I wrote this post on July 31, 2013, soon after the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. I hadn’t shared it, but I figured now was as good a time as any to do so.
Four years ago, I visited Detroit for one of my cousin’s weddings. It was Labor Day Weekend, so I left college and headed with Christine and my family into the city, to Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. It was a gleaming church, a sparkling, gorgeous beacon of faith and opulence in what was once one of America’s great cities.
After the wedding, we drove a little around the neighborhood surrounding the church. The homes were rich-suburb-large in size, with expansive front lawns. In the past, my mom told us, this was the wealthy neighborhood of the city. But not anymore — the lawns were weed- and trash-filled, the homes had broken windows, and several looked abandoned. As we pulled away from that area and headed toward the suburbs for the reception, we passed a three-story, brown brick building that was burning. This building looked to be in acceptable shape, especially for Detroit, except for the flames emerging from the windows and top of the building, and the clouds of smoke that floated just above it. The building, perhaps empty to begin with, perhaps simply breaking down, was being ravaged by fire, just down the street from the immaculate cathedral. Christine and I marveled at this, but eventually it made sense. This is Detroit.
This is Detroit: a few shiny things, but mostly decline. It’s the city both sides of my family are from, though both my parents grew up in its suburbs. My dad has two degrees from the University of Detroit, and he spent summers in high school and college working at auto-related plants. Three of my uncles graduated from Wayne State University (another college within the city limits), and one of them was a Chrysler executive for a number of years. My grandpa was born in Canada but has lived for 88 years in and around what he still calls “DE-troit,” with the emphasis on the first syllable.
So Detroit is where we’re from, but I’ve never known it as anything but a city in decline. The bankruptcy filing this week was no surprise to me, because to me, Detroit has never not been in trouble. It has always been a city with a declining population, a high murder rate, and other problems. I’ve long thought of Detroit as a donut, with all the activity in the suburbs. I’m not surprised.
My older sister is a graduate of the University of Michigan, which is located in Ann Arbor (that detail is important). One day when she was 19 or 20, she was home on a break, and talking to my dad about when she would be headed back to campus. My dad kept using the phrase, “Well, when you go to Detroit…” or asking “When are you going to Detroit?” Ann Arbor is about an hour outside of Detroit, but he kept referring to them as one and the same. My sister kept correcting him to no avail. Eventually, when he repeated his error, she got a bit frustrated.
She replied, in a fit, with “DAD. I’m not going to Detroit, EVER.”
My sister has been to Detroit since she said that, but not frequently. Unless you’re hopping into town for a Tigers game, why go? I went for that wedding, and once on a day trip with my grandpa. (We visited the shiny GM headquarters called the Renaissance Center). And that’s it. I’ve never seen the University of Detroit campus, a place where my dad and several uncles attended college, and that has rooms and other odds and ends named after one of my uncles. I’ve been to casinos new and old, but not in Detroit. There was no reason to go to Detroit, ever. And there’s no reason I’ll go to Detroit, ever.
It didn’t strike me when I was younger, since I was so used to the Denny’s and the Red Roof Inn and the particular gas station off the exit of I-94 on the way to my Grandpa’s house. I was very used to the wide, grassy medians and the curvy roads on the way to my dad’s childhood home. When I grew up and started driving, I realized how big the roads were in metro Detroit. Five lanes in one direction here, six lanes in another direction there. Land that would qualify as a park in most cities sitting between the eastbound and westbound lanes, just because the land is there and they could build it.
Detroit and its suburbs were built for cars, burly automobiles that came off assembly lines manned by mustachioed guys with beer guts and three cute kids at home. The ambition is staggering. The parking lots could fit college football stadiums, and there are skyscrapers along those huge roads in the suburbs. Fifty years ago, powerful men sat in a room and planned for 10 or 20 million people to live here, consume here, work here and drive here, filling those roads with Americans blessed with scads of disposable income and readiness to create, earn, spend, rinse and repeat.
Every mile there’s a road, a wide, gut-busting road with a mile designation. Thanks to Eminem, America knows about 8 Mile. But every mile, there is a road that big, that epic, that important. That’s Detroit.
Everywhere else I’ve lived — from Lake Tahoe to Florida to Indianapolis — the biggest roads are the interstates, and nothing else compares. The ambition of Dwight Eisenhower overshadows anything that a local planner could have imagined. But not in Detroit — not in Michigan. In Michigan, they dreamed of millions of American dreamers working jobs and making a great community.
The ambition is staggering, and the failure to meet that potential is just as stunning. There are no jobs in Michigan anymore, and there are fewer auto jobs. The fall is shocking, but it’s a major reason that Detroit has failed.
Another big reason takes me back to Mary Beth’s wedding. We drove from the church, past its decrepit mansions, past the burning building that symbolized the city. We kept going, past burnt out buildings, boarded up businesses and people panhandling along the grassy medians and the ten-lane roads. We got into the forested suburbs, where the houses got bigger, and made our way to a golf course.
The reception was at the crisp, white Oakland Golf Club, a ritzy country club that’s hosted the U.S. Open. We left the city, where the group spent perhaps $300 to reserve the church, and spent our time and money in the suburbs, where an all-black band serenaded an all-white-and-Asian-American crowd. We felt slightly awkward when they played “Sweet Home Alabama,” but they were singing it, so we danced.
We left the city, to live, to spend, to dance, to party, to work. We left with 750,000 others in the last half-century. It was inevitable and all our fault. And many of us are never going to Detroit, ever.