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The Motor City Revs Up

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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