Mount Clemens, Michigan is a weird little city.
On one hand, it’s a true blue collar town – people here drink, smoke, and work in factories. They drive cars from the nineties and eighties – beat-up Ford Escorts and sputtering Crown Vics. Crime is a problem, the city’s finances are precarious, and the school district is dicey. Plus, it’s not even on a mountain!
On the other hand, Mt. Clemens has a rich history as something of a resort town for industrial magnates like Henry Ford and the Vanderbilts. There are historical markers everywhere bragging about the past, and the city’s downtown hosts an eclectic collection of bars and eateries. There are even hints of a real art and cultural scene.
To best describe Mt. Clemens, it’s important to dive into the historical bits first: The earliest settlers arrived around 1800, and Mt. Clemens was incorporated as a village in 1837. Conveniently situated along the Clinton River, Mt. Clemens was quiet town inhabited mostly by merchants, teachers, and doctors, dentists, and barbers that served the local farming community.
But that all changed when a reservoir of smelly sulfuric brine was found just outside of town. The story goes that it was discovered when an entrepreneur was trying to strike for oil, and that either someone with eczema or a dying horse bathed in the brine and was magically cured. Word quickly got out about the miraculous healing waters in Mt. Clemens, and soon enough people were making the trek up from Detroit and other industrial cities to cure themselves of all the ailments associated with crowded urban living. (Gonorrhea and tuberculosis, anyone?)
Mt. Clemens boomed. Bathhouses, hotels, bars, casinos, and dance halls were put up one after the other. The Detroit Tigers would take weekend trips up to Mt. Clemens on the interurban rail and party. Times were good for the self-proclaimed”Bath City”.
But then around the 1930s, the bottom suddenly fell out. Modern medicine made bathing in brine sound like an old wives’ tale, and tourists stopped coming. Eventually, the bathhouses and hotels were torn down after decades of neglect and disuse. Only the baths in the basement of St. John’s Sanatorium still exist, filled in with concrete.
Mt. Clemens didn’t just roll over and die, though. It was, after all, the capital of Macomb County, which was fast becoming a giant suburb of Detroit. Thanks to all the development, there was plenty of money to go around. The 7 story Price Building was constructed in 1930 for the county’s newspaper The Daily Leader, for example, and the 13 story Macomb County Building was finished in 1944. Since then, several other substantial office buildings have been built, along with a gigantic courthouse, giving Mt. Clemens its own “mini-skyline.” In fact, walking up Main Street is like taking a trip through skyscraper history – the high rises transition from granite and limestone to steel and glass right before your eyes. It’s pretty impressive for a city of only about 15,000 people.
The city has kept investing in its downtown, too, although today it has a lot of competition. A few miles north there’s the shiny eight lane shopping mecca known as Hall Road. It has about every big box store you could think of, and is usually clogged with traffic at the same time Mt. Clemens is emptying out, as everyone that was serving for jury duty at the county court speeds home. Then, to the south, cities like Ferndale and Royal Oak have downtowns with more money and better locations.
So who goes to downtown Mt. Clemens, then, when there are so many other appealing choices? Generally speaking, it’s regarded as THE destination for downtrodden fortysomething factory workers, who come to the city to drink, drink, and drink some more on the cheap. The bars play songs from the early ’90s like “No Diggity” by Blackstreet and “Midlife Crisis” by Faith No More, and everyone wears baggy clothes and white tennis shoes. It’s like a time warp. There’s always just enough business to keep the doors open, but not enough to get the Mt. Clemens over the hump.
Mt. Clemens tries to be more. There’s an art center, a museum, an Oakland University satellite campus, and several pieces of public art, including a set of wavy yellow chairs called “Conceptual Seats” that have phrases and words like “dynamic tension” and “duality” written on them. Some of the business try to attract the artsier crowd, too, like Seeburger’s Cheeseburgers – where you can get delicious and affordable salmon sliders and fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – and Che Cosa, a cozy coffee shop that serves coffee in Styrofoam cups that claim to more environmentally friendly than paper cups. And, of course, the neighborhoods of have nice historic homes with Victorian and Craftsman designs. There’s character here.
What sinks the city, probably, is how old everything is. We like new stuff, like the fancy, winding subdivisions a few miles away and the outdoor mall Partridge Creek – it has an Apple Store, a California Pizza Kitchen, and a Crocs store! It’s hard to compete with that. Maintaining historic buildings is expensive and time-consuming, but building new these days is cheap and easy, even if it won’t last.
Me? I like the timeless stuff. Looking at the obelisk of the once illustrious Mt. Clemens citizen William J. Ullrich at the nearby Clinton Grove Cemetry, I just wish more people felt the same way. The bricks, the curlicue woodwork on the Victorian homes, the Roman columns… – it speaks to me. That’s our heritage.