My immediate observation upon entering downtown Detroit was all the construction that was going on. There were orange cones everywhere, and in the middle of the city, no less. I-75 was being worked on. Brush St., which took me to my hotel, was being worked on. The Detroit Opera House was being worked on. Hell, my hotel itself was being worked on. Looking for employment in Detroit? Get a construction job.
The funny thing about that is that if I had entered via I-375 or Highway 10 or Windsor, Ont., I probably wouldn’t have noticed it. And as I walked around the city, I didn’t find any other areas that had as much work being done. And, well, it’s a Midwestern city, and like any other city in the middle of the country that hits triple digits in the summer and negative temperatures in the winter, construction is very common. But it was Detroit, so my immediate thought was, Wow, this place really is that bad.
I drove to Detroit from Minneapolis with a stop in Chicago. The Twin Cities had just passed Detroit in total GDP, which is astonishing considering that the Motor City was once called the Paris of the West. Things change, of course, but for a city that was once nearly the size of Chicago — or similar — to shrink that much, even over the course of 50 or 60 years, is mindblowing.
The thing about Detroit is that it still has that “wow factor” upon entering it. Like any large city, it has skyscrapers and a mass transit system and traffic. From a distance, it’s hard to know anything is wrong with it. Sure I could see an abandoned warehouse or two with asbestos warnings on them from the freeway as I closed in on the city, but those were located on the outskirts of the city. And sure, as I walked around downtown, I saw older buildings and unoccupied spaces, but for the most part it felt alive and vibrant. This was no ghost town.
To get an idea of what the city was like, I hopped on the infamous People Mover. I didn’t expect Chicago’s CTA or New York’s subway system, but I thought it would at least be similar to the light rail system in the Twin Cities that takes you from Minneapolis to either St. Paul or the Mall of America (and the international airport).
But this thing was puny. My first thought was, Oh, that’s cute, it was like an amusement park ride. Literally, there was a sign next to the stairs that takes you to the monorail that says, “See the Beautiful Sights of Detroit!” or something like that. This wasn’t the Metra.
The People Mover will take you from the ballpark and football stadium, which are located across the street from one another, to the financial district, the GM Towers and Joe Louis Arena, home of the Red Wings, but it is not by any means a commuter rail. It seems like it should be part of something bigger, something that connects to surrounding Dearborn or Warren or into Canada. But it doesn’t; it just goes in a circle.
Even if it is small and, well, a closed circuit, it does have some rather memorable stops. Just past Joe Louis Arena is the Detroit River, which separates Canada and the U.S., and if you look at the Ambassador Bridge for just long enough, in the right light, you might just think you’re in San Francisco.
Stop in the middle of the financial district, on Woodward Ave., next to the Ernst & Young building, look around and you might be able to trick yourself into thinking you’re in New York. And if you spend enough time in Greektown, with the lights strung above the main drag and the nearby casino and hotel, you might just think that Detroit is a happening place. Deteriorating warehouses? You must be thinking of someplace else.
A short drive away from downtown paints a different picture. Here are the images people love to display of the city: The abandoned factories, the empty lots, the burnt down houses. A drive down 8 Mile feels like walking a tightrope between promise and demise. Go south and you’ll find blight; head north and you’ll see prosperity. Nobody seems to mention the vibrant core of the city; no, this is what they talk about. And perhaps rightfully so, this needs to be corrected.
Detroit is a project, but it is by no means a lost cause. I get an odd feeling that people want it to fail, like it’s “Detroit vs. Everybody,” but it shouldn’t be that way. I came away imagining it at full capacity, as though it was a city as large as Chicago, and thinking Damn, this place could be awesome because, fundamentally, Detroit is awesome.
I thought it was fitting that outside the GM Towers, which are quintessentially Detroit, sit not sports cars or souped-up SUVs, but two Chevy Volts. The future is the electric car, and the city knows it. In that future, the one where the internal combustion engine has been replaced with better technology, I see Detroit filling up again. It is a project, but one that we should see through, because despite all the adversity the city has faced, it still has that wow factor that any large city has. And rightfully so: At it’s core, the Motor City is a wonderful place.