The River Knows, Pt. 3: Down in Downtown

Photos by Stephen Hilton.

A few miles up the river from Fort Wayne, downtown Detroit is like another world – or, really, two worlds: one despairingly static; the other, ever-changing. If you had a time machine and were able to bring Detroiters from the 1940s and ‘50s to today’s downtown Detroit, they’d probably find it to be both eerily familiar and extremely frightening. What happened to all the shops? [Blank] used to be right in that building! Why are there so many vacancies? Where are all the people? The sidewalks are ao empty! And what are all these black people doing here?!

Despite being the central business district of a major American city, many of the buildings are older than dirt and in various states of disrepair. The old main shopping district on Woodward has all the same bones it did half a century ago, but few functioning businesses. Yeah, there are the success stories downtown: the Madison Building was transformed into M@dison, a high-tech hub; the Compuware World Headquarters, a major corporate office building, was finished in 2003; and hey, the famed Renaissance Center is now the General Motors World Headquarters.

However, even the most enthusiastic Detroit booster would agree that there’s still a ton of work to do. This ain’t New York or San Francisco. Not by a long shot.

is renaissancing us!

So why, then, are all these young, hopeful, wide-eyed people trying to revitalize downtown Detroit when the odds are so heavily stacked against them? Haven’t the decades of failure taught them anything?

The secret to the city’s strange, intoxicating allure is simple. It’s the immense history and the sense of grandeur that floats in the air and fills your lungs with lost pride whenever you take a deep breath. It’s the fact that this is where the automobile revolution started, where Henry Ford made a name for himself and Ty Cobb set the MLB record for the highest career batting average. It’s the decadent skyline – a colorful mishmash of Gothic extravagances, Aztec flourishes, and stark, modernist reserve – and the massive, all-consuming shadow it casts. From its humble origins as a small French port town on the river, we transformed the city into this. Wow.

could kill.

I’d like to believe that the latest generation of urban pioneers, divinely inspired by the spirit and energy of Detroit, can turn the city back in the right direction and bring it back to where it rightfully belongs. Detroit has lost over 200,000 people over the last decade, and it’s still bleeding population. Essential services like police and fire are receiving cuts while residents continue to pay a 2% income tax. The city needs some hope, and now.

I’m just not convinced that all the buzz in the media about downtown means much. I don’t buy that story they’ll tell you on the Travel Channel about the rust belt cities being revived. Living next to a downtown with a happening nightlife and culinary scene might be the hip thing to do these days, but that’s not going to save a dying city.

The truth is, traditionally, not many people lived in downtown Detroit when times were good – at the city’s peak, only a few thousand called it home at the most. Detroit’s big city skyline has always been something of a grand façade, drawing undeserved comparisons to  Chicago or New York. The real story of Detroit has always unfolded in its historically middle class neighborhoods, in the duplexes and single-family houses that actually make up the majority of the city. It’s a rich, complex story, full of tumultuous ups and downs and with no real ending, only a slow, gradual decay into nothingness. Once the industrial backbone of the city was ripped out and shipped out, though, it was only a matter of time.


Basically, downtown is where the people with money go to do business and drink expensive liquor. The ‘hoods are where everything else happens, and whenever I take a drive along the river on Jefferson Avenue from downtown to the city’s east side, Detroit’s problems read like an open book. On the side of the street facing the river, there are giant, luxurious apartments, ritzy restaurants, yacht clubs, new shopping plazas, and mansions. All is well. But then on the other side, the neighborhoods are half-abandoned, the storefronts shuttered, the factories all hallowed out. Here, the battle lines between the haves and have-not are clearly drawn, visible to the naked eye.

It can’t be sustained forever.

And it’s that other side of the street – with the bums and the big churches in middle of empty fields that used to be packed with houses – that speaks to me. Maybe it’s because here, urban decay dares to call society into question, to air all the dirty laundry we’d love to hide. It makes me wonder: could it be that we live in an insane delusion, a reality held together by the duct tape of our own lies, and that it can come crashing down faster than we ever imagined if we dared to stop believing in it for even a second? How long can we run from that haunting thought, further out into the suburban sprawl? As former Detroit mayor Coleman Young used to say: “Detroit today is your city tomorrow.

Somewhere in a darkly lit club downtown, Young Jeezy’s rapping:

Give a fuck about a playa hater,
Hit ’em wit’ the tool, flush his whole radiator


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