More than Midtown: Lessons from Detroit
Google Maps has never given me much of a warning before an impending turn. Today is no exception. Less than 100 feet before my next maneuver, Siri’s indolent Google Maps cousin alerts me of the approaching Michigan Avenue, so I shove my blue Lincoln Town Car across a precarious number of lanes. This would normally be a problem on a highway, but I’m going to Detroit. Even when the city’s gentrified midtown experiences a surge of nightlife activity, I’ve never experienced traffic. The first cross street off the exit before Michigan Avenue is Ash. Just Ash. It has no indication of being a street, avenue or boulevard, perhaps indicative of its burned-out, crumbling houses, one after the other, interrupted by the occasional vacant lot. Even more rare are inhabited homes.
I’ve come to Detroit to make sense of a perplexing tendency: What does it mean when someone who fits my profile — an educated millennial Caucasian — says they “love” Detroit, a city whose population is predominantly Black and remains less affluent than residents of the adjacent suburbs? And, what is it they love? Do they come to Detroit to bask in the recently gentrified districts — a hub of nightlife and well-to-do transplants — or do they love the city in its entirety, imperfections and all? The task of understanding all parts of Detroit would take a lifetime.
To understand the city, one needs a point of contact. I don’t have friends or family in the area, and my peers who frequent Slows Bar BQ and the casinos don’t count. I’d basically be interviewing myself. My most genuine connection lies in my father who grew up in Dearborn, Detroit’s immediate neighbor to the west. But growing up in Southeast Michigan without meaningful experiences in the Detroit, I felt fake. So, I’ve set upon my own two-day attempt at understanding Detroit.
Coming to a halt at Ash, I notice a homeless man to my left. He’s young, probably my age, and holds a sign that reads: “ran away from home please help me buy a bus ticket God loves a (cereal?) …” The words are too small to make out. His oversized apparel is covered in dirt and holes. His head bobs lethargically up and down, continuously bringing him in and out of an asphyxiated sleep, all the while wearing an expression of sadness to a degree that I can’t explain. The closest comparison I can conjure is the face of surrender that Johnny Weeks from HBO’s “The Wire” always wore. The light turns green as Ms. Maps tells me we’ve arrived.
· Day 1 ·
I am greeted by Corktown after turning from Ash onto Michigan Avenue. Home to the original Slows Bar BQ, Two James Spirits, Mercury bar and the hauntingly beautiful Michigan Central Station, this was once a repository for Irish fleeing the potato famine. Today, it is largely occupied by longtime blue collar residents of the city. Corktown evokes a sense of authenticity — most of the buildings are rough brick and still marked by the original hand-painted slogans of old businesses, there’s a couple abandoned buildings, the Marathon gas station is frequented mostly by locals from just west of Corktown, and crumbling brick-and-mortar expands in every direction excluding east, where Downtown lies.
Corktown technically starts at Rosa Parks Boulevard, but the area’s lamppost signs, placed at intervals of 30 feet, denote a different cartography starting at 20th Street. The only indicator Google Maps appears to have used was the stretch of brick road that extends barely three blocks to either side of the old Tiger Stadium, which is now only a baseball diamond on an open field.
Nobody walks in Detroit, at least not in Corktown. The city was clearly constructed for the motor vehicle — of which there aren’t many in sight either. That’s not to say there are no sidewalks. There are plenty, but weeds overpopulate crevices in the concrete. Today’s absence of pedestrians is no anomaly.
Further down Michigan Avenue into Downtown is a dead end at Campus Martius Park: a favorite stop for day-trip visitors and office workers from the suburbs. Women in Moncler coats and men in Northface jackets gallivant around the city center enjoying lattes from Roasting Plant, stopping to munch on a Potbelly sandwich while lounging in front of the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, supported by a backdrop of skyscrapers Chicagoan in height. The foot traffic is still pathetic by the standards of most American cities, but stands in stark contrast to deserted sidewalks elsewhere in the city.
