If there is a city that stands as a symbol of our troubled times, it is Detroit, MI. In the same way that the city of San Francisco defined the baby boomers, I fear Detroit might define my own. Defined not by a place where we gathered, but a place we fled.
My traveling companion, Brandon is an impatient driver. The sight of a line of glowing tail lights will have him careening for the nearest exit in search of some mythical road that never has traffic. Normally this is just a rather cute eccentricity of his, but in this place...
"It's better than sitting in traffic," he says with a grin.
"We can't know that." I reply looking at and old grocery store. The outside looks as if the previous owners last act was to use the store as defense against a zombie apocalypse. Every window is boarded up, it is completely surrounded by a razor wire fence, even the roof of this place is lined with razor wire.
We drive along a major surface road heading for downtown. After a few feet, you begin to realize that everything you ever heard about this town is true. Nearly every building is empty and covered with a layer of graffiti. More than one building appears to be burned out. It's a situation that implies that when a building catches fire in this city, they just put out the flames and leave the rest to rot. There are enough of these buildings to imply that this is standard operating procedure.
"The photographer was telling me that the city is making an effort to tear down all of the empty buildings in town." says Brandon.
I wonder out loud if there will be any city left after that. In quick tally over the course of a couple blocks I find two buildings that appear to have a business inside. Ones a liquor store, the other is some sort of art gallery. It is a man who apparently paints murals in spray paint elevating the local color, as it were, to an art form. This is not just a bad part of town either. A previous adventure a few days ago yielded similar results. Just block after block of overgrown, dilapidated, empty structures that can be more accurately be described as ruins. This is the way the city looks.
I can't help but wonder, as more and more people flee, if Detroit won't become the worlds largest ghost town one day. Nothing but empty buildings with a few remaining residents scrambling among the wreckage like something out of an post-apocalypse movie.
My thoughts are interrupted by yelling. We are stopped at a light and two people are crossing in front. One of them looks homeless and is the one screaming something. At first I think he might be yelling at the other man, but a few seconds later I realize he is just yelling. I couldn't tell what he was yelling, it sounded like the incoherent mumbles of any lunatic one would find in an urban area with the volume cranked to 11 and mad gestures to round out the image. The poor man who happened to be walking next to him at the time didn't seem afraid. He simply wore the pained expression of a man who was saying to himself, "Damnit! Not this again. I just want to go to work."
I walk inside the convention center where I am working this week. I stop by the gift shop killing time before I actually have to go to work. As expected the products have a distinct automotive theme. Model cars, books on the history of the Big Three, belts shaped like seat belts. I find myself thinking about Native American shops on route 66 selling handmade jewelry to tourists. All relics from a lost and romanticized past.
During a lunch break I head outside. It's a little after noon downtown on a Wednesday. Most city streets are packed at this hour with office workers stepping outside for a breath of fresh air and sunshine. Here, the sidewalks are deserted. I look for a while trying to find something, anything to eat. There are almost no resturaunts within walking distance. I settle on a little burger joint about a block away from the convention center. It's run by an older couple. The woman is running the register while the man works in the kitchen. There is one other person in the resturaunt besides me. As I place my order and pay the woman looks at my badge. "You working at convention center?" she asks in a heavy Eastern European accent. I nod and she says, "Please send us more customers."
After the job I suggest we head to a nearby brewery for good eats and some beer to celebrate a job well done.
It should be noted that Brandon doesn't drink, but he is a fan of good food which is a staple of the American microbrew. Detroit is built on a hub design so that the roads come out like the spokes of a wheel from this central point near the river. This microbrewery is located near the hub right across the street from the opera house. Here there is a little different feel. There are people walking the streets, outside there are a few restruants with tables and chairs on the sidewalk. It's like the city has retreated into itself. No life anywhere except for this small section right in the center.
Dave King with the punk rock group Flogging Molly wrote a couple anthems to his adopted home city. I feel like he would point to this area and state that there is still a fire burning in the heart of this city. Or he might just point and say that it's a good place to get a beer.