Apr 5, 2010

Who knew it could be like this?

The first big city I visited was San Francisco. Well, the first big “real” city anyway. I had visited Detroit plenty of times before that. Detroit hardly qualifies as a great American city. Hell, it barely qualifies as a functioning city. It is a rusted out shell of its former self. It’s more of a cautionary tale about what happens when a huge percentage of the population leaves for the suburbs followed by 50 years of mostly corrupt governance.

You ever see "The Omega Man"? A movie from the 60's, maybe early 70's, with Charlton Heston. It's based on the same story as Will Smith's "I am Legend". There's a scene in that move meant to illustrate how everybody's dead and gone. It even has tumbleweed rolling down the street. That's Detroit, minus the tumbleweed.

I grew up in the western suburbs of Detroit. As a kid I would sometimes go to downtown Hudson’s department store with my Mom for their annual sale. As a teenager I attended concerts at Cobo Hall and later Joe Louis Arena. All of these excursions involved getting in your car, driving to your destination, parking as close as you could, attending the event, getting back to your car as quickly as possible (especially at night), and driving home. Not only wasn’t it safe to go walking around, there really wasn’t any reason to. The majority of Detroit looks like this:

                                Detroit Train Station

Abandoned Home
Another One

Shopping District

After I got married I lived in Ann Arbor. It’s a wonderful college town. I use the words vibrant, bohemian and quirky to describe Ann Arbor. There I got my first taste of walking downtown streets, eating at an outdoor café and the hustle and bustle that comes with a thriving community. As a college town though, Ann Arbor is almost entirely focused on the University and its students. It lacks the bigness and the competing interests that you find in a major city.

I never imagined what a real city was like. Then in the early 90's I visited San Francisco on a business trip. I had never seen a bustling big city neighborhood before. Everywhere I looked there were people working and shopping and even living in these cities. I had no idea. A year later I went to Boston, which confirmed that San Francisco was no fluke. In the ensuing twenty years I've been to many cities. Sad to say that none of them are as dismal as Detroit. Cincinnati came close but it's more gritty than destitute. It has a certain character.

There have been attempts to revitalize Detroit that have resulted in some positive changes. A thriving casino district, though, is hardly something to hang your hat on for sustained improvement. What will help Detroit? 1) A good public transportation system. We have no train system, no subway and the city line and suburb lines are operated by two different companies. 2) We have to get people living in the city again. When they live there, they will want to shop and work there. They will pay taxes that the city sorely needs. 3) Somebody has to take over that corrupt school system and start all over again.

I hope there's a brighter future for Detroit. The city motto after all is: "We hope for better things; it shall arise from the ashes."

(This post was originally going to be about an encounter I had with a homeless guy in San Francisco. Ms. Healthypants comment reminded me of it. I got sidetracked. Stay tuned.)


  1. Wow--I've never been to Detroit, but I've heard stories--and now I've heard your first-hand account, too--so sad that a city has gotten to that point.

    And now I'm excited to hear your other story, about the homeless man in San Francisco! :)

  2. wow, that's really heartbreaking. the images you posted really drive home the point.
    i hope there will be a brighter future, as well.

  3. I grew up in Chicago and we went to Detroit fairly regularly to compete. I was on Mayor Daley Youth Foundation team; I think it was a mayoral trade. Ha.

    It was decaying then.

    I don't know if you can revitalize a city until the people are revitalized. Wow. I thought there was a whole lot more to say about that, but ... in my opinion, there's not.

  4. There was a news show recently about Detroit. One of the plans was to just raze a large segment of the town and plant gardens and become a farmland within the city. the broadcast said there is too much decay and ruin to rescue much of the city. If they did that Detroit would be the greenest city in the nation.

  5. I've never been to Detroit,but I've always had this iconic image in my head of a vibrant metropolis.
    This kinda throws me a bit.

  6. MHP - I won't keep you waiting long. The homeless guy was just one more thing for me to learn about big cities.

    ikw - houses like that are everywhere in Detroit. The city can't afford to tear them down. Now they have some federal grant money and the current mayor is proposing we use the bulk of it to destroy these eyesores.

    Booda - That is what the city is missing.... people. The city of Detroit's population has been dwindling year after year and a majority of the people who are left are those who are too poor to move. Less than one million in the city now while 5.4 million live in the surrounding communities.

    Mom - It would definitely look better but that would only be a start. We need public transportation and neighborhoods that will attract middle class families back into the city.

    Sling - Now I feel bad. Detroit has a rich and vibrant history and the people of this area are true working class heroes. That's why I suppose the decline of the city is so sad. I'll have to do a post about the good things about Detroit.