Detroit is quite the conundrum of a place. Sure we all hear about the corruption, the crime, and the blight. And there are the stories of the rebirth - the Quicken guy coming into the city bringing his company and investing millions as seed money to help spark a rebirth in the city. But we still see pictures of burned out houses, walls of graffiti, and tales of city leaders sentenced to long stents in prison for corruption in office.
When I grew up, Detroit was Motown, the vinyl records with the purple labels that always had (and still have) those incredible songs. It was Motor City, home of Ford and GM. It was "up the road" - the term the black people used when referring to where they (are their relatives) were going or had gone to find better employment, when little or none could be found in the south. But now, Detroit is a word associated with decay and crime.
So when our Detroit friends we were visiting this past week, planned a day in the city I had no idea what to expect. Was it safe? Wasn't it dirty? One thing was for sure - it should be something photogenic. They arranged a private walking tour of the downtown. Well, as I often say - when in Rome . . . or this case Detroit.
A little history here of Detroit, if you are unfamiliar, the riots in 1967 brought about the downfall of the city. According to one source in addition to 43 deaths, 2,509 stores were looted or burned, 388 families rendered homeless or displaced and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished. Dollar losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 million to $80 million. Quickly over the next years there was a mass exodus of business and people from the city to the suburbs. Crime was rampant, the streets were seen as unsafe, the cityscape was reminiscent of a war zone. What was left was of the inner city were the carcasses of burned out, abandoned, and decrepit buildings with little hope of life.
The area surrounding the inner city out to the "8 Mile" road of Eminem fame was almost as bad with neighborhoods full of block after block of boarded up, burned, or abandoned houses. Most of those not so were occupied by families trying to hold on to what they had worked so hard to earn. This was once their American dream. Now they lived in a nightmare of blight and crime. Meanwhile the outer boundaries - Troy, Dearborn, Rochester Hills, East Pointe, and Oak Park, to name a few, flourished with "Pure Michigan".
But, to our surprise we found the core of the inner city to be a once barren area awakening after a cold harsh winter. Amongst the blight, burned out buildings and graffiti there is renewal and growth like the first crocuses rising through the otherwise brown earth waiting for the rest of the spring to catch up.
Many of the lovely historic "sky scrapers" of the 1920's and 30's" have been restored and their artistic facades and grand lobbies dwarf any new construction in beauty and design. Among these are shiny tall new buildings constructed by those who have faith and believe "If you build them, they will come." The very center of the city is a small park, Campus Martius, with its lovely new fountain and its very impressive monument to their Civil War veterans and dead (albeit honoring the "other" side).
The 26 story Guardian Building (1929), with its colorful Art Deco design, the 47 story Penobscot Building (1928) also Art Deco, and the Neo-Classical 23 story Ford Building (1909) (not related to the Henry Ford family) show the boom of the early 20th century and the desire to build higher. There are also the David Whitney Building (1915) and the Dime Building (1912). These are all testaments to the city's early wealth in such areas as banking, insurance, timber, and manufacturing.
So with the graft finally rid from city hall, if the life from the center of the city continues to thrive and grow, Detroit may rise as a Phoenix. It is most impressive. I have often gone to places where city leaders have touted "This is our plan, we are going to be better." Detroit can say "Look at us, we are building and they are coming. Yes, we have a long way to go, but it is early in the spring." And that should be music to everyone's ears!
As Rod Stewart sings:
There's a soul in the city
watching over us tonight
There's a soul in the city
saying everything's gonna be all right
The elevators in the Guardian Building:
The entrance to the Buhle Building (1925) Neo-Gothic:
and the most impressive Italian Renaissance style 47 story Book Tower (1916) that has fallen into disrepair and hopefully will be brought back to its former glory: