What do you expect when you hear that name? What comes to your mind?
A Ford Model T? Eminen? Robocop? Bankruptcy? Crime stats?
It is a city with so many nicknames – the Big D, Comeback city, Renaissance city, Motorcity to name a few – which all partially tell a bit of its story.
Now I live here, I struggle to remember what I exactly knew about the big D before it became where we would move to* but I remember it was not overtly positive. I had visions of a post-industrial apocalyptic place, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing remotely cultural to do. Suffice to say I was not massively enthusiastic.
The feeling I had the first time I walked around Downtown Detroit was enough to convince me I would find ways to enjoy this move. Having lived in London for 10 years, and before that in Paris, I was used to a busy, rich and exciting urban life, crowded places and buzzing environments. I was used to queue for almost everything, including for admiring a painting in a museum. So my first encounter with Detroit, on a warm and quiet Saturday afternoon felt so different from anything I had experienced before. I had a city to myself.
I am not talking about the feeling we may have when walking around a sleepy village (or the City in London!) on a Sunday afternoon. This was quite different. The streets were empty.
The thing with Detroit is it used to be a big city. Between 1920 and 1950, it was the 4th most populated city in the US, and one of the most attractive. Over 1.8m people called it home in the 1950s… down to just under 675,000 today. Which means that over the past 60 years more than half of its inhabitants have left. That leaves some space. But it means that you find the grandeur you would expect from a wealthy, highly populated city. Everything has been sized for larger crowds, but it is only yourself and a few others around. It may sound weird or eerie but believe me it is not unpleasant. Walking around a beautiful art museum and taking your time to enjoy it, without queuing, nor being pushed around or having a timed entry ticket feels like a real treat.
Having known its heyday at a time when art deco was thriving- and then been through hard economic times- means that Detroit skyline is pretty unique. It is very pretty and it is unique. On that Saturday, when I first got to meet Detroit, I was walking down empty streets, and past beautiful old buildings, some of them boarded up, some of them going through renovation work. It felt like we were the only living souls in the place, part of a 1950s version of Sleeping Beauty, until we reached Campus Martius. It is a park built a decade ago and with all its animations and features, it feels like the heart of downtown Detroit. On that day it was hosting a beer festival, it was all nicely animated, but not crowded. We did not queue long for our drinks and even found a table and chairs – now that is something that would have never happened in London.
We have moved over a year ago now and Downtown keeps changing and getting busier and busier. I quickly realised that it was not usually as quiet as I had experienced on that first day – but this lovely, peaceful, silent encounter was the best introduction to Detroit I could have had. Since then, I have been under the spell. Detroit is a city with so much history, and stories. I know I have only managed to catch a small fraction to date, but I am already fascinated by this place. Of course it owes a lot to the automotive industry but it is also much more that that. Street names tell some of its rich history. I love catching French names, reminiscent of the first French farmers who worked on what was called the “ribbon farms” in the 18th century. The street grid still follows the limits of some of these properties, like a bridge between modern Detroit and the French settlement of 1703. And crossing “Stevie Wonder street” is a reminder that just down the road is Hitsville USA, where some of the most exciting music of the 60s was created – D Town did not only produce the Model T, it is also the home of Motown and the birthplace of some of its biggest stars.
Some streets and buildings still look rough – a real treat for amateurs of “ruin porn” as the plethora of books on that topic show. The wealth seen downtown and midtown is not shared (yet?) with all Detroiters and I would be really curious to know how many would be able to afford something from Shinola. I would not explore parts of the city by myself at night – but that is true of many cities around the world, and Detroit is really spread. I was told you can fit San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan within the city limits… But this city does not deserve to be defined by its decrepit buildings and its crime stats (yes, it was labelled the murder capital of the US for some time). It is a vibrant place, filled with creativity and resilience, beauty and history, hipsters and authenticity. Every time I walk around downtown and midtown, Corktown or the Eastern Market, I feel so energised, keeping my eyes wide open as there is always something new to see – a renovation project progressing, a new shop opening, an architectural details I had missed, an old mural or a modern one – all of them being the keys that help me know this city better.
I love Detroit**. A pretty unique place for sure.
*We do not live in Detroit itself but 2 miles north of it, in Oakland county. This is Suburbia, where a lot of Detroiters moved to over the past five decades. We really like our town of Royal Oak (where Sam Raimi is from) as it has a nice and animated downtown with restaurants and shops, which for us, Europeans, was a big pull.
** I am not the only one thinking that way – the NY Times and Lonely Planet seem to agree as they both have recently put Detroit on the list of places to visit:
Credit Photo: Caroline Banquet, 2017