All together, we spent about three months in Grosse Pointe and the Detroit area closing out Bonnie’s parents’ long life there and in particular going through all of their accumulated treasures and recorded memories, some going back two or three generations. We lived in the house they had lived in for thirty years, and in the end sold and gave away virtually all of their furniture and furnishings, leaving an empty house which was two days from closing on a sale when the bank refused the loan and the deal fell in. So we left the house empty of furnishings and much more visibly in need of ‘updating’.
We did, however, have lots of time to explore Detroit and its surroundings. Now we know you all know about Detroit: The largest city to ever declare a bankruptcy and have it approved by the courts; a city whose former mayor was recently sentenced to spend most of his remaining life in prison for bribery and corruption; a city devastated by blight for the last fifty years and now struggling to find a way into some sort of vibrancy and new life. What you might not know is that it was founded by the French in 1701 and has a long, exciting and continuous history.
There are some encouraging signs of a rebirth of sorts, but it will never be the city it once was, the fifth largest in the USA with a flourishing automobile industry employing hundreds of thousands of workers who were paid well enough to enjoy something of a middle class life inside the city. The auto industry declined, tensions between the races erupted in race riots, first in 1943 and then again in the mid 60’s, which led to an exodus from the city itself, first of the whites and then even of the African Americans into its surrounding suburbs.
Here is a quick look at what Detroit has become. We both grew up in Grosse Pointe, a rather wealthy and older suburb of Detroit where the early auto inventors lived—Edsel Ford (Henry’s son), the Dodges, the Fishers (as in Fisher Body) and following in the shadow of the early innovators, the executives who managed the auto companies before they began to live instead in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills to the north of Detroit.
It is still a beautiful suburban environment, well kept, well organized, with a famous public school system, beautiful parks, and virtually free of even the most petty of crimes.
But if you travel just three blocks into Detroit from its border with Grosse Pointe, here is what you find: the houses burned down or demolished or both
The businesses gone
And vast areas of open fields, as if in some paradoxical way the city has become a vast park full of green and quiet with even the sidewalks reclaimed by the grasses.
And this same residential decay exists for all of those areas surrounding the downtown area and continuing to the suburbs.
Here is a brief sample of the downtown area from the river inland:
One of the real treasures of Detroit, built in 1912 and 1913 but abandoned in 1988, is the Michigan Central Train Station. There are ongoing efforts to find a buyer who would restore it, but so far they have proved unsuccessful. At one time it was the tallest train terminal in the world.
So in effect you have a city upon a river with a downtown significantly decayed but with pockets of restoration going on. It is surrounded by what used to be residential areas now largely open fields of grass with the occasional house still standing, usually one or two to a block at best, their local business areas gone as well.
The downtown revival largely consists of reclaiming old office buildings for other purposes, and is driven to a very significant degree by the founder and CEO of Quicken Loans, who has bought whole blocks of buildings and has seated his company there. There is also new football and baseball stadiums plopped down in the middle of what was downtown ruin which at least brings people from the outlying areas into the city for entertainment. And there are also pockets of residential development springing up, first close to Wayne State University and the adjacent Medical Center (Whole Foods just opened a huge store there) and now in several other areas as well.
One area of respite and a whisper of the past is the island of Belle Isle in the middle of the Detroit River and accessible by bridge. It contains woods and trails, equestrian facilities and an aquarium, athletic fields and an arboretum. There is a museum to the hydroplaning boats (capable of over 200 MPH) which still compete in the river for the Gold Cup each year since 1915, largely now through the sponsorship of Kid Rock. Another museum is dedicated to the Great Lakes and there are even two private clubs. The Detroit Yacht Club was established in 1868 and has always sponsored the Gold Cup; the Detroit Boat Club is famous for its rowing teams that still compete on a national basis.
Since the city is bankrupt and could not afford to maintain Belle Isle anymore, in November of this year it became a state park, thus preserving this wonderful island reserve. One could hope that something of the same can be done for the treasures in the Detroit Institute of Art including its magnificent Diego Rivera mural.
A really wonderful film of Detroit and its struggles is “Detropia,” done in 2012 and extremely complete and interesting. And of course there is also the wonderful Academy Award winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” about the recently rediscovered singer and songwriter Rodriguez who still lives in Detroit.
What is encouraging about Detroit at the moment is the fact that as a city it has been permitted to declare bankruptcy and thus stands some chance of regaining a viable life freed of some of the enormous debt burden it currently has. And in some ways Detroit can perhaps become the seedbed for how other cities (San Bernadino and Stockton in California, Flint and Saginaw in Michigan, and even others threatened like Cleveland and Akron and Dayton in Ohio) can find new life in stunningly innovative ways.
There is a tremendous amount of experimentation going on in Detroit, from artist collectives taking over abandoned industrial buildings, to the conversion of old office buildings in the downtown area into condominiums (as with Dave’s father’s old building on Grand Circus Park), to urban farming. There are a number of organic farms established in abandoned residential areas where the soil has been tested to be free of toxins and plowed and planted with produce then sold at the Eastern Market, Detroit’s hundred year old farmer’s market still operating at full capacity today. The same concept could be ramped up on a massive scale to produce not only food but employment for many within the city.
Only time will tell the fate of this blighted and almost post-apocalyptic city, but we left much more hopeful than we came to it and very much encouraged by those efforts going on toward resurrection.