In New York City, people tend to judge you by what shoes you wear. A cursory scan of the floor on the R Train reveals a colorful assortment of gaudy Nike basketball shoes, skimpy Burberry sandals, and leather Camper boots, a spotless, scuff-free world of status and appearance just underfoot the blank stares of the too cool passengers. Each shoe makes a statement, says something about the individual that bought them.
In one of the world’s great urban cities, what you wear on your feet matters. If you want to be somebody, you have to look like a somebody.
In Detroit, the Motor City, life is a little different. The average American doesn’t want to walk more than about 600 feet from where they parked to their final destination – in frostbitten Detroit, you can probably knock a good 300 feet off that estimate. We want to park and be there already.
In that kind of an environment, your car becomes a de facto status symbol, your shoes secondary, an afterthought. After all, you don’t want your neighbor in Bloomfield Hills to see you pulling into your garage in a ’97 Ford Fiesta. Only a new Toyota Camry or Ford Fusion will do, or maybe a Honda CR-V if you have a family – hey, that sports equipment takes up a lot of room, right?
So when you turn off Gratiot Avenue onto Main Street in Richmond, on the absolute northern outskirts of what could be considered Metro Detroit, with country music blaring from the cracked windows of the dented vans, rusted pickup trucks, and compact ’90s antiques with sun roofs, it makes an impression. As Judy Garland said in The Wizard Oz, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
In fact, Richmond feels more like a town in rural Kentucky than a part of the Detroit–Ann Arbor–Flint megalopolis of sprawl that the federal government counts as one of America’s great combined statistical areas. Squat brick buildings, a profusion of wood and aluminum siding, and strange ’60s era attempts at modernization – like turning the wide avenue next to the railroad into a psuedo-parking lot – gives the city of over 5,000 a timelessly stagnant atmosphere. The city, founded in 1879, moves on and stays the same all at once.
Richmond, along with nearby cities like Armada and Romeo, are perhaps the last true remnants of Macomb County’s agricultural past. People still farm. Trains still roar past Main Street. The “tap room” at the Cook Hotel, a two-story wood building as old as dirt, still serves drinks. Proud pioneer families originally settled these lands, draining swamps, chasing off coyotes, and tilling the lands, always one bad crop or late frost away from starvation. You have to believe a little of their spirit lives on in the streets, in the faces of the farmers.
But maybe not forever. The economic realities of America aren’t necessarily kind to tradition. As the machinations of sprawl and globalization press on, farms in and around cities like Richmond have become fertile grounds for the next generation of spacious subdivisions, industrial parks, and supermarkets. Land where apple and peach orchards blossomed in the spring, pink and white leaves dancing under the yellow sun, the drab efficiency and conformity of human development reaches its steely hands for and tears up.
Of course, it’s progress, and what’s new today is tomorrow’s good ol’ days. Perhaps one day they’ll shed a tear when the McMansions and condos are overgrown with weeds, the paint chipped and faded. I’m not sure. What I can say is that if you wanted to know the heart of Made In Michigan, communities like Richmond were it. The rattling thrum of the thresher, the buzz of the sawmills, the deep, vibrating call of the bullfrogs in the rushes – the muses of the poets, slowly fading into the distance.
Back at the Cook Hotel, though, you’d never know. Fine films of dust cover the mausoleum-like dining room, some tables possibly untouched since Star Wars originally debuted. Under the ancient tin ceiling, the crowd at the bar is predictably slumped, the wrinkles consistently deep, and the beer generally lukewarm. The painted signage on the side of the building promises food, but if there ever was a cook here, he or she is long, long gone, a grim, foreboding footnote in the forgotten tomes of culinary history.
On warm evenings, the heavy thump of horseshoes echo across the hotel’s backyard, and laughter fills the air. It could be 1960, or it could be 2013, offering a brief escape from the epic transience of the American experience. That’s the beauty of it, and when it’s gone, remember… it’s gone.