Detroit is a ghost town. It’s just like Rhyolite in Death Valley and the Salton Sea. It’s dead. I was prepared to see empty lots and vacant properties and bombed-out buildings, but I wasn’t expecting a ghost town. The level of decay and neglect is astounding. There are entire office buildings left vacant. There are entire blocks of empty houses. There’s trash and litter everywhere. Belle Island Park feels like a drive-through drug deal. There are stray dogs. The last time I saw a stray dog in a town was in Belize. But I’ll get to all that.
Detroit is dead. It died a long time ago. Its last residents are holding on, hoping for rebirth, filled with civic pride from a metropolitan momentum long since stalled. But life in Detroit continues, just like birds and squirrels inhabit cemeteries, there are pockets of life among the mass-graves of this city. Tiny pockets. The zombies of the past will never be reborn. The future of Detroit is bleak.
Unless, unless the boosters are right. Unless the city attracts talent from elsewhere and evolves into a high-tech hub. Quicken is trying to do this by attracting those laid-off in California. There are people left in Detroit fighting for it to survive, but the masses have fled. The bulk of the city is barren. The glory days have long since passed.
But the boosters may be proven correct some day, some day when the water of the south-west runs dry, when Phoenix shrivels and Tucson stumbles and LA drops into the sea. Well, IF those things happen, Detroit is poised to absorb a lot of population. It has water and infrastructure and could blossom again, but it will only happen if catastrophe happens elsewhere. Detroit can’t pick itself back up alone. It needs some luck; it needs other places to have bad luck.
Until then, Detroit will feel like a war-zone. If Detroit was located in nearly any other country in the world, there’d be fighting. Gunfire would fill the air. There would be backlash. There would be revolt. There’d be no way a city of this size and prominence would go quietly. But Detroit is in America, and the population is free to shift instead of fight, so they’ve shifted to California and to Atlanta and to Phoenix. They’ve abandoned the Motor City. They’ve motored away. They filled up their Fords and fled.
The retreat is most visible in the suburbs that ring Detroit. They’re flowered and beautiful and prosperous. They may last. They may make it. But the cancer that killed Detroit could just as easily kill them. They should take no pleasure in their ability to temporarily stem the tides. The decay could overtake them too.
And yet, I can’t wait to return. I want to spend more time in Detroit. I find the elegant decline wonderfully attractive. I want to explore the abandoned buildings. I want to drink at the divey bars. I want to shop at the Eastern Market. I love it here. I wish it could be saved, but if it were saved, it’d be much less wonderful. It’s wonderful in its death. I wish Detroit would embrace its death and setup tours of its ruins like the tours of Rome’s forum or Paris’s catacombs. The ruins are amazing. A dying Detroit is worth a hundred Palm Springs. A Detroit city block, half-filled with houses, is more interesting than all of Sedona. Boom times are all the same but each death is unique.
Detroit is dead and in its death it is alive.