Thursday, 27 January 2011

Put Your Hands Up For Detroit... I Love This City

The freeway looks like any other as we careen along the wide lanes that take us into Detroit. Out of the grey monotony of the interstate it hits, looming over the speeding cars, our welcome to Detroit. A huge abandoned factory 5 or 6 stories high, every window smashed and covered in graffiti, its gone before we can fully appreciate the grand emptiness of its dead space. This view is replaced by a grass verge above which we can only see the tops of the houses in one of Detroit's many residential districts, I strain to see more as my imagination builds the images of ruin and decay that lay just the other side of the mound. Maybe all we've heard of Detroit is true, maybe it really is a dying city.We get dropped off on our hosts doorstep, he didn't say it but our driver Jim clearly didn't think we were quite ready to walk the mean streets ourselves.

Our delightful new hosts hooked us up with some bikes to go see the city and it didn't take much cycling around to see that Detroit is a pretty fucked up place. Over a quarter of the houses in the central neighbourhoods are abandoned and falling apart, smashed windows, swinging doors and upturned sofas form the fabric of Detroit's streets, stripped of everything of worth and left to rot through water damage these buildings cement the feeling of decay in the bricks and mortar that built the city.

Once a bustling hub of Industry Detroit used to be the shining jewel this country's crown of capital, a glorious monument to the potential of the American Dream, a gateway to mass consumption. In its 1950's  hey day the city area had a population of 2million which has dropped to 900,000 as people escape to the sprawling suburbs which now house 4.5million residents and while many in the city centre live below the poverty line the suburbs are one of the more affluent areas of the nation. The remnants of the now disused facilities of a city once thronging with people are everywhere, the roads are in most places 6 lanes wide but are largely devoid of cars, closed schools, sports centres, shops and office buildings all signs of the vacuum left by the exodus of the population.

Trying to avoid the tourist trail (and trying to conserve our hemorrhaging bank accounts) we skipped the Motown Museum and the Detroit Institute of Art and instead headed for the towering beauty of old train station. Closed in the late 70's this building is enormous, it used to house Amtrack's HQ and served as the main train hub for Detroit, left empty for 30 years it has recently been the set for a few movie shoots and apparently photos of it adorn almost every article about Detroit's demise. It is a right of passage growing up if you live in or near detroit to go in and explore the building, so with one of our hosts as a guide and head torches in hand we climbed through a hole in the fence and made our way into the darkness. Inside lay sprawling halls, endless graffiti, a flooded basement full of old shelves and green water and a lingering sense of the grandiose air the building once had. We climbed the 20 odd floors of rickety stairs to the roof and sat with our legs over the edge and watched the city.

Zipping about on the relative comfort of our bikes it was easy to take in the aesthetic wonders of this collapsing city without experiencing any of the negative aspects that come with a city in crisis. After a few days of cycling around our early apprehension from all the anti-Detroit warnings had all but dissipated, so much so that we decided to take an experimental route home, as the sun set and magic hour set in the whole tone of the street changed. We cycled past a normal looking group of kids, maybe 17 years old, and the next we know one of them is chasing us at a speed i didn't even know people could run at, proclaiming words that will stay in my head for a while, "i gotta get all that shit". I can only assume he referred to whatever i had in my bag, which little beknownst to him was nothing. Whilst he clearly had the upper hand with regards to acceleration our current velocity and the sustained top speed of the bike was enough to carry us out of harms way, however the sense of security we had gently lulled ourselves into had gone.

Its impossible to see Detroit without very quickly becoming acutely aware of the deep poverty that plagues the city. Everywhere down and out people roam the streets, some homeless, some drunk, some hunting for crack, almost all of them had their lives pillaged by the collapse of industry and left with nothing by a system that promised so much and delivered so little. We talked with a guy who had been forced into a temporary shelter because he couldn't find work, with a thrift store owner who had taken to living in his shop and who battled with himself about whether or not to sell us weed because, despite how much he needed the money, everything he knew said it was wrong. We ate in a soup kitchen in a big underground hall in a church and I've never felt more uncomfortable, not through fear for my safety or for my belongings but fear that i wouldn't be accepted that I didn't belong. All I could think was how easy I have it and what would people think about this honky white guy in shorts and tights? Moments later however we were eating and talking with the people on our table and sharing the Halloween candy we'd been given and being genuinely impressed by the quality of the food.

The divisions between groupings of people in Detroit are huge, and my affinity with the more affluent end of this spectrum, the uni kids, the hipsters, go getters and young professionals is what left me feeling most unsure about my place. The only reason we ended up in that soup kitchen is that we were looking for an event called Soup which turned out to be in the church across the street. Soup is a weekly dinner that raises money with half of the earnings going to a neighbourhood regeneration project and the other half going to one of the community projects that presents a proposal on the night and gets voted for by the diners. Safely back in the activist ghetto, eating vegan soup and seedy bread from a local independent bakery the gaps in our society never felt so big and I so unsure of how to start bridging them.

