Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Death of a City

I recently found myself driving the limo again for some wealthy clients. One is a real estate monster in our little corner of the world who is married to a nationally recognized sculptor. Another is a top judge in our area and the other is head of a major manufacturing organization and son of a former baseball star in Detroit. They went for a birthday celebration to a play in Detroit, at the Fisher Theatre in the Fisher Building. The theatre is located on Grand Blvd in Detroit just down the boulevard from the famous Hitsville USA Museum where so many Motown records were recorded.

It all sounds very nice. But as I know everyone knows, Detroit is experiencing some pretty tough times. Right along side of these historic landmarks that look so wonderful in pictures, are abandoned houses and businesses, vacant lots where only the ghost of a lively Detroit now resides. Burned out buildings from arson or rouge fires from homeless people trying to stay warm during our cold winter nights. The news would have you believe that it's the economy to blame. The people blame the businesses and the businesses blame the people all over the world because they buy products from places like China or Mexico. But what really happened to this once great city? The city that put the world on wheels.

This beautiful theatre was built with money from the automobile business. A business that seems to have left it behind in a decaying neighborhood to fend for itself. What, if anything, could save this historic sample of industrial architecture? Detroit is putting on a brave face and trying to show the world what it has to offer. There are a few investors doing their part to revive what they can and try to hold this sinking ship together. But I feel that it takes more than money and advertising. It takes more than a new stadium for the Tigers or the Lions to play their sports in. It takes more than a face lift at the convention center. It takes a change in attitude. And we're talking about an attitude that is 40 to 50 years in the making.

A recent article that I read, stated that the people in the suburbs say "Let it fall apart, we don't need it." But then the article argues that without the city, there would be no suburb. That a central city is essential to the life of a sprawling metropolis. Without one, the other could not exist. I believe that this is antiquated thinking. It's a new global world and if a city is to survive, it needs to keep up globally. Not just locally. Detroit is proof that a city can not exist basing it's entire structure around one industry. It was insanity to think that the auto industry would last forever. It was insanity to think that the workers could keep making more and more. Did they not see that retirees would live longer and essentially be retired longer than they worked? Unions did a lot for getting workers fair wages and safe working conditions. Once those things were regulated by the government, the unions pushed for more. We have unskilled workers living the American dream and college graduates working minimum wage jobs. Detroit is a not-so-shiny example of what is wrong with the American society and doesn't seem to see a problem.

My clients for the day left their posh homes for the day to go to the theatre. Driven in a limousine to a overly gilded landmark and escorted by me back home. The occasional glance out the window with an off-handed comment about how someone should clean up this neighborhood. It is sad to see the blight. To think of all the lives and dreams that passed through that city over the last hundred years and to know that it is all gone is very disturbing.

Friday night I found myself in the Ferndale/Royal Oak area. This area is along Woodward Ave just outside the Detroit city limits. It's an area that once was a poor working class area. The small homes were barely big enough to turn around in let alone raise a family. 30 years ago a momentum was started there to give metro-Detroiters a place to go where they felt safe. The homes were refurbished and added on to. The downtown areas were slowly given face lifts. And with the increased traffic, people felt safer. They felt a sense of community that they could not get from Detroit. Today it is a thriving community with healthy businesses on every corner. A person feels safe to walk to the store or restaurant. One woman that I buried recently had never known a reason to leave her beloved Ferndale community. Never got a driver's licence. It was her home. A home she loved very much. And that my friends, is what Detroit is missing. It's missing people that love it enough to stick it out when times get tough. People that take care of their homes and watch out for their neighbors. People that raise their children to respect other people and love their community. People that welcome new people regardless of race.

So what does the real Detroit look like?
This is what you see driving along the freeway....

And if you dare to exit the freeway and go into a residential neighborhood, this is what you will find...
My good friend Aimee, over at Alchemy Photographic took these two photos at the old Packard Motor Car plant. One would think that it had been bombed. This old plant is next to an old cemetery in the heart of the city. Not only have the people all left the city, we are seeing more and more bodies being dug up and moved to better neighborhoods for the families to visit their loved ones.

 The graffiti is everywhere. I drove past a convenience store and car wash that had so much graffiti on the front of them that I barely noticed the sign for the business itself.

In 1968 Detroit experienced race riots. The whole world heard of the violence that was happening here.
I was too young to remember any of that. But I do remember always being afraid of Detroit. It would seem that the Black's won the race riots as the Whites moved further and further out of the city.
A Black mayor was elected and it began to get worse and worse.

Let me be clear that I have never been racist. But I know where I am not wanted. If a white person drove down the wrong street, they would have rocks or worse thrown at their cars. The violence worsened and the corruption grew. It escalated to a point that even the blacks didn't want to live there, and who would blame them. As one family would abandon their home, the block would become blighted with homeless seeking shelter or drug/sex shops taking over. Recently, someone I know stopped at a red light in Detroit. They were pulled over by a police officer who told them not to stop at any more lights and to get back on the freeway. This is real-world 2000's! Happening right now. This has been 50 years in the making and it's not going to be fixed over night.

Again, there are investors trying to turn things around. Recently the large casino where my brother works added on a hotel. The whole complex is very nice. But it is right next to the Brewster Projects that has been closed for many years, leaving a series of high-rise apartment buildings in a condemned state waiting to be torn down just outside the hotel windows.

People are not willing to move to the city because there is no place to buy groceries or to enjoy a night out. Stores are not willing to open new locations in areas that the crime and theft levels are so high.
A local television station has a new slogan Detroit 2020. They are setting their sights on the next 7 years.
The cycle must end now. The old city of Detroit needs to be laid to rest, a monument honoring it's history erected and then we all need to move on to the next phase. The New Detroit.

It's time!


MorningAJ said...

Lots of those photos aren't working Stew. I'd love to see them.

As I was reading I thought about Birmingham (30 miles from where I live and a few miles from where Kev works. (Known as England's second city.)They've done a lot with it in recent years to encourage people back into city centre living.

I'll have to see if I can sort some photos out to show you.

Lana said...

Wonderful, enlightening post. I am in Texas and I thank you for sharing!


MorningAJ said...

Thanks for sending me the photos. It seems even more like Birmingham now! It's tragic how some parts of cities just seem to fall apart. We're off to London in a couple of weeks. That's a city of contrasts too. Some areas are amazing, some are a disaster.

JB Miller said...

In the early 90's I worked at 8 Mile and Ryan roads, arriving in the first hours of dawn. One fine morning an officer of the Detroit PD pulled me over and said, "don't bother stopping for red lights around here, someone will steal your wheel covers or worse!"

sophie...^5 said...

This is quite upsetting and depressing Stew and nothing can be done about it!

Jim said...

To me this shows the devastation that can happen from a lack of a good education and what poverty can do to people....white or black. The fact that it got this bad is a reflection of the lack of law and order and the unwillingness of the politicians to do anything about it.....as you addressed Stew in the next post.
This is a crime that has happened to so many people...a devastation really.
Good post Stew.