Detroit’s been through some shit, anybody can tell you that—but it usually ends in some kind of political dog-and-pony show. We really only had the chance to blow through it, shooting whatever we could with whatever time we could find.When Derek, a local Detroiter, first tried to get us to run a red light, “Run it! Run it!” we laughed, thinking he was kidding around. When we were following him to the Heidelberg Project and he ran almost every red light, we realized Detroit was lax on some laws in Greektown, and Corktown, and Downtown…
It’s plain to see, cops have bigger problems in surrounding areas than they do Downtown. Whatever police the city has to work with are probably scattered around the eastside area. The police we did see hovered around Greektown, the most alive and populated area in the city. They mostly stood there talking to bouncers or standing around while people yelled about personal problems at them.
After cruising poker tables, we walked out of the Greektown Casino to some chick getting choked out on the pavement surrounded by a hushed crowd. A cop car was parked on the street but nobody was inside, nobody was around. And the same can be said for a lot of places outside of Downtown: things are decaying, things never sell, and people leave; just fragments of a city left behind in the dust. In some instances, Detroiters turn them into art—like the Heidelberg Project. 2 blocks have been turned into some pretty powerful messages by one guy and a few area sculptors. In others, younger Detroiters have taken to burning houses down, mostly on Mischief Night.
During the day, most of Downtown is fine to walk around, the statistics are in your favor here, but why would you? The place is a ghost town—the Detroit Police Gaming Division has a for sale sign in front of it. There are diners, convenient stores, and motels dotting East Lafayette, but it’s pretty empty and dreary. Tall apartment buildings are half torn down in the distance, one of the first glimpses of the city from I-75. There’s a malaise in the city, a general apathy towards itself. Other than the GM Building, most buildings just sigh empty in the skyline.
“I thought it’d be bigger” Mark said of the skyline when we first drove in on the I-75, empty on a Friday night.
The buildings in Detroit really aren’t the city’s selling point. Riverwalk and Belle Isle, the city’s (though state funded) coastal path and park overlook the Detroit River and into Windsor, Canada. The park is beautiful, well kept, and the water looks clean—at least cleaner than NY and NJ rivers. The view into Windsor isn’t much to see, some buildings dot the city, but Windsor’s skyline is almost nonexistent.
The people in Detroit have a charm to their assholery. Our waiter at a Coney Island place (Detroit lingo for a chili-cheese-dog) waited patiently while our producer, Derek, ordered eggs, bacon, and hash browns—in a hotdog joint. The waiter waved his head “no” with a self-satisfying grin and left us for a good 10 minutes. Later in the night a suited-up couple crammed into an elevator in Greektown, one of the guys inside commenting, “Damn you smell better than a motha-fucka!” He kept at it until they got out on the Casino floor.
Greektown at night is filled with tourists, partiers, and people with money to blow in Greektown Casino. These are your typical Downtown nightlife rabble: polos and button downs, pre-whiskered jeans and slacks. They’re the people staying for a few days to check out a Tigers, Lions, or Red Wings game. In our instance, they were parrotheads in town for a Jimmy Buffett show. Pasty older white couples in denim shorts and grass skirts partying in a poverty-stricken, diverse neighborhood—symbolism rarely comes this easy. At night on the street, some of the more intoxicated locals will sing to you while you wait for the light to change. Others dance with you while they sing Earth, Wind, and Fire songs for money. These people are alright.
With a staggering 14% metro unemployment rate, the younger Detroiters are in perpetual joblessness and boredom. In some rescued-buildings-turned-studios in an abandoned warehouse district, the owners are kind enough to loan out the place for weekly—sometimes nightly parties. The PBR is cheap, a propane can ignites a torch at the press of a button, and the neighborhood kids drunkenly play soccer in the middle of the street without cops on their asses.
There was a separate party for a Makers Festival in nearby Dearborn—a festival for creators with varying ranges of usefulness (a motorized, drivable reclining leather chair? How long did you spend building that dude?) but when we got there most were hanging out with friends. We had an invite but this wasn’t really a party for outsiders. We left about an hour in and headed back to the Stay Inn.
It’s tough to go to Detroit and not be tempted to get some ruin porn out of it. Buildings sit idled, half without water, and let weather to run its course, inhabited or not. Detroit itself boasts an old, utterly failed, and abandoned train station in Cork Town as a tourist stop. While our photographer took his drone around and over the building, a wedding party snuck in some quick group shots before heading to the reception.
We wound up shooting some of it, specifically the Packard Plant, under the guise of its recent rescue from demolition and restoration plans. I didn’t get to see it in person—I was too busy with Jimmy getting kicked out of the Ford Plant for filming—but from the footage, this place is unusable. The guy who bought it plans to restore it and offer space to vehicle manufacturers and artists with 3 year’s free rent as bait, but this place is in bbaadd shape. It’s very literally falling apart before your eyes, the parts that haven’t been scrapped, and there are definitely people living in the ruin. The Packard Plant was the motor building that launched Detroit in the turn of the 20th century and the plan is to get this place to pump life into the city…again. Sections are completely collapsed, others pretty much so. The plant is massive and every building is in near identical condition. If this place is restored, it’s going to take a whole lot of time and money.
Detroit’s facing 20 billion in debt, rising poverty, dipping populations, and no industry. It’s been compared to a collapsed Roman Empire: lights shining on abandoned buildings give the allusion of the Coliseum. And it’s true, the resemblance of prestige-turned-dust is everywhere, but as the city falls deeper into decline, it begins to also resemble the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Urban farms popping up where buildings once stood may help some in need but I doubt it’s potential to revitalize the city. And as the gods concluded with Sisyphus: there’s nothing worse than futile and endless labor. But what can Detroit do? Michigan and the U.S. have neglected the city, Mitt Romney is quoted as saying “Let Detroit go bankrupt”, and people on internet forums brush the city away with “nuke it, they’re worthless” comments. The people that wind up in the city are shoving money into the casinos after wastin’ away again in Margaritaville while some Detroiters can’t afford water—too much cable news paranoia has kept them from exploring outside the Comerica Park area (though if I had a stuffed parrot glued to my hat, I wouldn’t either). Without the extreme amount of violence in sections of Detroit, it’d never make the news. The curtains been pulled, there’s nothing to see here. Maybe pleas to the U.N. will benefit in some way other than inane debates between talking heads far outside city limits. Maybe it’ll at least get half the city’s water back. Something. I like you, Detroit, but it really is like the shirt says, “Detroit vs. Everybody”.