Detroit is oriented around six main thoroughfares that shoot off from Campus Martius Park like spokes on a wheel. From a bird’s-eye view moving left to right, the streets are as follows: Fort Street, Michigan Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue and Jefferson Avenue. Midtown and the Cass Corridor, the gentrified areas of Detroit that lay claim to “Detroit’s comeback” can be reached by driving down Woodward. Today I’ll get to know gentrified Detroit. I follow the circular drive around the hub and turn on Woodward, which penetrates the center of Midtown and marks the eastern border of the Cass Corridor.
The early 2000s witnessed a large scale effort to reinvigorate the old Cass Corridor, which was rebranded as Midtown. Upon Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, developers injected huge sums of capital including a $650 million plan to purchase and refurbish deserted buildings. The result has been a surge in luxury outlets and ritzy apartments, accompanied by spikes in rent and property valuations that are comparable to gentrification in other Midwestern cities, namely Chicago.
Posh bars in rugged buildings are a hallmark of gentrification and, like many of Midtown’s hotspots, the Selden Standard sits like a vesicle stemming the gentrified vein that is Woodward Avenue. Three blocks west of the thoroughfare, the Selden Standard foreshadows what’s to become of the surrounding empty buildings and lots. Across the street is one such vacancy, occupied only by an interesting gentlemen clad in a hot-pink cape, red jacket and yellow shorts with a banana hammock. He’s holding a boombox that’s blasting “Hot in Herre” by Nelly while fist-pumping and hip-thrusting. As I walk to the door he walks to his campsite, comprised of a towel and a pile of clothing. He puts down the boombox and continues to dance. We’re the only two on the street.
I enter the Selden Standard to find a stark contrast in aesthetic: chic black brick that matches the exterior, a polished cedar bar atop an ebony foundation that matches the walls on the left and cedar boards suspended from above by black poles. Sections of the ceiling are exposed to allow tasteful halogen tubes to descend from black rods. The right half of the restaurant contains an exposed kitchen and the bar, which is backed by smooth and shiny white porcelain bricks. The chairs are stainless steel, true to the grayscale backdrop so as not to disturb the cedar accents.
The cooks have groomed beards that match those of the joint’s patrons, and some have tattoos of Celtic patterns or Native American totems. Each hostess has perfect “Urban Outfitters hair,” I guess you could call it, one with a professionally frazzled hipster bob, the other sporting 1960s bangs.
I ask the bartender making my drink how old the place is.
“We’re nearing two years in November, which is ancient as far as the Detroit food scene goes,” she responds.
Her colleague, sporting a man-bun, pipes in, “It’s the place to be, man.”
Across the street the dancing man has changed into red shorts but continues his ritual. He’s moved aside just enough to reveal a white, windowless building upon which, in huge type, is painted: “Honest?” Before I contemplate this irony any further, the customer next to me inquires about the dancing man. Apparently his name is Terry, and he comes to this spot every day to exercise. In doing so he has lost 125 pounds over two years. “He’s the man,” the bartender says.
When my peers say they spent the weekend in Detroit, they usually mean they came here. I’ll admit that the area’s perceived safety, quality beverages and quirky locals are charming. But what constitutes the “love” felt toward a place where the dissonance between Terry’s lot and this bar is ubiquitous? What does it mean to love a city that filed the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history or razed 2,800 buildings, including family homes and jazz clubs, to build a highway? How does one love the fire hazard of 70,000 abandoned buildings and 31,000 empty houses, an unemployment more than twice the national average — 10.4 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and the way the African-American community — 83 percent of the population — has largely been excluded from enjoying the delights of its “resurgence” alongside me? The Selden Standard, and its surrounding shops, tell a narrative of the comeback kid. Without these places there would be even less of a semblance of a local economy, but its presence raises property values that push away the very people that make up the city’s majority who need help the most.
