DETROIT — The city gives off an eerie sense of abandonment as one drives through it. Whole streets, wide and bare, are left empty as traffic lights flicker red and green. Parking lots with single cars, dented and rusty, deserted in the center, somehow make everything look more neglected. The low hum of city traffic is strangely muted. Detroit seems like an urban ghost town.
Everywhere the city shows signs of its old glamour. High buildings with fancy cornices built of fading stone are boarded up, their windows broken and their doors nailed shut. Streaked stone angels stand on the side of Gothic church facades, reaching their hands up to the heavens. Against the sky, buildings’ peaks and church spires point toward the sun, standing against a grey sky that fades in cloudy squares toward the Detroit River. The asphalt in places is broken up, churned over with dust and dirt and the last fluttering threads of yellow tape. Some of the streetlights are broken and their poles are taped over with paper fliers too faded to be read. Occasionally on a corner a man can be spotted, draped in layers of fabric, clutching bags, shoes flapping at the soles. He stands all alone and he never has to wait to cross the street, for there are no cars.
It seems ironic that in this once booming automotive city there is little traffic. The streets between the buildings become more and more empty as they approach the center of Detroit. Incongruously against the backdrop of grey slate and stone is the massive bulk of Comerica Park, an ostentatious construction of cement and steel. It shines while most of the buildings have faded, a glaring modern contrast to the increasingly sad emptiness of a once-great city.
During the 1950s, Detroit saw glorious times. The rise of the American motor industry and the Big Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) turned Detroit into America’s Motor Capital; its population was booming at 1,849,568 in 1950.
Throughout the past 30 years Detroit has seen many of its key industries leave for other locations, including Cadillac, which closed its Clark Street Plant in Detroit in the early 1990s. The 2003 census estimates revealed that Detroit’s population was 911,000. Its crime rate, though improving, is among the highest in the nation.
Walking along any street is a prelude to surprise by the echoes that bounce back from empty alleyways. Steam rises from the manhole covers, pale twists of white that dissolve against the cold concrete and graffiti covered walls. A single man walks down the center of a four lane avenue, surrounded by nothing but empty air and space. He walks slowly, hunched, his shape growing larger in the shadows cast by the edifices that loom above him. Trash cans, dented and open, flutter with fat pigeons that peck at loose crumbs and wing their way up the buildings, their shadows chasing them along the sides of the walls, a sad arch of darkness against a dim background.
But still, there is life. Once in a while, you’ll stumble over a fire hydrant painted vivid colors, abstract designs that pop from the bleaker shades of urban life, as if some artist decided to plant a flower in the middle of a wasteland. You’ll see people in groups wrapped against the cold, hands together, heading towards the Detroit Opera House or the Greektown nightlife. As you drive by bakeries, you can smell the aroma of cooking bread and sweet cookies and the ripe scent of coffee that permeates the air. The casinos vibrate with neon and thrills to be had for a quarter a pull. You’ll pass a cluster of laughing teenagers, snapping their fingers and singing songs you can’t hear because your windows are closed, and you’ll think of the Motown era, when singers belted the sultry melodies that still vibrate in the rhythmic undercurrent of the city.
Despite Detroit’s seeming decay, construction is everywhere. Roads are closed, detours raised in vivid orange signs, traffic cones snaking across sidewalks as Detroit prepares for the Super Bowl in 2006. The city is holding its breath, waiting for one last turn of the key before the engine turns over, for one more curtain call. This old girl will lumber on, even if all her windows are boarded, her houses razed, her sidewalks stained with urban refuse. And you can still hear the voices of Detroit’s past. They shout from the rusty screech of the People Mover. They whisper in the splashes of the river. They echo from the white graffiti figures on the dark gray slate, alone and lonely, indelible and fading, a testament to Detroit. They will always be there.