Downtown Detroit: A City that is Becoming a Park

September 6, 2021
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THE next place I visited was Detroit, in the state of Michigan. I had a friend there named Bill Chandler, the author of the guest history chapter with which this book begins, who had offered to show me around. Detroit was interesting. It is listed as a dangerous city to live in the US and has suffered massive depopulation since the 1950s. They call it the shrinking city. This expression is slightly misleading. It only refers to the City of Detroit, administratively and politically distinct from its outer suburbs, which are doing better.

In many American urban areas, the inner city is a separate local body from the suburbs. What often happens in these cases is that the older inner city falls into decay while the suburbs do nothing to help out. In the United States, ethnic prejudice and discrimination have played a large part factor in these trends, with the suburbs generally white and the inner city generally black. Black people were prevented from moving to the suburbs by various discriminatory means, and so the process of suburban development in the USA before and after World War II came to be dubbed ‘white flight’.

Although black people had been present in Detroit from the time of the city’s founding, the inner city became increasingly populated by a black workforce around the time of World War II. A major inner-city riot in 1967, caused by economic frustration and heavy-handed policing by a mostly white police force, has been blamed for the acceleration of the inner city’s decline, though others say it was an excuse by which neglectful authorities have let themselves off the hook.

Many other cities have been turned around after inner city riots, which have often drawn attention to neglected problems such as police brutality and housing discrimination. But not Detroit. Downtown Detroit just kept on deteriorating.

Since the 1950s, the City of Detroit has indeed been in a downward spiral. The city has more than halved in population from a peak of 1.85 million, and its population is falling still. This is mainly because major car manufacturers who once made the city so famous have shifted production elsewhere. This is a huge problem of course, a bit like a mining town that’s just had the mine close down. It helps to explain why Detroit’s problems of inner city decline and suburban flight, though similar to those faced by many other American cities, are at the same time worse and more difficult to turn around.

It was a city of urban decay, which I saw for myself. Bill showed me around some of these areas, streets and streets of empty homes with boarded- up windows. It was like a ghost town. Locals talked about dead bodies inside the houses and homeless people taking over the empty suburbs. In 2015 Detroit City filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. People had lost their jobs and their homes and they were leaving on a massive scale.

The black inner city was a thriving cultural area at first, so long as there were still plenty of jobs going. This was the era of the ‘Motown’ sound in the music industry, Motown being short for Motor Town: that is, Detroit. It was during this time that the council decided to build freeways, cutting through neighbourhoods and demolishing houses, churches, restaurants and more along the way. The freeways were paid for by the Federal Government; they wouldn’t have been built if Detroit City had had to pay for them. The residents of the homes to be demolished were given just 30 days to vacate.

The 1967 riot was not the first. In fact, Detroit has the distinction of having been occupied by federal troops three times in the course of so-called race riots, in 1863, 1943 and 1967.

In the 1800s and in the first half of the twentieth century, such riots were generally started by the whites. They are probably best thought of as attempted lynchings or pogroms, in which the white mob found that in the big city the blacks could organize a defensive counter-mob more easily than they might have done in, say, rural Alabama.

These early race riots were not purely a question of whites versus blacks, either. It was more a question of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (‘WASPs’), initially the majority in many American cities and imbued with a sense of superiority, versus every other kind of ethnic group and every other religion. So, the Catholic Irish were also quite often the targets along with Catholics in general, Eastern Europeans, and Asians.

Such was the pattern of the 1863 riot, a white riot against the blacks more than a black one. The 1943 riot was also largely initiated by the white population of Detroit. Many local whites were resentful of the fact that 400,000 migrants, mostly black, had turned up in the region since the outbreak of World War II looking for war work that was well-paid in comparison to picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta. In the 1943 riot no less than 34 people were killed, 25 of them black.

In 1900, Detroit had a modest population of around 200,000 people. The auto industry of the ‘big three’ General Motors, Chrysler and Ford set up there and by 1930 a further million people had flocked to the area for work. A rise of competition and petrol prices during the 1970’s led to the need for ‘the big three’ to become more competitive, which meant changes to the production line, employee cuts and redundancies and then eventually moving the factories elsewhere in the US.

