What would you do if you were stuck at Detroit airport with a five hour flight delay?
With a biblical storm licking across the country the planes were grounded and we weren’t going anywhere quickly so we decided to postpone the joy of airport security lines and body scanners. We grabbed a rented car and zoomed out of the parking lot to catch a glimpse of Motor City.
There was the Detroit that I had read about – the project of city planners and artists and the setting for the award-winning book Middlesex. I had heard a lot about the place. I thought I was well prepared to see the city.
I had read about the mass exodus from the city but I had also heard stories of hope, of vacant lots turned into urban farm land, of the burgeoning food scene, of the money poured into downtown.
And all of that was true but it missed the utter emptiness of Detroit, the ghostly lack of people. Coasting down the city’s potted streets, the history of the place was visceral. The city threw a party, it erected some stunning architecture and soaring skyscrapers. The population swelled and then it burst. I wasn’t prepared for the eeriness of the shell it left behind.
It is a haunting place to be and yet it is also clear that the city is fighting. It has a life and an energy that peaks up between the cracks. Eminem’s super bowl video has a lot of truth behind it and there are many people who still believe that Detroit has a future.
As we drove through Midtown we saw new galleries and crepe shops dotting the streets between boarded up shops and we swept past the gleaming, imposing façade of the art institute and the public library.
We didn’t have long, our flight was set to take off in three hours so we swung back through the ghost streets of downtown and back towards the airport through Corktown. In the towering shadow of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, Slows Bar BQ looked intriguing with its salvaged wood exterior and line of customers snaking out the door. Inside the pulsing restaurant the city’s lifeline seems stronger than ever. Hipsters squeezed in next to old-timers to scoff down the tender pulled pork and beef brisket.
Driving back to the airport all I could see was the colour of Detroit – the painted murals on the side of buildings, a concert happening by the side of the road and green grass growing between the houses. From an urban planning perspective it is fascinating. How do you resurrect a crumbling city like Detroit? It is a place where people are willing to try anything to make that happen.
But that is all still just potential. In the very brief time I spent there it was a difficult place to be. A sad place with pockets of hope.