The Motor City Revs Up

The Motor City Revs Up

Eric Tomberlin
Eric Tomberlin
With a hip restaurant district, loft spaces in former auto parts factories, and three casinos set to open on the river, Detroit is inching — once again — toward an urban renaissance. Can this city with more abandoned buildings than new ones rise from the ashes?

It's happened in Cleveland, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas. New sports stadiums and loft conversions have revived declining downtowns. But can such strategies work in the poorest and saddest big city in America?A city that has lost nearly half its population, about one million people, since the 1950s?A city whose oldest neighborhoods are actually reverting to nature?

Detroit has a cruel history of revivals gone bust. These days, though, the city may finally be showing signs of waking up from its 40-year sleep. The half-abandoned downtown is starting to come to life again, with two sports stadiums, three gambling casinos, an evolving theater district and new corporate headquarters. In tall-windowed factories that once turned out parts for the auto industry, investors are building lofts for what they hope will be a new generation of urban pioneers.

Detroit is, in fact, well worth a visit these days, especially for a native son. If you ride around downtown on the elevated mini-train they call the People Mover (slogan: Detroit in Motion), you can witness the citys stunning dereliction and its budding resurrection all in one 15-minute loop. You see the light towers and 10-story-tall scoreboard of Comerica Park, which became the Detroit Tigers new home in April. You see a tableau of elemental destruction as decrepit warehouses make way for Ford Field, the football stadium scheduled to open in 2002. A minute later youre gliding past the deserted, dusty-faced skyscrapers of Grand Circus Park: the 35-story David Broderick Tower with its Jazz Age motifs, the David Whitney Building with its grand marble lobby, the Kales Building, designed by Albert Kahn, whose industrial architecture inspired the Bauhaus. Rounding a corner, you can look right into the third-floor guest rooms at the old Statler Hilton, now littered with fallen plaster and ductwork.

Detroit has big plans (if not all the financing yet) to turn these vacant landmarks into smart hotels and apartment buildings. In the meantime, though, they constitute something thats just as interesting—an unrivaled collection of early-20th-century architectural museum pieces from Detroits heyday as the worlds Motor City, before anyone ever heard of Toyota or Volkswagen. In his book American Ruins, Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara argues that downtown Detroit should be turned into an urban theme park. Vergara puts it this way: "As a tonic for our imaginations, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers should be left standing in ruins: an American Acropolis."

The idea doesnt amuse Detroits leaders, who prefer to think more positively. Still, the Disneyfied People Mover seems tailor-made for a theme park. One day, riders might be able to lean out and shoot photos of vines crawling picturesquely over crumbling walls. In fact, as we approach the Fort Cass Street station, I can see a maverick forest sprouting 10 feet tall from the roof of the onetime Hotel Fort Shelby.

The train moves along the Detroit River, a long-neglected asset that is being transformed into a recreation area. We come to the shimmering, 73-story tower of the Renaissance Center, a comically misconceived white elephant built in 1977 as the centerpiece of an earlier comeback attempt. Now General Motors has turned the Renaissance Centers four smaller buildings into its headquarters. The next stop is Bricktown, a much-heralded entertainment zone that never materialized; then Greektown, which has the citys liveliest block of cafés; then Harmonie Park, an up-and-coming district where half a dozen restaurants have sprung up around the opulent four-year-old opera house.

Here is a city with a vibrant past and a potentially dynamic future. At the moment, though, the People Mover goes around and around with hardly anybody on it. "WE DONT HAVE A DOWNTOWN," MAYOR DENNIS ARCHER tells me flat-out. "So were building a new one."

He ticks off the indicators of progress. Compuware Corp. is moving its headquarters, with 3,600 employees, from the suburbs to Campus Martius, the site of the citys original town square, on Woodward Avenue. Bars and bistros are popping up around the new stadiums and theaters. Major department stores are being courted to replace the signature J. L. Hudsons, empty since 1983 and demolished in 1998. Archer repeats the boast Ive heard from others, that Detroit has more theater seats than any U.S. city except New York (although no one makes the claim that theres anyone sitting in those seats).

Ray Parker, a veteran real estate broker, says that downtown wont take off until there are significant numbers of people living here. "Id rather have ten thousand residents than ten thousand employees. Residential is the key to all of it. People who come to the ballparks and casinos arent going to buy a TV or a refrigerator while theyre down here. You wont get the retailers until you get a buying population." Yet he sees the city government focusing on mega-projects while the promised housing on Grand Circus Park remains just that—a promise.

City officials admit that it will be two or three years before retailers venture downtown. But they say theyre working on tax incentives and cheaper financing for housing initiatives throughout the city. The basic problem is, Detroit has so far to go.

FROM THE MAYORS OFFICE NEAR THE RIVERFRONT I stroll up Woodward Avenue, which I knew in the 1950s as the dazzling, pell-mell commercial heart of Americas fourth-largest city. Now whole downtown blocks are boarded up, save for the random wig shop or Coney Island—style counter. Walking past shuttered buildings I can feel cold air streaming out as if from tombs. On the lonely sidewalks panhandlers want to shake my hand, get to know me. The entrance to the once-elegant Book Cadillac Hotel is covered with posters for a Jackie Chan movie and unsettling graffiti: WITH OPEN EYES, I WENT INTO DEATH. ALL DAY KILLING BITCHES AND HOEZ.