As hard as it is to believe, the 1967 riot was even worse than the 1943 one, though this time it was more of a genuine black uprising. The 1967 riot was triggered by a police raid on an illegal drinking establishment patronized by blacks, who felt shut out of pubs and bars that informally served only the local whites. The ensuing battle result in the deaths of 43 people (33 black). The disorder of 1967 was seized upon by many suburban whites as evidence that the Detroit inner city was in hopeless decline and best abandoned to its fate.

As I’ve suggested, the downtown could have been revitalized after the 1967 riot. Like Washington DC and Milwaukee, Detroit had ‘good bones’. The city been developed on a plan in which grand avenues radiated out from an attractively planned city centre. On top of that, the inner city contained many stately buildings. And the underlying social issues could all have been addressed, from poor relations between the police and the community to the ongoing changes in the industrial system and the financial fragmentation of the greater metropolis.

Instead, the focus remained on building freeways that strangled the city centre and accelerated its decline, while serving car-dependent suburbs outside the Detroit City limits. The city limits included the Eight Mile Road made famous in Eminem’s 2002 movie Eight Mile. In the past, African Americans had been explicitly excluded from living in the outer suburbs. In the 1960s, the most explicitly racist policies of excluding black people from white-flight suburbs were dropped. But by this stage many inner-city blacks were becoming too poor to buy a suburban home, because the jobs were evaporating, too.

Thus, a beautiful and well-planned city was wrecked by a combination of inner-city freeways, de-industrialisation, and racism.

My train was an hour and a half late arriving in Detroit so Bill picked me up at about nine in the morning. We didn’t do too much for the rest of the day. We got a few things, and we talked about what we were going to do. We went out for dinner and then we visited another friend named Diane. It had been a day of sights and sights. We began with a fry-up, which was good — I love beans with breakfast. We headed south on Lakeshore Drive, and Bill showed me a Cold War bomb shelter. Then we went to the Heidelberg Center where some burnt buildings had been cleared away. There isn’t as much there as there used to be. Diane said that it was being dismantled.

We went to Belle Isle, a parkland island in the river that is connected to the US mainland via a low multi-arch bridge erected in 1923. Belle Isle is larger than New York’s Central Park and well worth a visit, like Detroit itself.

It was a beautiful day, clear and unseasonably warm. I liked the new condos going up at Rivertown, just east of downtown and close to Belle Isle. From here you can see the spectacular, Golden Gate-like Ambassador Bridge, with its long, high central span that allows ships to pass underneath.

The Ambassador Bridge links the USA to Canada and is the busiest single border crossing between the two nations. There are also road and rail tunnels under the Detroit River.

One problem with the Ambassador Bridge and the existing road tunnel is that both of them funnel long-distance international road traffic along busy but otherwise ordinary roads in downtown Windsor, on the Canadian side of the river. Windsor is a much smaller city than Detroit, with no downtown motorways, and can’t really handle this level of traffic coming in from outside. However, construction is about to start on a new bridge to be called the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which will bypass downtown Windsor and directly connect US Interstate highways in Michigan to a long-distance Canadian equivalent, Canada’s Highway 401.

A number of states had laid teachers off during the recession, and when that was factored in, it was making younger people unwilling to become teachers, while existing teachers were leaving the profession. Just as important as low pay was the fact that teachers aren’t accorded much respect anymore in America, in contrast to countries like Finland where they are highly respected. The teaching profession in America was slowly drifting toward a crisis.

We were waiting for the library to open the next day and there wasn’t really anywhere to wait so we went to this Greek restaurant which looked like a dive, but was really a hidden gem. They had wonderful Greek salads there, like just phenomenal. I met the Greek woman there who was boiling the potatoes, and she made me a feta cheese omelette which was fantastic. I loved it. I went out for the day and did my own thing, while Bill ran some errands around town. I met another one of his friends called Tom, and we watched movies.

It was sad to see how an area with so much culture had declined into ruins, it was really like the proverbial Fall of the Roman Empire, and a real challenge for America is how to build an enduring civilization that can weather economic ups and downs such as the changing fortunes of the auto industry. Getting away from the old ‘company town’ mentality to build a sustainable civilization that will still be there in a hundred years even as industries inevitably come and go, and one that can survive the vicissitudes of racism and community conflict as well, is the unsolved challenge in for much of America, and Detroit brings it home.

Back in the downtown, we visited the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument. We did the River Walk and visited the historic landing site of the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the one who gave Detroit its name, détroit being French for ‘strait’. We visited a monument to the Underground Railroad by which slaves had been helped to escape from the South, and Fort Poncho Historic Market. After that, we went back to the car and drove to the main post office.

