dotted around the city. Detroit is the birthplace of the Motown record label, a portmanteau for Motor and Town (geddit). As such, the label was pivotal for introducing African American music into the mainstream. Shop assistants politely pander to my insensitive requests for an Aretha Franklin record as the Queen of Soul is being laid to rest a few minutes down the road. They’d sold out – so I rested easier knowing I wasn’t the only self entitled shit on holiday that day.
My final summary, I loved Detroit. It completely dispelled any stereotypes I had about the place coming into the holiday. On the outskirts, city has a restless, innovative energy to it. I found it perfectly safe to stroll around at night and was blown away by the friendliness of residents. I would live there in a heartbeat- provided I could transport the place and people away from the governance and Donald Trump. The inequalities faced by working class communities in America are evident, even to a visitor like me. The neighbouring city of Flint, for instance, also in Michigan, has been without drinkable tap water from 2016 and will continue to be so until 2020. This astounded me. Some would site the inaction from the US government to be down to a tight national budget, whilst others would point to a unilateral effort by congress to ignore the plight of a community which is predominantly African American. (rant over)
So, on the off change that you ever find yourself in Michigan, with time on your hands, I highly recommend you give Detroit a visit.