I’ve written about Detroit a bunch of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever really painted a good picture of what the city actually looks like. Is Detroit a montage of burned-out buildings, urban farms, and wild dogs? Or is it the skyscrapers, the sports teams, and the hipster joints? Or something else entirely?
To tell you the truth, you can pretty much mix and match to make Detroit whatever you want it to be. If you want to portray the city as a desolate wasteland, there’s ample ammunition, ruin porn by the boatload. If you’d rather frame it as an up-and-coming place, a tale of redemption, there are business owners chomping at the bit to regale you with their uplifting stories of community and entrepreneurial success. It’s truly a blank canvas.
That’s why I decided to take a different approach to Detroit this time: touring “the avenues”. Detroit has five main arteries, you see, which radiate out from downtown Detroit like spokes on a wheel: Gratiot Avenue, Woodward Avenue, Grand River Avenue, Michigan Avenue, and Jefferson Avenue. These roads were platted by Michigan Chief Justice Augustus Woodward after the Great Fire of 1805 and soon became economic and cultural hubs for the region. Perhaps a closer inspection of these roads could reveal the true story of Detroit.
Today, Gratiot probably gets the most flack out of the five, cutting across the “post-apocalyptic” east side of Detroit with mathematical precision. It’s one of the roads that causes people from the suburbs roll up their windows. Naturally, I’d have to cover it first.
I started my tour on foot at the corner of Gratiot & Woodward, in the heart of downtown. A camera attached to the Olga’s Kitchen behind me watched impassively, scanning for trouble. The empty lot to my left was once home to the world’s tallest department store, Hudson’s. Now, ugly black stubs jut up of from the concrete, waiting for someone – anyone – to redevelop the site. Rumor has it we’re getting closer to that point, but the proof will be in the pudding.
In front of me, I could make out the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library. Etched out near the top of the Greco-Roman inspired building is the sentence “THE FOUNTAIN OF WISDOM FLOWS THROUGH BOOKS”. Inside, it has a faded elegance, the whole history of the automotive industry at your fingertips in its musty books and fragile scrapbooks.
The Detroit People Mover rumbled above my head, cruising by a giant parking structure. It was time to get moving, to take in this wonderful city of empty facades, this eternal conundrum of cars and progress. The buildings are immaculate, the storefronts mostly empty, and the smell of exhaust strong.
A bum SLEPT under the great big poster hanging on the outside of The Detroit Pub on Gratiot. GAME ON! 17 PLASMA TVS. VIDEO GAMES. Who or what should I’ve felt sorry for? Scenes like this twist my brain, confound me. It had – I suppose – that mysterious air of truth, that indefinable juxtaposition of the absurd that has captivated philosophers and poets for centuries. I was reminded of Jack Kerouac’s quip on Detroit in On The Road: “If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn’t be better gathered.” I could imagine myself settling in a pool at the bottom of the sifter, right where I belonged, right next to everyone at The Detroit Pub.
I was clearly getting somewhere now. My pace quickened as I hurtled towards that great big now. I passed the county jail, the barbed wire, a sculpture of the very hand of God, a frightened man perched perilously upon it – and it all looked, to be honest, like any other office complex. I saw the Trinity Lutheran Church, founded in 1850 by German immigrants. The current building was constructed in 1929, yet another gray, stolid gothic church in what must be the city of a million gothic churches. So many churches, and who was ever saved? Stroh’s Ice Cream on Gratiot was shut down, another Detroit original lost, that was for sure.
Yes, taking in the six-lane Gratiot, I could feel the lingering sense of energy, of big city woes and buckling, aged concrete past its prime. The little business district near the corner of Gratiot & Russell caught my eye, the splashes of old art deco styling beaming amid the decay. Most everything was closed except Busy Bee Hardware, Gratiot Central Market, “Cheap Charlies”, and Discount Candles, but that was OK. This was more than enough.
TIP SHEETS. BIBLES. LAMA TEMPLE. Two immigrant ladies speaking a language I couldn’t recognize shuffled into Discount Candles. I noticed they had those inimitable hip problems that plague the backwaters of Eastern Europe, hobbling many a plump Polish mother before her time. I followed – I trusted their judgment – and what I witnessed shocked me to the core. Herbal bath blends with descriptions like Destroy Everything, Dispel Jinx!, and Steady Work dangled from old nails; garish, ceramic clowns competed with Jesus himself for shelf space. Customers kept trickling into the cavernous space, seeking some elixir or potion that would bring them the winning lottery numbers.
Yikes! Only in Detroit, only on Gratiot.
Hoping to cleanse my palette a bit, I checked out Gratiot Central Market next, an extension of Detroit’s famous Eastern Market, the oldest open-air market of its kind in the entire United States. Let me tell you, if you want some meat or seafood, this is your place. Ham bone? But of course! Mussels? I don’t know, do you prefer green or blue? This is where smart Detroiters go to get the goods.
I, however, wanted unprepared food I could eat right then and there, so I made my way to the cheese counter. A surly, mustached lady took my order – one honking slab of Limburger cheese from Dairy Fresh Foods in Taylor, Michigan, please. “Here you go, hun.” Mmm… Limburger… smells just like a barnyard, or bellybutton lint. An old Belgian cheese, it thankfully tastes much different than it smells, with an oddly creamy if sharp and mildly unsettling flavor. Strangely enough, it hit the spot. Plus, when else will you get to eat the same bacteria (Brevibacterium linens) that is responsible for bad foot odor?
Satisfied, I hit the streets again. By now a cold rain was falling. A typical, miserable Michigan afternoon in February. It was time to get back in the car, which I had conveniently parked at Eastern Market. Our tour had just begun.