I was shown the historic district of Corktown, the oldest remaining part of Detroit. Corktown was built in the Federal era of American architecture, known in Britain as the Regency period. This was a time of particularly dignified and restrained-looking architecture on both sides of the Atlantic, very plain when compared to later Victorian gingerbread styles.

Bill also showed me the impressive central railway station which entered service in 1914, but which is now derelict like so much else in Detroit; and then he brought me to my Hostel on Vermont and Spruce. We got a little tour of the hostel and it turned out to be very spacious, clean and inviting. It was only $30 a night for a dorm room.

After that, we went to the West Canfield Historic District, which is another nineteenth-century suburb, and to Wayne State University. I was museumed out, so we returned to Belle Isle to eat banana and pumpernickel sandwiches.

It was about 3 p.m. and we went on a burned-out-house tour, the exact name of which I forget. Between Jefferson and Eight Mile, there is much urban decay: the business of touring it to view is called city porn by some people. The stretch between I-94 and Seven Mile was especially bad.

After that we cruised Eight Mile to a Coney Island restaurant. Coney Island is a chain in Michigan that sells hot dogs with minced meat in gravy on top, plus various other garnishes. Americans call this kind of hot dog a coney, after the New York amusement park of Coney Island.

I had a couple of coneys and some chili fries — ‘mince and chips’ as I like to call them.

We went back and chilled for a while and then decided to see the movie Loving which is about an interracial couple who won the landmark case in the Supreme Court Loving v Virginia, in which the Virginia state laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage were deemed to be unconstitutional.

Under the sinister-sounding Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which sounds like something the Nazis would have dreamed up, a mixed couple named Richard and Mildred Loving, Richard being white and Mildred part black and part native American, had each been sentenced to a year. The prison sentence was suspended on condition that they agreed to be exiled from Virginia for 25 years.

Unbelievably, this happened as late as 1959, with the US Supreme Court striking down the Racial Integrity Act and all similar bans on ethnically mixed marriage only as recently as 1967. Such laws had still applied throughout the whole of the Old South at that time and had indeed been in force in the majority of American states in the early 1950s, that is to say, even well after the defeat of the Nazis.

The movie was really good. It was understated, very well written and well-acted. The actors who played the appropriately named Loving couple were especially good.

At ten the next morning Bill picked me up and we went to the public library so I could get some work done and he agreed to collect me again around lunch. I was feeling hungry by then, so we drove to get a snack, and then drove downtown and went to the Motown Museum. We were at the Detroit Institute of Arts a little after three. We saw the Diego Rivera murals and the famous Breughel wedding dance painting.

We had pasta for dinner that night, it was great to have a decent home cooked meal.

At 8:30 we were at Jerry and Mary’s, friends of Bill’s who he wanted me to meet. We talked about Detroit and the election. We were there a couple of hours and then I went back to the hostel.

Bill and Diane were both teachers. At one point while I was in Detroit, Diane mentioned how wages for teachers had declined in real terms since the 1990s, and the profession now lagged behind comparably skilled occupations even when benefits such as somewhat longer holidays were taken into account.

There is a lot of serious discussion among town planners and urban designers about how best to handle the depopulation of the inner city: whether communities should be consolidated into certain areas, while others are bulldozed and turned into parks, rather than letting the inner suburbs become full of vacant lots in a snaggle-toothed sort of a way. Detroit hasn’t seen the last of urban renewal, it would seem.

After Detroit, we decided to see some more of Michigan. It was cool the next day, a cold, overcast semi-drizzly day when we set off. We were headed north via Flint, Michigan, another declining industrial town made famous in an early Mike Moore documentary, to the Straits of Mackinaw, the Upper Peninsula and the Canadian border at Sault Ste Marie, and then along the Lake Superior coast for a way, before returning down the west coast of the Lower Peninsula and back to Detroit.

We hit the road at ten-thirty. Our first stop on the intended circumnavigation of Michigan was a suburban McDonalds: we didn’t get very far on the first leg of the expedition!

In the McDonalds, we talked to a lovely old man named Larry, who was hard of hearing. I wanted to talk about the water situation in the nearby Michigan city of Flint and Larry was more than happy to tell me about it. He had his hand on my shoulder when he talked, and he had some interesting things to say.


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