Tale of two cities

Trip Start Apr 02, 2007
1
5
30
Trip End Jul 02, 2007


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Flag of United States  , Michigan
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This is what Detroit looks like.

Decommissioned traffic lights lean and hang at tipsy angles from the lines above the quiet intersections. this is Motor City, but many of the cars look dishevelled, their fenders hanging loose or missing, rust patterns blooming over the wheel covers.

entire residential blocks have been reduced to green green grass, with one lonely, left-behind house remaining. idle people recline on the porches. some houses have been blackened and burnt, their insides show through the scorched holes. the houses are built in disappearing geometries around warehouses and factories whose widows have been boarded up or smashed or boarded up and then smashed. the signs and insignia of abandoned businesses make for curious reading as they fade from shopfronts and billboards.

there is more rubbish on the street here than in the bronx. with the nobler signs of human civilisation crumbling and disappearing, the accruing trash might soon be the only reminder of the city that was.

it is not a ghost town; the downtown streets have cars and people and open businesses. the greektown casino glitters and sparkles. homeless men with cardboard signs maintain lonely vigils at gas stations and street corners. the enormous General Motors compounds soars upwards in sheens of bluish and greenish metal. it could be seen as a slap in the face, or as the last refuge of the damned.

A brief and patchy history of the city.

Part of the midwestern industrial boom and heartland of the american auto-industry, Detroit had no need of secondary industry. it was all cars and the steel they are cut from. endless factory jobs right across Michigan attracted unskilled and poorly paid labourers, which, when the eventual downturn in the auto industry began (not that you ca tell cruising the streets today), were left idle and desperate and angry. race riots, white flight, and gang violence.

there are still bad neighbourhoods and outbreaks of violence, i'm told, but the anger has more or less passed in Detroit now, and been replaced with a quiet forlorness. i'm used to taking half-built buildings as a sign of progress and development, a half-full approach. in detroit the buildings are half empty and crumbling - aided and unaided - fast. it is this phenomenon that brought me here; where else can you see a city's consumption of itself, a ready-made hollywood apocalypse cityscape?

One of the most impressive ruins in Detroit is the old train station, incorporating an 18-storey office block. it is fenced around with the ubiquitous razor-wire, but there are ways around that. rummaging among the Detroit ruins is a popular pasttime, and there are 'underground' websites that will tell you exactly where to go and what to do. So, a short scramble under a bridge, through a rusted roller door, and we (no way i'm going in alone) are breathing frosty breaths in the train station basement.

we are by no means the first people to come here. the entire place is festooned with graffiti, and after a while narratives begin to emerge, with certain characters - like 'catfish' -  scrawled right throughout the building. the marbling has all been stripped form the walls, and lies about, but the grandeur of the architecture is still visible in the high lofted ceilings and enormous pillars of the station foyers. everything has been looted or smashed - even the toilets - but remnants remain of the building's old purpose. rows of rusty shelves. torn and trampled carpeting. new detritus has been imported. odd shoes and gloves lie about the building. some have pairs on other floors. the single, abandoned shoe is, i think, wonderful image of the desolation here.

eighteen floors, all dilapidated in their own personal ways, the decay always finding new configurations and patterns. the yawning elevator shafts become more frightening for every flight of stairs we climb. and then, the roof. it is slightly surprising to find the sun is shining brilliantly, and we have one of the best views possible of the city. the shiny edifices of remaining business downtown. in another direction the ambassador bridge, the river, and the near-shore of Canada. it is incongruously, strikingly picturesque.

another incongruity.

an hour's drive from Detroit is Ann Arbor, a walkable little town dominated by the University of Michigan campus. the unavailability of couches in Detroit had brought me here, where proffered accommodation abounded. Cyan was my ann arbor host and tomb raider guide to detroit. strange patterns begin to emerge; Cyan was just finalising her creative writing thesis. so once again i was staying with poets and writers.

and swing dancers. by the time i left i had been taught the lindy hop, east coast something, and big apple impossibility. i had been taught them all and forgotten them all. on my first night there was also a recital of John Cage piano pieces, at midnight and by candlelight. fantastic, soporific music. Ann Arbor is a place of art and learning, a fun town where doors are not locked and laptops are left unattended in the myriad coffee houses. it set my travel paranoia on edge. the decay of detroit just down the road, but the university acting, i suppose, as a bastion against the encroaching desolation and despair.

that familiar morbid curiosity drew me to Michigan and Detroit and inadvertently to Ann Arbor. AA though was an insight into another USofA, one that it would be an injustice of me to neglect for the sake of sad stories about midwestern blight. the brick-by-brick disappearance of a city may be a curious phenomenon, but so is a well-funded poetry program, or the proliferation of self-made chapbooks about the campus, or an awkward aussie swing dancing among far more competent yankees. Michigan contains the best and worst of the states; the despair, anger and fear of Detroit; the smiles and ideals of Ann Arbor. intelligent, active, discerning people. friendly people eager to engage with the world, and bring more smiles, intelligence and art into it.

the sun came out in Ann Arbor, squirrels were rasping and birds chuckling in the trees. flowers poked through the warming earth. by the side of the immense highways ducks and geese cruised their ponds. pickups and SUVs and trucks and greyhound buses ground by. the skeletal winter trees began to give way to rich green pines. a man at the bus station offered me his email address and phone number just in case i needed assistance on my travels.  morbid curiosity is not the only attraction here.
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