Detroit City is the Place to Be
The Afterlife of an American Metropolis
By Mark Binelli
Picador Copyright © 2012 Mark Binelli
All rights reserved.
GOIN' TO DETROIT, MICHIGAN
Detroit is 139 square miles and shaped, roughly, like an outboard motor. Looking at a map, you might also think of an anvil, but mostly because the northernmost border, the famous 8 Mile Road, traces such a perfectly planed line. My own return to the city began at the edge of downtown, in the Eastern Market neighborhood. Though best known for its weekly farmer's market, Eastern Market remained primarily a distribution hub for wholesale food: produce, imported dry goods, meat from several working slaughterhouses.
I'd made regular deliveries to Eastern Market for my dad as a teenager, and when I pulled my rental car onto Service Street, which ran behind the building housing my new apartment, I realized I'd navigated this very alley many times before, years earlier, in one of my father's knife-delivery vans, dropping off (as I recalled) newly sharpened meat grinder blades, which resembled little metal starfish and spun around in the grinders' gullets. Butcher & Packer, a supplier of restaurants and meat markets, was still in business, just down the block from my new place. A key component of the Butcher & Packer inventory had been an assortment of premixed spices for seasoning sausages. Twenty years later, I could immediately conjure the pungent, curried funk of the place.
The rest of the block, comprised of nondescript brick warehouses and commercial structures, had been converted into lofts. The buildings fronted Gratiot Avenue, a major Detroit boulevard. One of the street-level businesses was a place called the Unemployment Institute, which, according to signs in the windows, offered services like "pre-employment screening" and "online job searching." Large color photographs of people doing businesslike things had been incorporated into the signage — for example, a man touching his head pensively while staring down at a sheet of paper. The look on the man's face was inscrutable; either he was puzzling over a very difficult business-related problem or he'd just received terrible news. Conveniently, if the Unemployment Institute didn't have what you were looking for, the Lama Temple, right next door, sold lucky oils and candles and lottery tip sheets. A green candle painted on the window bore the word MONEY. Aside from Butcher & Packer, the Unemployment Institute and Lama Temple were the only two operational storefronts on the entire block, but this was not an especially poor occupancy rate for Detroit.
If you stood in front of the Lama Temple and gazed north, you would see the towers of the Brewster-Douglass projects, which housed residents displaced from Black Bottom, a thriving black neighborhood destroyed in the 1950s by the I-75 freeway. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, several of the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and Berry Gordy all grew up there. The projects were closed down years earlier, and now the towers kept watch over the freeway with a hollow menace, every last window of the fourteen-story high-rises — even their frames — having been removed by scrappers. A friend called them the "zombie towers": undead husks, stubbornly upright.
Approximately 30 percent of Detroit proper, though — nearly forty square miles — is now vacant land. As I reacclimated myself to the city, I came to see the dominant tone, no matter where I ended up, as one of absence: the unsettling absence of people, and the missing buildings and homes, which left jarring gaps in the architectural landscape; the absence of regular commerce (fast food, liquor stores, funeral parlors, and the most minuscule pockets of gentrification excepted) and the way, when night fell, long stretches of major city streets became pitch-black country roads, Detroit's lighting department remaining too broke to replace so many extinguished street lamps. And on those same streets — right here, in the Motor City — the absence of any normal semblance of vehicular traffic.
And then there were the ruins. When it comes to the sheer level of decay, Detroit is truly a singular place; among the city's ninety thousand abandoned structures, there were residential homes, mansions, storefronts, motels, factories (miles and miles of unplanned obsolescence, like the 3,500,000-square-foot Packard plant, spread across thirty-five acres of land and closed since 1958), Ford Auditorium (the former home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra), banks, warehouses, Coney Island hot dog restaurants, YWCAs and YMCAs, the Reason Why Cocktail Bar, hospitals, churches, synagogues, porn theaters, schools, public libraries, a Chinese restaurant called Kung Food, a pair of geodesic domes, a club called Another Level, a children's zoo, a slaughterhouse, beauty parlors, my father's old knife shop, a car wash called Wash My Car, supermarkets, gas stations, an amusement-park ferry terminal, a bar called Stream in the Desert, the thirty-eight-story Book Building (1926), the nineteen-story David Whitney Building (1915), every building on Chene between Ferry and Hendrie (except for the Ideal Liquor Store), every building on Fort between Dragoon and Cavalry, and the All Star Barber Shop (its roof burned off, leaving a charred flattop).