Eric Thomas hates Detroit, a sentiment that has, as he puts it, become taboo in and around the city. I’ve been quick to defend the city when people claim they’re scared of “getting shot.”
“You just don’t know where to go” and “that’s an incredibly counterproductive attitude to have” were often some of my responses. I now regret my patronizing attitude. Thomas, a brand strategist and senior partner at at Saga MKTG in Detroit, is a native. In his Metro Times editorial Why I Hate Detroit, he concisely articulates what it is he believes people “love”: the four miles of Woodward Avenue, the retro Shinola watches and the tasteful hotspots like the Selden Standard. But most of all, the outsiders that these institutions serve love the idea of walking, wearing or drinking Detroit, which comes in the form of uneducated consumerism.
“And the most notably, downtown developments by Dan Gilbert, the DEGC, and the Detroit Downtown Partnership are infusing the economic core of Detroit with energy and all-around feel good vibes,” Thomas wrote. “But, as for the question of opportunity — let's examine what that really means.”
The truth is that my cohort of friends traveling to Detroit to buy posh drinks or attend Tigers games does little to affect a school system that can’t guarantee pay and basic school maintenance to teachers, repair or construct areas for youth recreation, expand mass transit, or inject cash into household incomes that are half the national average. These new businesses often don’t hire locals unless it’s to guard their old employees or other outside hires. In sum, the words “I love Detroit” mean nothing to locals of the poorest city in the nation, who have largely been excluded from the economic rejuvenation taking place several blocks away in downtown, and in the well-to-do suburbs of Oakland and western Wayne Counties.
· Day 2 ·
With Thomas’ words ringing in my ears, I venture into the neighborhoods surrounding Midtown, specifically the neighborhood between Trumbull Avenue and West Grand Boulevard, and that between West Warren Avenue and Mckinley Street. These neighborhoods trade places with the other top 10 most dangerous neighborhoods on neighborhoods.com — a website which ranks neighborhoods based on crime statistics — and contribute greatly, along with several other surrounding areas, to Detroit’s unflattering — albeit improving — crime figures.
I exit the highway the same as before and encounter Johnny Weeks yet again. He’s suited in the same garb, with the same sign on the same milk crate. This time, however, he’s bobbing his head to a different tune, smiling in the same spaced-out, euphoric way his television counterpart does when falling victim to the needle. Going over the highway and through Corktown, around the hub and down Woodward, left on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and right on 14th Street brings me into the midst of an area that resonates with Forbes’ proclaimed hazardousness. It’s hard to describe this neighborhood without using post-apocalyptic clichés. Abandoned houses seemed unlimited, which I expected, but what I was not expecting is how much more bountiful the open lots are. At times, nearly 100 yards of overgrown grass separates two domiciles, and at others there is only one house per block. The only thing that occasionally distinguishes one empty lot from another is a scraggly line of unkempt bush, connoting where a fence should be built, or a series of telephone poles on the brink of collapse. Some of these lots have an artifact of what used to inhabit their space, anything from the remnants of a driveway interspersed with weeds to plastic orange and blue tricycles.
Dilapidation becomes more visible west of Grand River Avenue. The houses that remain are sometimes difficult to categorize as inhabited or uninhabited at driving speed. One home may have boarded windows and a car in the driveway, or crumbling front steps with a light on inside, while next door sits a house without front steps or a car. Paint jobs are not a useful predictor either, since all of them would, by normal standards, be indicative of abandonment. Often, the most consistent indicator is the collection of play toys, plastic chairs and bicycles that are strewn in front of the house or even into the street. One house in particular had no door or window panes. All that remained of another was jagged, three-foot-high perimeter of disintegrating charred brick.
One man walks with his arms held perpendicular to the street while never breaking his glazed-over forward stare. Others glare at me incredulously when I pass by their homes, making note of my obvious lack of reason for being in their neighborhood.
“People hate it when you drive around and gawk,” said my friend who tutors a private-school debate team in the area once said.
