“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Yes, quoting the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities is a ham-fisted way to start off an article, and using the title of the novel as the article’s title is arguably even worse. But hey, if it fits, it fits, and I can’t think of a better way to describe downtown Detroit, a strange brew of black and white, timeless and the past its prime, incredible wealth and even more incredible poverty.
Sure, there’s been a lot of press about the resurgence of downtown Detroit, and it’s not altogether untrue. Take Campus Martius, for example. Once Detroit’s great public square, by the 1990s, all that remained was the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, its bronze Amazon warrior leading a Ulyssess S. Grant-era U.S. Army into battle amid the formidable complexities of a monstrous modern intersection. It wasn’t exactly a pretty sight.
Today, though, you’d never know. Campus Martius was reopened as an urban park in 2004, and corporate investments in the area by Compuware and Quicken Loans have it again looking like the center of a bustling metropolis. Just take a seat in one of the many available chairs and check out all the name tags and IDs – if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in Quicken Loans’ cafeteria. Set against the occasional gritty Detroiter in street clothes, it’s quite the spectacle. This is Gentrification 101 in action, folks. Could it really be that Detroit is on the upswing?
Not so fast, buckaroo.
About a block away, Capitol Park tells a quite different story. Here, the buildings are mostly empty, the pedestrians few, and the design unfortunate, the grassy, leafy landscaping found at Campus Martius discarded in favor of a curious urban frying pan concept. The pigeon poop on the statue of Michigan’s first governor, Stevens T. Mason, and the occasional panhandler drives the dreary image home, like mainlining a dose of reality. Forget about the Campus Martius amusement park – this is, for most Detroiters, the real Detroit. Beautiful but tarnished, loved but neglected. Home.
Sure, if you’ve got the money – like Compuware or Quicken Loans – you can carve out a little fiefdom of prosperity, but Detroit is a city in terminal decline, from a population of 1.8 million to 700,000 and still free-falling. If it has a bottom, you’d probably find it at the end of one of Olive Garden’s “Never Ending” Pasta Bowls.
Quickly, too, it’s becoming a tale of two cities. The first is well off, connected, and – more often than not – white. The second is “mixed income”, not sure who to trust, and overwhelmingly black. The river of between the two is widening, and if Capitol Park is gentrified, it’ll mean that the second city has gotten that much smaller.