Most of the blight in Detroit is just that, blight. Away from the skyscrapers and the unbelievably vast industrial structures, back down at eye level, the quotidian monotony of the blasted and empty storefronts quickly becomes numbing, even though the scale can be unmooring. Some buildings have been picked clean as skulls by thieves, others left gaping and ravaged in a way that made you feel as if you were violating someone's privacy by peering inside, somehow committing an act of voyeuristic sin, like a Peeping Tom catching a glimpse up a skirt. Apparently, by sneaking into the Metropolitan Building with John Carlisle for my original Rolling Stone piece, I'd committed a grievous journalistic faux pas — at least in the eyes of certain Detroiters, who were, understandably, quite touchy about the way the ruins have become favorite tour stops of visiting reporters. But what newcomer could ignore them?
Though most commuters in southeast Michigan never pass an opportunity to jump onto the freeway, even if they're only traveling as far as the next exit, I like to keep to the surface streets when I'm driving in Detroit, partly just to take in the scenery. One afternoon on Rosa Parks Boulevard, I spotted an enormous cloud of black smoke in the distance. It was startling, because I had been driving up Rosa Parks a few minutes earlier (trying to find the corner where the 1967 riot had started) before looping back to a film shoot I'd noticed on a side street. There had been no giant smoke cloud that first time around. I continued in the direction of the fire, which turned out to have started at a warehouse near the highway. A crowd had gathered for the action. I overheard a security guard ask her friend, "You ever see this many people out here? This is more than on payday!" Another woman called in a panicked voice, "They out of water. The firefighters are out of water!" But they weren't. A few moments later, jets streamed from one of the hoses.
The fire raged with fairly spectacular amplitude and intensity. Looking up, I thought I could see the moon behind the billowing clouds of black smoke. Then the clouds drifted away and I felt the heat of the summer afternoon beating down on me again and I realized I'd been staring at the sun, which the smoke clouds had almost completely blotted out.
I left shortly after that, worried by rumors circulating that the plant housed chemicals and we might be breathing toxic fumes. On the way home, I took a circuitous route and saw a plume of smoke on the horizon. I thought, "How the hell did I completely turn myself around?" But I hadn't. I was driving in the right direction and just looking at another fire.
* * *
If you're from Detroit, you're either from the east side or the west side, by which you would mean a "side" of Woodward Avenue, which splits the city down the middle. The east side neighborhoods, closest to the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair, were the first to be colonized and thus are older and generally less well-off than the landlocked, more tightly gridded western blocks. The proximity to water gives the east side a coastal lackadaisy, though the severe depopulation of many of the neighborhoods might also contribute to the ambience, the endless, grassy fields surrounding an occasional lonely homestead making for a decidedly countrified air. People from the west side say they never go to the east because it's too violent and dangerous (but people from the east side say the same thing about the west).
The east has the mayoral mansion, and the artist Tyree Guyton's internationally beloved Heidelberg Project, an entire residential block transformed into a sculptural installation, and Belle Isle, the city's bucolic island park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1883. The houses here tend toward the older, wood-frame bungalow. For a short few weeks during the summer, the streets closest to Lake St. Clair are overrun with millions of Hexagenia limbata, twig-bodied, long-winged insects known locally as "fish flies." Fish flies spawn and hatch miles from the shore, eventually shedding an outer layer of shell, which they employ as flotation devices for the landward journey — though, unfortunately, their two-day lifespan provides only enough shore time for the couples to mate before the males unceremoniously die and the females fly back out to the lake, deposit their fertilized eggs, and likewise expire. Despite the brevity of their time in the city, fish flies en masse mimic the effects of a top-drawer biblical plague. At the peak of fish fly season, the bugs fur every illuminated surface close to the water (lamppost, party store entrance, front porch, parking lot), forming a thick carpet on lakeside streets that makes a crunching sound as cars roll by. It is possible that the absence of fish flies has made west siders softer.
Many of the major streets on the east side are named for French settlers: Dequindre, Gratiot, Cadieux. Other roads share names with one-term Republican presidents (Hoover, Hayes) and outmoded styles of beard (Van Dyke). There are also roads called Mound, Mack, Morang, Chalmers, Conant, and Caniff.
Street names on the west side, on the other hand, evoke the romantic idea of the American West, conjuring images of unspoiled nature, wide open plains, and frontier optimism: Greenfield, Southfield, Wyoming, Evergreen, Telegraph, Joy. Berry Gordy founded Motown Records on the west side, not far from where Aretha Franklin grew up and first sang at her father's church, New Bethel. The art deco sign at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, which claims to be the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the world, still glows nightly on Livernois. For black Detroiters, the west side traditionally stood for upward mobility. On the far western edge of 7 Mile, another church, the $35 million Greater Grace Temple, sits on nineteen acres of lush parkland. Greater Grace's holdings include a golf course, a senior housing complex, low-income rental units, and a travel agency. The pastor, Charles Ellis III, has become known for his highly theatrical "illustrated sermons" — for example, during the auto bailout hearings, his blessing, on the chancel, of three sport-utility vehicles (one loaned from each of the Big Three automakers).