I wish it would be appropriate for me to explain that I wasn't gawking, but there is no chance of that discussion happening, and I think, or hope, both parties understand. I’ve been twisting through side streets for about an hour and decide it’s time to drive to the next neighborhood. I begin making my way toward Woodward and was one block away when I was suddenly barricaded. In front of me is a lightning-blue Ford F-150 with chrome rims, tinted windows and a waxed body, setting a maximum speed of 4 mph. It’s shameful, but the panic I felt was very real, and I’d rather not describe the scenarios I imagined would ensue. Had I been in almost any other city in America I would have been simply irritated, but the omnipresent crime statistics and myths that surround Detroit cut through rational thinking. Two-thirds of the block to go and the pace hasn’t changed. My head is now level with the steering wheel. Going around such a massive truck on these small side streets is impossible, and it would probably set off the alarm in someone’s head, but I keep contemplating the possibility. One-third to go and my knuckles are white, still moving at 4 mph. At Woodward I make the choice to turn on my directional to convey a message that I don’t find anything weird, and I am just following traffic laws. He turns left, and I turn right.
I have several hours left on my hands before I planned to return home, so I decide to go back to Midtown to check out Shinola and its league of trendy shops I didn’t get to visit yesterday. Instead of tinkering with Midtown’s parking meters, which aren’t meters but rather designated zones with bothersome rules, I find a space in Will’s Leather Goods’s parking lot. The place turns out to be part leather goods store, part coffee shop, and I enter hoping to find that some kind of local craftsmanship has found an outlet here on the corner of Alexandrine Street and 2nd Avenue. The place is upscale. Leather-bound books and wallets sit on top of aromatic pine crates in clusters placed around giant warehouse-like room. Belts hang from pegs driven into old wooden pillars. Saddle bags and shoes sit in front of the enormous floor-to-ceiling window facing 2nd Avenue, which are book-ended by rusted scooters, helmets, shovels and random mining equipment. The place has an incredibly invigorating aroma of fresh leather and sawdust without the mustiness, which makes it cleaner somehow, and wakes me up like the sour and slightly sweet smell of Red Bull. In the middle is a giant tepee. Yep, made of cow’s hide. It stands as tall as the ceiling — 25 feet. I pass the saleswoman, who greets me warmly, and lie that I’m “buying something for a friend’s birthday. … No, I’ve never been here before.” Part of it was true. I duck behind a pole to check out a $75 belt and act interested. I don’t really have it in me to fake it today, so I decide to go. Tip-toeing around the western side of the teepee, I am stopped by Terrance, a portly gentleman with white pants, smooth black leather shoes, some kind of political T-shirt, black square-framed sunglasses, and a charcoal grey fedora with a yellow-red feather.
“How’s it going, brother?” The words sound like those of a honeyed baritone jazz singer. Each vowel is a deep bellow that vibrates my ear lobes.
“Well, man. Just in town checking stuff out.” I have no idea what to talk about but I want to hear more.
“Nice. Nice. You ever hear about our stuff before?”
I admit I hadn’t. It’s all handmade leather goods, that much is apparent, but virtually everything in the store is also for sale, including the teepee.
“We were actually way underselling these chairs,” he said, pointing to what I thought were just for customers to rest on. “They’re actually worth about $10,000.”
It turns out that nothing in the store is actually from Detroit, but instead shipped from the parent company in Oregon. Not even the upholstery, teepee or random mining equipment are native to Detroit. Every last object in the store is scavenged in Oregon, stored in a warehouse and then distributed to outlet stores. It’s a very determined system. Does selling out-of-town wares — as opposed to local crafts — make Will’s any less legitimate as a business in Detroit or its conscience less an authentic part of the city? Why should this place force-fit an image of solidarity with the community if it’s just trying to be a business? Maybe it’s more honest just to sell what they want and not a façade to comfort people like me.
