The Motor City is something to see. Not because it’s this spruced up, tourist mecca by any means, but because it’s a fascinating and point blank exhibit of how hard a city can fall in a few decades. We could see the lifeblood dripping back into a couple veins, but couldn’t shake the overwhelming sense that we were touring a skeleton, the bare bones of what once was. There are blocks and blocks and blocks of derelict everything. Boarded up apartment buildings with bullet holed windows. Nearly razed homes, the front steps walking up to nothing. Entire factories full of aged graffiti and industry dust. It felt every bit the ghost town we had been told it was, but we still wanted to take our must-see’s list into the city to witness both the old ashes and the new life in Michigan. So we popped an old Bruce Springsteen tape in, turned in off of Highway 94 and wheeled around the neighbourhoods and streets of this once lively city.
There’s a teeny strip in Corktown, just west of downtown, that stands as the hip watering hole of Michigan Avenue. Here you can find the sounds of knocking portafilters and laptop keys spilling out of Astro Coffee, the hum of patron indecision over the 100 classic cocktails listed on The Sugar Shack menu and the legendary baby back rib smell wafting out of Slows Bar BQ. My favourite, hands down, was Gold Cash Gold. Not only is the space designed with a sharp eye – stainglass details, chevron ceiling, white brick walls – but the pickle brine fried chicken, cornbread and pepper gravy with a Boom Box cocktail? Sign me up.
Of the trio of must-see’s we were aiming for, we only caught one. John K. King Books boasts four floors of used and rare books and the title of “one of the largest and strangest collections in North America.” which, had we checked the hours, we would’ve browsed. Also missed was the revolutionary sounds of Motown standing on West Grand Boulevard at Hitsville, U.S.A., that just so happened to be closed for renovations the day we went. But, we did walk through The Heidelberg Project and met Tyree, the urban artist who started the outdoor space in 1986. The discarded, weathered objects serve as commentary on Detroit neighbourhoods and it’s up to you to see what you want to see. Is that towering pile of stuffed animals in a rickety boat art, junk, a story? You decide.
It sounds so obvious, but you just have to drive around, ready to put your hazards on when you inevitably pull over to snap photos and poke around. It’s how we found the Michigan Theater, the once spiffy, entertaining beacon built in the Renaissance Revival, that’s now a private, multilevel car park. It’s how we rolled up to the hollow and forlorn state of the Michigan Central Station that, in its heyday, saw the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Edison and Franklin D. Roosevelt in its station corridors. It’s how you’ll find the stories that were lived in the broken places now famous in ruin photography circles. With a heavy dose of common sense caution, get a little lost simply driving around.
When you do, what you might notice is what I slowly realized after a day there. It’s so quiet. I don’t remember hearing anything. No birds, no dogs, not even leaves rolling by on the ground. What little traffic there was tiptoed by, almost unnoticed.
This lonely sigh billowing over cracked windows into empty, abandoned rooms and hitting boarded-up front doors. This lonely sigh whisking over vacancy and dead grass.
There were these crisp, wonderful road trip details that littered the day, but what I came away with was that sigh wandering the city only surviving on nostalgia.
All pictures were taken by Dani Kreeft
Cam's Look: Rudsak Bird