Progressives have rightfully mourned the recent fate of New Orleans--a poor, predominately black city with a spectacular history that has been failed by our country over and over again.
I just returned from work and play in a city we hear less about, but it shares a lot in common with New Orleans--Detroit. AKA Motown, The 313, Rock City, The D. Detroit City, as the song goes, ain't nothin' to f with.
Most people react to Detroit the same way when they see it for the first time--something along the lines of "holy sh*t." It's frequently compared to a Third World country, with enormous vacant auto plants and many, many desperate people. It's a very dramatic landscape.
The Big 3 took what they needed from Detroit, and what they left behind is...how you say...challenging. There is tremendous poverty, hopelessness, crime, and violence.
But there is so much to love in Detroit. No, really.
I'm not a big Techno expert or anything, but the documentary above captures what I have grown to love about that place--it's rough, it's deprived and sometimes depraved, but out of much blight has risen one of the coolest creative scenes I've ever seen.
Seriously. If you're in the midwest, consider going to Detroit to see the sights this summer. There is remarkable stuff going on in Detroit, wonderful people...and they could definitely use the money. So come, won't you? I'll meet you just after the "continue reading" button.
Put down the pepper spray, we'll be fine. Probly.
Detroit is a city with a very palpable sense of history, informing the day-to-day lives its residents.
This is partially because Detroit played such a huge role in the development of this country. And it’s partially a sense of “OH SH*T, THIS CAN’T BE IT.” History, and the future, feel very much alive in Detroit because it’s got to get better than this.
Detroit’s been screwed over and over again by corporate masters that had no sense of responsibility to the community. It’s been screwed by corrupt politicians and unspeakably bad urban planning. And racism. And Reagan-era policies…oh, you know how this story goes. On to the tour.
If you'd like to spend time in a magnificent, historical joint that is as much metaphor as structure, a first stop in Detroit should be Michigan Central Station.
We're not allowed to go inside, that would be trespassing. But, this is Detroit. So once we're inside, we discover a forgotten treasure left to rust. It's a reminder that we were once a country that built grand public institutions for the common good--in this case providing transportation services--and we all benefitted. Now, as with so many of our country's public institutions, it's a big beautiful mess. Like much of Detroit, it's a glimpse into our country's collective potential future.
So what are the new institutions, created for the public? Well, for contemporary transportation services, head downtown where you encounter one of the greatest practical jokes ever created in the name of the public—The People Mover!
There are only two things wrong with the title "People Mover." One, there are never any "people" on it. This is because, while it "moves," it doesn't "f*cking go anywhere that anyone wants to go." It is a virtually worthless monorail that goes between deserted buildings downtown. That's it.
Luckily, we have footage of the meeting that created this disaster. Watch and judge. Accountability, thy name is Detroit.
While the breakdown of public services has crippled this city in a lot of ways, it has created pockets of community and creativity that are wonders to behold.
The Heidelberg Project is in the heart of a bleak area that is being transformed into a massive public art project. It’s community transformation as artwork, an artist’s attempt to his environment on a truly enormous scale. It’s like driving through the inside of his beautiful, weird mind.
Plus, high school kids on mushrooms hang out there. And high school kids on mushrooms are hilarious.
Speaking of public art, the Packard plant is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s like a many-acres-across sculpture about the apocalypse, oxidation, and disintegrating city tax revenues. And it’s recently been made all the grander by that badass Banksy, as this cool Kos diary explains. The free self-tour is available 24/7--but I recommend daytime.
To many, summertime in Detroit means Belle Isle. Belle Isle is beautiful, and crazy in that Detroit way. I have fond memories of a sunset picnic after a gig, having a lovely time, eating, drinking...and leaving to the sound of gunfire. (Sundown is a great time to end your day at Belle Isle). But go, bring the kids, it’s nice in the daytime.
And music! Detroit didn’t invent modern music, it invented modern music that doesn’t suck.
There are Motown tours aplenty and they’re worth seeing, but you shouldn’t miss the Grande Ballroom, where John Coltrane, MC5, Iggy and The Stooges, and many others played regularly. Or The Music Institute, where they invented techno. And Eminem tours are available if you’re so inclined—or just ask a local, pretty much everyone has (or, y’know, claims to have) a story about him.
Seeing Detroit for a music fan is like seeing Rome if you’re a imperialism fan. It’s the ruins of where they perfected the form.
And music is happening here and now. They have great bands playing nearly every night at Magic Stick, Fillmore, and Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Catch an early act, then head to Hamtramck to finish the night.
Hamtramck is a weird beast—it’s a small city nestled right in the heart of Detroit. Filled to the brim with immigrants of every kind, it’s home to Planet Ant, producing terrific original plays, improv, and film nightly. Once home to the early gigs of no-account flash in the pans music acts like the White Stripes, as a theater it’s groomed a remarkable number of TV and film actors in its modest space. Check out a show.
Finish up in a truly local bar—Seven Brothers, a great Bukowski-esque location that attracts musicians, actors, artists, locals, and has more languages spoken therein than the United Nations. Ask George, the Macedonian owner, for a shot of something from his homeland. You'll have more Macedonian hard liquor options at your disposal than any bar you've ever been to. I promise.
And settle back, you will wind up in a conversation. Enjoy being surrounded by folks who are literally from everywhere there are people.
Enjoy the realest* place you’ve ever been, with the realest folks you’ve ever met.
And enjoy the hospitality of a city that is really, really, reeeeeeally glad to have you there. Have a big ol cup of Detroit, won’t you?
*If this sentence upsets you because you don't think "realest" is a word, don't go to Detroit.
(Of course, this is one man’s idea of a cool day in Detroit. Please feel free to add your own attractions in the comments).