Its a complicated landscape. Empty skyscrapers—in the soaring, richly detailed, wedding-cake styles of the Early Automobile Age—cry victory. On the street, the feeling is downbeat, as if a battle had been fought and lost.

Through an opening in a brick wall can be seen the hulk of the old Madison Theater. An enormous crane is ripping down the balcony. A sign outside announces, THE CURTAIN HAS FALLEN, BUT THE SHOW IS ABOUT TO BEGIN!

"Detroit right now is like those old billboards that say watch this space," says my friend George Cantor, a columnist for the Detroit News who has witnessed the citys decline and its many attempts at revival. "If youve seen enough false dawns you begin to get suspicious of whats being said," he tells me. And of whats not being said: about the reluctance of banks to finance downtown projects, about the citys sky-high welfare and illegitimacy rates, about the shoddy transit and school systems, about the continuing mistrust between the black majority and the white minority, between city and suburbs.

"Still," he concedes, " I see some movement now. When everything is in place, itll be kind of exciting."

We get in the car, as good Detroiters do, and George drives me around to a few neighborhoods that are showing signs of renewal. Southwest of downtown, in Mexicantown, the local Catholic church is helping Hispanics restore their houses and build new ones on empty lots. In the historic Irish settlement of Corktown, a few blocks of Victorian row houses have been spruced up with care. Other areas have kept hints of their Polish, Ukrainian, and Hungarian roots. Along West Warren, a booming Arab community has opened bakeries, markets, and import shops, and the sidewalks are crowded again.

In the Brush Park area just beyond the new stadiums, 72 town houses are being built, priced at $150,000 and up. But again you see those breathtaking juxtapositions, because right around the corner are Detroits most photogenic residential ruins—the Greek Revival and Italianate castles built by 19th-century plutocrats, now disappearing beneath the undergrowth like so many Mayan temples.

The major avenues are wastelands and have been for 20 (or is it 30?) years. "White flight" began long before the 1967 race riots. By now most of the stores, small factories, and movie palaces along Grand River Avenue, the Great White Way of my childhood, are sealed up with plywood, bricks, cement blocks, and steel gates. Their signs have peeled away or been reduced to puzzles (f rt pl mbi g s ppl s). Some buildings are gone altogether, replaced by empty fields.

The city has demolished 45,000 abandoned houses in the last 10 years rather than surrender them to drug dealers and arsonists. The policy was, in part, a response to the Devils Night mayhem that during the eighties turned the city into a war zone. In 1984, there were 300 separate fires on a single Halloween eve. Officially, the empty lots are regarded as available building sites. Yet the overall effect is shocking: entire blocks waving with waist-high grasses. The remaining buildings end up looking like farmhouses. Sometimes crews come by to cut the grass; otherwise this inner-city countryside sits eerily untouched. No one seems to use it for picnics or games, or even to dump trash. Slowly animal species are returning: pheasants and grouse, possums, rabbits and raccoons. Its amazing to see a once-vibrant city slide back toward the primeval.

WHILE DETROIT STRUGGLES TO BUILD A FUTURE, YOUNG ADVENTURERS like architect Lucas McGrail have made a sport of sneaking into its ruins. His clan, the Urban Exploration League, is part of a loose network of appreciative trespassers who have their own online magazine, Infiltration. One afternoon, McGrail and I park behind the mammoth carcass of Detroits Michigan Central Railroad Station and look around to see if the coast is clear. We slip up some steps hidden by underbrush and then were inside, where its chilly and dank. Our flashlights guiding the way, we slog through broken glass and oily puddles and step over charred timbers, water dripping on our hard hats all the while. Other people come here to cavort, too, McGrail says: skinheads, anarchists, punk rockers, paintballers, graffiti artists, Goths, homeless men, models on photo shoots.

We emerge into the cavernous public lobbies, whose barrel-vaulted ceilings and Roman columns were designed by the men who, in the same year, 1913, built Grand Central Station. Scattered across the floor now are broken chairs, a twisted bicycle frame, ornamental debris. Sunlight streams in through a thousand shot-out windows. We wander into the old waiting room, past the ripped-out ticket windows and the arrivals-and-departures lounge. A gust of wind sends a light fixture swinging menacingly overhead. Fondly McGrail fingers a wall tile. "Look," he says, "you can see how they used hay in the plaster back then." Its for details like those that he comes here.

Later that day George Cantor and I go to the ball game. Comerica Park puts on a brilliant show, even if the Tigers cant live up to it. The stadium is built so that fans can look over the right-field stands to see the citys shapely skyline framed like a postcard, glimmering in the setting sun. As night falls, the occupied skyscrapers twinkle with light and urban vitality, while the abandoned ones fade obediently into the darkness as if theyd never existed.

The perfect illusion. The new Detroit.

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