Few cities summon someone who studies cities quite like Detroit. It is emblematic of both the triumph of American industry and the horror story of its demise. Its northern border, Eight Mile Road, is the starkest divide one can find between modern suburban reality and a collapsed America that came before. This is where unions and Henry Ford’s wages created paths to the middle class and people of all races could find jobs; this is where the collapse of manufacturing left large swaths of a city in literal ruins, and where a series of events created one of the most segregated metros in America. Detroit gave us Motown and the most memorable Super Bowl commercial of all time, and it gave us tales of race riots and emergence from the ashes. Most anyone can use it to justify a particular version of American history, the good and the ill.
I’m in Detroit for a cousin’s wedding, and stay at a hotel downtown and near the venue, just next to the respective homes of the Tigers and Lions, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Downtown Detroit is alive, with GM’s Renaissance Center and some stunning gothic architecture looming over the city. As I watch from the window after checking in, a light rail and a pedal pub both roll by; immediately, any rumors of Detroit’s demise seem exaggerated. The partying outside our hotel late into the night does little to dispel this notion, as do my own ventures out to bars and a brewery and a distillery with my extended family. Even in this supposed wreck of a city, one can have a festive weekend and have no idea of the forces that have buffeted it over the past half century.
Those forces began with redlining and riots in the middle of the century, but culminated around the financial crisis a decade ago: two-thirds of the population gone, two humiliating automaker bailouts, a remarkably felonious mayor, and a municipal bankruptcy that had the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) seriously considering selling off some of its works to survive. Saner heads prevailed in that crisis and the priceless collection is intact, so a visit is in order. Its crown jewel is the Diego Rivera industry murals, which line four sides of a court in the center of the museum. I’ve seen my share of Rivera murals in my Mexican travels, but this one rivals them all in its cohesion across all four walls. As usual, Rivera captures a slice of everything here, with the complete cast of characters in 1930s Detroit united in fresco form. We see the drudgery and misery of factory work, the wealth it generates, the awesome power of human creation and industry, and hints of a dream that all this scientific progress could lead to a just and prosperous society. History has not proven kind to these dreams, at least not without significant collateral damage. The evidence is just outside the DIA’s doors.
Detroiters, understandably, aren’t too fond of tourists going in search of “ruin porn,” but as someone who’s become numbed to the pleasures of mere decline porn, my appetite for such smut is too large to resist. I’ve picked out a few of Detroit’s more iconic ruins to visit, including Michigan Central Station and an old Packard manufacturing plant. These are a few scattered relics, though; even thriving cities have a few such eyesores or white elephants. What makes Detroit shocking are its vast tracts beyond downtown that are now in ruin, an American Rome in its monuments to greatness lost, or perhaps a Palenque bursting out of the jungle. In some places the urban forest has swallowed up the decay; in others, just vacant grassy fields remain. Here and there some homes straggle on, their roofs in tatters and their windows in boards but still home to someone. Block by block, one never knows what one will find: total wreckage, declining but inhabitable structures, the occasional incongruous and immaculate home or business. Broad avenues, built to accommodate Detroit’s great export, sit in desolation, only the occasional car crawling up and down. Even around an active GM facility in Hamtramck, things seem more dead than alive.
Love springs eternal amid all this porn, however: as we visit Michigan Central, a couple is in the midst of its wedding photos out front, finding beauty plus a venue where they can get away with downing a couple of Pacificos around noon. Carefully tended roses sit behind the barbed wire, an American flag makes an attempt at a resolute stand, and the current owner has rehabbed all the windows. Someday, someone will find a use for this thing. The parking lot outside the Packard plant is full, and we can see a group of people in white construction helmets congregating in one part of the wreck; signage informs us that artists have grand plans for its rehabilitation. Occasional gardens and greenhouses dot the vacant lots, turning emptiness to good use. New roots in literal and figurative forms.
My traveling party and I decided to make a road trip out of our trek to Detroit, and took the slightly longer but infinitely prettier route from Duluth across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then across the Mackinac Bridge and straight south to the Motor City. The Great Lakes in autumn make for a lovely drive, but the UP, too, has seen its share of ups and downs. Some of its towns, such as Marquette and Munising and St. Ignace, have quaint lakeside downtowns bustling with tourists. Some, like Ishpeming and Negaunee, hang on to their old extractive industries. Others, old mining or logging towns whose anchors have long since moved on, look like they could be blocks somewhere in Detroit. When this happens in a metropolitan area, it’s a powerful story of civilizational decline; out here, it’s a much quieter decay, a tale of towns forgotten by time.
On the return leg, we make camp at the mouth of the Two Hearted River, a fast-moving trout stream that pours into Lake Superior just west of Whitefish Bay. It’s the namesake for the Bell’s India Pale Ale, so of course I have some of that along, and it also gave its name to a short story in Ernest Hemingway’s first published collection. I consume that tale in short order as well, following Nick Adams as he seeks solitude with his fishing line after the First World War. Hemingway’s prose has always been hit-or-miss for me, but when it comes to fishing, he is a master at his craft, and the simple elegance captures Nick’s singular mind out in the wilderness, cleared of any concern beyond his little camp along the Big Two Hearted.
Away from the lakes, the leaves approach fall peak and usher in perhaps my favorite season. Autumn is a fitting time for a journey through contradictory places. It carries an inherent dualism; something two-hearted, perhaps, as it clings to summer beauty and reminds us that none of it will last. Fitting, I suppose, for someone who at once craves the center of an endless party in a cultured city and escapes to solitude amid natural beauty. The end result was something akin to sensory overload, as I ruminated on old wounds that don’t always heal and a churning world that forces a new sense of urgency. But if I withdrew to make sense of all of that, it is now time to head back out, a cycle renewed yet again.