My own Eastern Market neighborhood abutted the downtown center, where the fortresslike glass towers of the Renaissance Center, built in the seventies as a riot-proof lure for business and currently serving as the world headquarters of General Motors, gleam impregnably from the edge of the Detroit River. On a nearby traffic median, a public sculpture dedicated to boxer and city native Joe Louis hangs from a swinglike contraption. The sculpture is a twenty-four-foot, eight-thousand-pound black fist, pointing directly at Canada.
Outside of downtown Detroit, residential neighborhoods throughout the city have the feel of a place like Atlanta or Los Angeles — less urban density, more single-family homes with front lawns and garages. By the 1940s, according to historian Thomas Sugrue, just over 1 percent of the residential structures in Detroit were apartment buildings, while two-thirds of Detroiters lived in single-family homes. Workers had the means to spread out, and the room, and so they did. A series of parallel roads cross the city (and the surrounding suburbs) from east to west at one-mile intervals, although they are not labeled as such until 7 Mile. Beyond 8 Mile Road, the suburbs also cleave east and west. The east side includes the Waspy, old-money Grosse Pointe, though many of the neighboring communities are fading first-ring suburbs, blue-collar places like Warren, St. Clair Shores, Roseville, and Eastpointe, all largely working class and ethnic: Italian, Polish, Irish, German. Most of the wealthier suburbs are on the west side, in Oakland County, still one of the richest counties per capita in the nation, with cities like Birmingham and West Bloomfield. Farther west, there's Dearborn, where the Ford family once farmed and where Henry, a pioneer not only in Taylorized mass production but in suburban homesteading, would move his corporate headquarters and primary residency, the Fairlane Estate. Closer to the river, the scenery shifts with disconcerting suddenness to an almost surreal Industrial Age tableau dominated by the Ford Rouge plant, smokestacks rising like the peaks of Mordor from its two thousand acres.
Back when business was booming, railroad lines connected the city's car factories, metalworks, chemical plants, and hundreds of tinier parts shops like the cells of a single, groaning organism, a "simply staggering" environment, in the words of historian Olivier Zunz, wherein "the density of factories was such that the city appeared to have a totally industrial landscape." Today, there's still a bleak light-industrial aesthetic to many of the commercial strips throughout the greater metropolitan area. A gray quietude hangs over many of the buildings, which, thanks to their windowless, painted-cinderblock functionality, offer few clues as to present-day habitation or disuse.
The blacks working at the Rouge didn't necessarily want to commute all the way from Detroit but they weren't welcome in Dearborn, so they began settling in the regrettably named suburb of Inkster (which in fact commemorates an early Scottish settler, Robert Inkster). For over three decades, Dearborn was ruled by Mayor Orville Hubbard, a morbidly obese open segregationist who once skirted a court-ordered travel ban by boarding a train disguised as a clown and, less charmingly, said things in public like, "If whites don't want to live with niggers, they sure as hell don't have to. Dammit, this is a free country."
Hubbard is long dead, but Oakland County is still ruled by L. Brooks Patterson, the paunchy Republican county executive who, in the early 1970s, made a name for himself by taking up the cause of suburban opponents of busing. Policies fostering regionalism, enacted in cities like Indianapolis, have been elusive in metropolitan Detroit. Instead, via unchecked suburban growth, counties like Oakland and Macomb have physically recoiled from the city, over the years continuing to spread north and west. On Oakland County's official website, Patterson himself has written, "I love sprawl. I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can't get enough of it."
Not coincidentally, there's also a distinct absence of any sort of regional public transportation. And so in the adopted city of Rosa Parks, the bus system remains essentially segregated, as the surrounding suburbs maintain their own regional bus line, wholly separate from that of the city, where the riders are almost entirely African American. Certain suburban bus lines will take riders from the suburbs downtown, but they go express as soon as they cross into the city proper and will not pick up new passengers.
Dearborn, meanwhile, has become home to the largest Arabic-speaking population in North America — primarily Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, and Yemeni. The best restaurants in metropolitan Detroit, for my money, are here, along stretches of Warren and Vernor that feel like neighborhoods in Damascus or Beirut, if either of those cities have mini-malls. As the state of Michigan continued hemorrhaging residents, one demographic experienced a minor growth surge, about five thousand new arrivals in the Detroit metro area in 2010 alone: Iraqi immigrants.
So that was something. Dire though things had become, Detroit, apparently, remained a more desirable place to live than postwar Baghdad. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Detroit City is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. Copyright © 2012 Mark Binelli. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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