The clouds hang low over Detroit increasing the oppressive feel of a city that already shoulders so many burdens. As the days draw to a close the long sunset lends the city's grey ceiling a beautiful orange and pink hue, an aura that speaks to the bright future so evidently on it's horizon. Detroit sits at a cross roads, with the collapse of a major city caused by the failings of capitalism looming behind it and ahead a myriad of solutions in amongst which the roots of progressive alternatives are beginning to grow. So many neighbourhoods now have community gardens, varying greatly in size, number of volunteers and food produced everywhere you can see solar tunnels, bee hives and raised beds bringing hope and some good food to people that are used to endless additives and junk food. We talked with a husband and wife duo who ran a garden just north of downtown, with no previous experience in horticulture they retired and took it on as a project and now only a year in it feeds over 100 people. They told us a story about a guy who came and took way more than his fair share of cabbage and then went a few blocks over and tried to sell them, a scheme that didn't go down well with the local community who not only refused to buy them but  chastised him for abusing the trust that is required for these projects to work. Everyone we talked to spoke of the lack of anywhere to buy food in the city, other than a couple of super markets you have to journey out to the suburbs, and its this combination of need for a viable food source and an excess of unused land that make the potential of the community garden movement in Detroit so exciting. 

Its not just gardens either. One of our hosts had helped start a community bike project called The Hub, which at the time laid claim to the title of being the only bike shop in Detroit. A few years down the line its gone through some changes and now has a shop as well as workshop and gives lessons on fixing bikes as well as having work evenings to fix up the selection of tattered old machines that people donate. They have given out or sold literally thousands of bikes and where it used to be unusual to see anyone else on a bike now its a rarity if 
you don't bump into another avid cycler. The city also has a monthly critical mass that numbers between 200 and 500 people and puts the wide largely unused roads to much better use. There are housing co-op's, a social centre collective called Trumbullplex and a surreal and morphing gallery that covers many of the houses and green space on Heidelberg Street, its inspiring to see how many people have taken up the task of improving the city and are setting about doing it for themselves. There is so much scope here to experiment with ways a city can orient itself outside the suffocating grip of industry and capital and with the mayor planning to 'Right Size' the city by cutting off all services to the most desolate neighbourhoods and force the people to relocate there is a lot of shared ground on which to find solidarity with one another. 

I wondered before i arrived if i had impossible dreams for the futures of this city. Now that I'm here is seems as though everyone had those dreams and impossible was never an issue. 


  1. nice report, i'd love to go to that old train station.. reminds of a guy i heard about that never visits the centre of a new city he visits. If it has a metro system he takes it to the furthest points east and west (or north and south) and spends time at each place.. when he did that in London he got arrested in east london under laws banning photographers from taking photos of stations! Anyway.. have fun!.. Matt T (soas)

  2. You've left me inspired to go to Detroit. I've been only to visit family and quickly leave. Here I am volunteering over seas and the need is also in my backyard. Keep writing, it's a great read.

  3. What an interesting city. in such a state of decay and highlighting exactly what happens when our system fails. But it sounds like there are people there willing to make a change.
    "I gotta get all that shit" is possibly the scariest thing I have ever heard!
    Keep up the posting

  4. Wait a minute... "This honky white guy in shorts and tights?"... you were wearing tights?!

    This is my favourite piece so far. Really love your photos and the final statement. The boarded up houses look so dilapidated yet colourful with the signs all over them, and that station looks beyond epic. I really would love to go there, but I dont think I would last 10 minutes! Please be careful (I sound like a parent haha).

  5. "Zipping about on the relative comfort of our bikes it was easy to take in the aesthetic wonders of this collapsing city without experiencing any of the negative aspects that come with a city in crisis"
    This is pure genious- it makes you think of a huge living dinosaur, alive but unable to move and completely explorable.

    Would it not be great to have a 2guys1thumb world series!

  6. Most interesting review I've read of a collapsing city, its people and infrastructure. Nicely done. David Lambert, Southerner's Journal

  7. Been there and left, lived there since 1994 and my wife lived all her life there. She saw the grand station at its finest and also seen the business fall to the way said. We left but we have lots of friends in the middle of all that. Its illegal to go in to the station its closed down, only for some special events showings, moving making, transformers one, the island. but is the best view for the fire works,lol. Right across from the station is 17 street and an epic old church that we use to go to. they are holding the front on the poverty and try to make a difference.. the park right across is a homeless shelter and a hotel that is a housing complex for people that just came out of jai. its rough complete school have been turn down and nothing g=has been replaced except the baseball stadium

  8. It was the Democrats and unions that destroyed my beloved hometown. GOVT turns everything to mush