What’s a skyline?
Is it a grand symbol of our ambitions – of our hopes, our dreams – thrown up for all to see? Is it a false promise, pillars of salt on a cold concrete plain? Why do we have this irresistable urge to build to the heavens, to test of the rules of nature just to see if we’ll win?
Well, I’m not sure.
But I do know Detroiters, for one, love their skyline. It’s slapped on buildings, police cars, baseball caps, and shirts. It’s the backdrop for a wedding photo and a playscape for Transformers. It’s an object equally of scorn and praise.
From afar, across the river in Windsor or at Balenger Park in River Rouge, Detroit truly looks like a bustling metropolis, a city of action and progress, a kaleidoscope of building styles that encapsulate the scope of modern human expression. It’s closer to the image we’d like to project of our central city, certainly moreso than a row of burned out houses.
This is the Motor City, and the star of the Detroit skyline – the pièce de résistance – is without question the Renaissance Center, now the GM World Headquarters. Built in the heady progressive era of the 1970s with the backing of Henry Ford II – affectionately known to the public as “The Deuce” – the idea was to lure in some big, innovative companies to the ailing city with flashy new construction. It was to be the focal point of the city’s rebirth.
But, like most plans in Detroit, it backfired. Few blue chip companies outside of Detroit expressed serious interest in the Renaissance Center and Detroit’s 2% income tax. No, instead, it attracted companies already downtown, all too happy to ditch aging art deco digs for shiny new glass towers.
Rather than a skyscraper, the Renaissance Center was more like a giant syringe, a city within the city that sucked the host dry. Iconic buildings emptied out – it was times up for timeless, classical architecture. Some still lay in ruins, or worse, have been wiped entirely from the map, empty lots all but forgotten.
But from Belanger Park, it’s hard to see the sorrow, the anguish, the desolation, the lies. The beggars and the street performers are but ghosts dancing in the shadows; the punched out windows invisible; the graffiti and soot, a patina of character-inducing grit. It’s a scene of human triumph, as delicate as it is monstrous.