“I knew Detroit as a kid when it had the best retail store in the state: Hudson's,” my dad said. “When it had the best hobby shop for model trains. When the Tigers won the American League pennant in 1968, and I rode the bus down Michigan Avenue with my grandfather to Tiger Stadium.”
He continued: “But I didn't know Black people. My mother taught Black students in Dearborn Heights, and my father worked with Black workers in the Ford Rouge Assembly plant. There was tension at my dinner table about race because my father would make racist comments about his Black co-workers. My mother would stop him. It was hard for me to make sense of it. I grew up in a white town whose trash cans said, ‘Keep Dearborn Clean,’ and people often interpreted that as 'keep Black people out.'
It’s uncomfortable, the feeling you get in your gut when you hear about family bigotry. How can I judge the character of my grandfather, whom I’ve never met? My grandmother described him as “the kindest man that ever lived,” but how do I reconcile these two polarizing narratives?
Needless to say that task was not as hard as that of my dad’s, who had to reconcile bigotry in a parent. It came as no surprise to me when I heard that he hosted a classical music program on the Wayne State University radio station WDET in 1974 during his undergraduate career at the University of Michigan. On Saturdays he would drive from campus to Detroit for the 8 p.m. broadcast.
“After the one-hour show ended at 9 p.m., I drove down Woodward Avenue to Eight Mile, then west to Livernois where Baker's Keyboard Lounge is located,” he said. “I sat at the bar so that I didn't have to pay the cover charge, and forced myself to learn to drink beer so I could sit there and listen to Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Sonny Stitt and more. There were regulars at the bar, particularly two middle-aged Black guys named Skeets and Walter. Those two knew all the musicians. … Black and white people got along, listening to the beauty of jazz played by master musicians. It's an ancillary aspect of the music that always impressed me deeply.”
His volunteering and forced appreciation for beer was of course willful, pedagogical and enjoyable, but was also threaded with a sense of duty. If each generation should attempt to correct the transgressions of its predecessors in the name of progress, this was a noble example. I am half the product of someone who was the product of Dearborn, which is a product of Detroit, who moved to Ann Arbor — itself the product of Detroit — and created the foundations for my life. I am the latest iteration of this series of relationships. My bigoted, loving grandfather’s job in the auto industry, the college education he provided his son and trashcans that signaled racial exclusion are, for better or worse, what I stand upon. Should my actions therefore not contain a similar thread of duty to continue the mindfulness my father set as a precedent? Is it not my job to continue to understand my own narrative as it relates to this city, particularly if I’m trying to say that I love it?
I made a mistake in trying to capture the essence of this city in two days. The narratives of Detroit are as numerous as the streets that extend from Campus Martius Park. Woodward Avenue tells a story of the power of gentrification and its complicated benefits; Grand River Avenue portends the future of a Black community as it sits poised on the brink of destruction; Michigan Avenue reminisces for the glory days of old school baseball, trains and Irish heritage; and if I had traveled down Gratiot Avenue, Lafayette Street and Fort Street, their stories would have made themselves equally known.
But my trip down these thoroughfares has also further opened my own story. My father’s upbringing in such a tumultuous city has necessarily informed his politics, principles and outlook on racial tension, all of which have been resources from which I draw my own dispositions. We have never had a catalyst for these conversations, and maybe never would, were it not for Detroit. I owe it a great deal of thanks, a sentiment that one often doesn’t hear about the city.
No narrative is truer than the other, not my own nor any of the others. Each trades off the myths and facts that surround the city, and serve the self-interests of those who adopt them. But as my father frequently states: “I’ll say it till I die — if someone wants to know what’s happening in the United States, call me, let’s meet at my house at 9:00, go to Detroit by 9:40, drive around and have a discussion about what we saw at lunchtime.” True affection for Detroit is to have a complex relationship, to listen to multiple narratives for honesty about what’s happening to the city. It means you need to take that drive with my dad. While it may not work for everyone, I, whose youth was passed in the tranquilities of a college town, one day hope to feel sincerity in saying the words: “I love Detroit.”