Southwest Detroit, Part 1: The Detroit Mandala

Southwest Detroit is like a world apart, a forgotten time, its rundown buildings a collection of scabs and open sores along the mighty, polluted waters of the Detroit River. Smokestacks glitter in the night sky and turn a section of Interstate 75 into the world’s largest, smelliest Dutch oven. Blacks, Mexicans, and old holdovers from the stern-faced white Appalachians and Eastern European immigrants that settled the area a century ago with battered suitcases in hand make up one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in the city. The factories that once brought prosperity and life to the city close in on the old neighborhoods like boa constrictors, and whatever kids there are watch TV hooked to breathing machines designed by Rube Goldberg.

Southwest Detroit is a dirty, grimy place, home to hopeless, crumbling facades of old art deco and beaux-arts glory, inspired by the classical world of Zeus, lost Aztecs, and our meteoric, star-crossed rise to prominence. What was once blue-collar is now just a washed out, frayed collar.

The tallest building in Southwest Detroit is the Michigan Central Station, a 230 foot, 18 floor grey skyscraper designed by the very same people that were behind New York City’s iconic Grand Central Station. The leafy carved flourishes of the Corinthian columns and the worn reliefs of crested godheads framing the broken windows of the once proud terminal are a glimpse into Rome, circa 500 AD, after the barbarians and the fall. It’s a far cry from the suburban, manicured world of Paradise Avenues just a few miles away and the accompanying armies of sprinklers on wide corporate lawns that move like dancers in a nameless ballet for no one under a deep blue sky. This is realer, somehow. Make a wrong turn and you might get stabbed, shot, assaulted, raped, beaten, and/or robbed – according to the news, anyway.

Yet, deep in the very heart of all this mayhem and chaos and decay is the vibrant neighborhood of Mexicantown, soaring like some extinct bird over a dim horizon. By all accounts, it shouldn’t be there, but it is. Here, large, two-story homes are festooned with honeysuckles, baby’s breaths, and poinsettias, and all manner of religious iconography – a hundred Virgin Marys cry in Southwest Detroit, for all our suffering. Businesses look alive with fresh coats of periwinkle, saffron, and lime and mint green, and the restaurants pop with customers.

On one building, a mural depicts an endless row of Mexican villagers trudging alongside stalks of corn, their backs turned to the viewer. It reads: “In the spirit of the indigenous people who cultivated the land that was once theirs.” Another building near a desolate back alley is host to a dancing skeleton celebrating the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos. Here, the rich art that is the human experience tries to speak to you.

Detroit’s stark contrasts used to make me sad, actually, but now I like to look at it like a Tibetan sand mandala that’s being wiped from the face of the Earth in a grand display of our own impermanence. Like those crazy bald monks that spend days making concentric diagrams from sand only to destroy their work once their done, we built Detroit to discover what we could be, and now we’re demolishing it to show what we never could be. Driving down its wide, empty boulevards, you can see the remnants of what once was and what remains. But blink and another memory is lost to the wind, another section of the mandala that was Detroit “back in the day” gone, that halcyon day that exists only in the minds of those that cherished the city in their hearts. And how many of those people are even left?

To be continued…

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